18 February 2009

Featured Poet: Joanne Diaz


Perhaps you’ve always known her obvious desire,
her thirst for more, then more: the way she’d wish
for more kissing after the warmth of sex
had risen and gone; the way she’d beg
dinner guests to stay long after the servant
had cleaned the plates and the oil in the lamps
had burned dry; the way she always asked,
even in courtship, the how and the why
of your every declaration, wringing
the roots of thought as if the answers could
fill what existed before the pain began—
that presence that came unannounced, uninvited,
rejected at first then welcomed as part
of daily life.
Even so, if heat is all she feels
in the throbbing, each filament a knife
of fire, a guarantee that cinders through
the night; if she wakes to weep
in the certainty of pain, its circling
through each pathway in the cheeks,
the eyes, the upper lip, so that only
the sweep of a finely woven handkerchief
can count as a kind of washing; if she
can spend all day tending to its need as if
it were the child you never had; then one day
you will have to acknowledge that she might
love the pain, and you won’t be able to
imagine when or how she learned to love
anything to such excess. After
the tooth extractions have failed to relieve
the shooting; after the melancholy
has withered in her temples and refused
to leave; after you have seen the nets of nerves
unfurl in a revolt of heat; after you
and she have exhausted your search for a word
that encompasses the largeness of this woe;
remember this: the garden of lilacs
that she planted before the pain began.
Go there and see the buds clustered,
enclosed and clean, then their limbs, the lean
from left to right, the dew-glistened drift
to the mulch, the blossoms that do not unfold
in time. Think syringa vulgaris. Think
tube, pipe, fistula. Think of filling
the barrel of the syringe, then plunging it
deep in her skin to fill the canals
of her nerves with a dark, sweet dream
of forgetting, then imagine her loving
that opposite of sense, the moment
at which the hairs of your moustache
branch into lilacs, common pinks
and blues flourishing behind her closed eyelids.
The poppy’s milk has a voice
that will sing her into sleeping, and a word
for every thought as she rises
beyond the small feather bed.

[Note: In 1853, Charles Gabriel Pravaz and Alexander
Wood developed the first syringe with a needle fine
enough to pierce the skin. Dr.Wood used his syringe
for management of neuralgic pain. The first recorded
fatality from a hypodermic-syringe induced overdose
was Dr. Wood’s wife. The tragedy arose because she
was injecting morphineto excess. (From the Utopian
Surgery Website)]

[originally appeared in The Missouri Review, Fall 2007]

Larry David on Corregidor

The last thing the island of Corregidor needs is my correction,
but when I climb the staircase of the lighthouse and see the ruins
of what were tennis courts built by Filipinos for American officers,

the scent of sampaguita flowers wafting around and above
where the net once drooped, I have to ask: The courts were built by Filipinos
who served in the front lines, but they could not play on them,

not go near them? And though I know the tourguide’s answer
before she says a word, I cannot help but obsess over those rubbled piles
now overlaid with what might be a trellis or the frame of a greenhouse.

I want to ask: Who ordered the tennis balls? Who restrung the rackets?
Who swept away the puddles early mornings during rainy season?
In the distance, we can see the path of the Bataan Death March

where thousands died, malarial, diarrheal, bloodied by brutal force
in a procession that violated every convention and rule of decency;
and to the right, the haunted Malinta Tunnel, where the ghosts of soldiers

who typed and radioed and telegraphed underground for months
are shooed away by the “sight and sound” show three times each day.
I would have done better to ask about the separate barracks,

the single row in the back of the island’s movie theater,
the ward in the old part of the hospital—but still I’m preoccupied
with the tennis courts, and in the moment that the tourguide stares

at my fourth question, I realize that I’m behaving like Larry David,
great dissenter in all things mundane, fighter for no one and yet
resister to everything beyond his own skin, symbol for all

that refuses to be corrected, straightened out, made right. And though
I am embarrassed by the Puerto Rican parade episode
and the Chinese take-out guy from the Seinfeld years, and though Monena

the black prostitute in Season Four of Curb leaves me feeling ashamed
of a writer who would create such a sassy, large-bosomed role, still
I am Larry David on this most absurd of strategic islands. I care less

about MacArthur’s selfish, barrel-chested promise of “I shall return”
or the godlike, seven-foot bronze statue of him that the tourist trolley
stops at for photographs. I care even less about President Quezon’s

fatal hacking cough, brought to life on the recording during the “sight and sound”
so that we can relive his tubercular demise; or the rubble of bones
that litter the regrown forest and circle the posts of the broken pier.

All I want to know is this: in those lean years before the Second World War,
who caught the stray balls that were shot way over the fence?
Who painted the lines after the sun burned them all to dust?

[Note: Corregidor is an island about 20 miles west of Manila. “Corregidor”
is most likely derived from the Spanish corregir—to correct. The island
was used as a fortress and a prison during the era of Spanish
colonization, and then as a base for American and Filipino troops
during World War II.]

[originally appeared in The American Poetry Review, Jan/Feb 2008]

Metastasis, Boracay

When we travel, I’m usually so drunk on a cocktail
of panic mixed with boredom, so busy calculating
the peso-to-dollar conversion, so certain that I’ll contract

the dengue fever from the one stubborn mosquito
who will be undaunted by the sheer bedroom netting
that I forget how much beauty each new thing possesses

and that some of that beauty requires an initial sickness,
an irritation, often in the form of a foreign body.
In the case of pearls, the problem is that the sickness—

a burr in an otherwise milky trance of protein—
happens all too infrequently. In the years before
cultured pearls became common, the Philippines

were full of divers: scores of slaves pushed overboard
to plunge deep for the baroque imperfection of a small,
radiant knob hiding among the sharks, poisonous

jellyfish, and the bends. I remembered this
as I dipped underwater in my snorkel mask and fins
then rose above again to see Jay’s mother and aunts

onshore, hunched beside a young man whose suitcase
was full of pearls—pink, smoky gray, bright white—
fake pearls that cost pennies in American money.

But the way the ladies inspected each necklace and earring,
chatted with the young man, and slowly passed him
their dollars, they could have been the three Magi,

choosing the finest gifts. How could something so beautiful
cause no pain, no harm, and bring such delight
to three thrifty women on vacation in Boracay,

an island that seemed more like a Hollywood movie set
than a real place. I dipped below again to see the pinkish tips
of a coral reef that took thousands of years to form

being grazed by the foot of Uncle Ming, too tall
for the ascending filigree, his bare toes brushing
its skeletal rise, his eyes still dimly lit from half a case

of San Miguel that rattled in the back seat of the van,
his red swimsuit billowing and swollen, almost alive
in the clear water. The coral, once touched, turned

instantly to dust, a millennial cloud lifting in the filtered light.
I pushed back to the surface to ask the boatsman if this was right—
the shallow waters, the high reef— but I didn’t. Instead,

I watched as Uncle Ming took another swig, laughed freely
with his brother and nephew, and looked up to dry his face
in the hot sun. Later, he lay on the white sand

to make an angel with his swooping arms and legs,
indulged in a plate of crawfish heaped on rice as if he
were the king of Boracay, and made all of us laugh

with his sonorous Bing Crosby voice. I realize now
that even then it must have been growing in him:
the nacreous luster swelling his lungs, its concretion

an opalescence that would drift to the brain, spine, and liver.
Just like metastasis, a flitting of words from one idea
to the next, a fish waving its fins through the coral’s last rise.

Uncle Ming Pinched Me

While some cousins confirmed the funeral arrangements
and others browsed sales racks for the right thing to wear,

we sat at the table with little else to do but eat,
and just as I was about to put a succulent piece

of adobo into my mouth, Cousin Jeannie said
In his final hour I felt him pinch me, and of course

I thought what anyone would if they had known Ming
when he was well: Good work, you sly fox! Sick as a dog

with chemicals indiscriminately fighting every cell
of your body, and still you had the moxie

of a true rascal. For a moment I imagined
the long list of women he might have goosed in his life:

big ones, skinny ones, young ones who didn’t know
how to fry eggs the morning after, all lining up

to greet him as he ascended and entered the pearly gates.
But what Jeannie really meant was this:

that as the last trickles and swirls of whiskey and smoke
vanished from his bloodstream; as his body finally

bloated then withered into a spent balloon;
and as the spirit that made him the single agnostic

among his devoted family faded unremarkably
in a wash of gray, Cousin Jeannie felt a light pinch

on her forearm, just as she was putting her youngest
child to sleep. Later, after coffee, Auntie Jessie

recalled the text message she received on her cellphone
before Ming died, which read Please say a special prayer

for Ming today, a message from an unknown number
which led everyone at the table to believe

that it was God who sent it, or if not God then perhaps
some other force that knew Ming needed an extra boost,

especially Ming who, as Uncle Jun noted,
was the philosopher of the family, the one

who walked out of the healing Mass when he thought
it was a bunch of baloney, all that flailing and whooping

and fainting which, years earlier, had once sent Uncle Jun
into a swoon so profound that Auntie Jessie raced

to catch him from behind, and in doing so collapsed
from the weight and cracked two of her ribs. As I sat

and listened at the table that night, Ming became
a saint dressed in white, kindly visiting children

halfway across the planet in visions. But why
change Ming in death, when in life he was remarkable,

above all, for his consistent and honest observations
of this world? When I last saw him healthy, it was

in the Philippines, when we traveled together for weeks
in crowded vans on congested roads. Through

the van’s tinted windows, we saw so many
gigantic billboards for creams that made brown women white

and chemicals that transformed kinky hair
into a waxy sheen that I had to ask about them,

and he said, Don’t you understand that Filipinas want
to be white? They want to look like you, smell like you, be you.

And in that moment race seemed like a disease
with a simple outline, a form that could be quickly drawn,

just like the pencil sketch that Albrecht Dürer
created for his doctor friend, a picture of himself

unclothed, pointing to his abdomen with an inscription
that read: This is where I hurt. Ming’s response

might have been right or wrong, impolitic or even crude,
but it was his opinion, unsoftened by civility or a belief

in anything beyond human desire. Among the screech
of morning roosters and the clouds of smog that permeated

the neighborhoods of Manila, Ming’s voice was not a pinch
or a float, a falling toward life or a rising from the dead

but a bell sounding against self-delusion. There was
some small shard of iron left in his irony,

a place where suffering didn’t entirely break
but left a piece that was full of knowing. But that

was just one part of his negotiation with God,
of the drawing that pointed to the pain.

Linnaeus’s Patient

To cure I had to touch
without knowing what touch
would do. I had to ease
his trousers down and see
the mucus, shiny and constant
on his swollen sex, the red
pustules burning to break,
the one vein nourishing
the sickness’s need. And when
he finally lay bare, I had to percuss
the first abdomen, spleen, and liver
of my life. I had never touched
a man this way; I had never known
a woman. What I had learned of sex
was for plants, not men.

As I watched the base of him
drift from one side to the other
I thought of the pepperbush
standing as straight as physics
will permit; of the tall willows
swaying beneath the Northern
Lights. I loved that sway,
that drift, and the way the sex
was its own animal, unaware
of infection glistening all around,
or whether the last woman
had left the man’s bed for good.
My finger glanced the tender tip
and drew a thin thread,
tenuous, glassy, finely spun, so capable
of breaking. But it didn’t;
it stayed there, suspended between my finger
and the man, opalescent in its shine.
I thought then of the thread
that the Fates weave for every man,
the length upon which his life depends.
Slowly I reached for the mercury ointment
so as not to disturb the man, the thread,
the sickness, and in that moment
I was certain only of this:
that all things whirl to ruin,
and that everyone must die a little
in order for me to cure them.

[originally published in The Missouri Review, Fall 2007]

Joanne Diaz’s poems have recently appeared in AGNI, The American Poetry Review,
, and The Missouri Review. She is the recipient of fellowships from the
NEA and the Illinois Arts Council. She is an assistant professor of English
at Illinois Wesleyan University.

©Copyright 2009 Joanne Diaz