• Vol. 07
  • Chapter 03

Beauty

even in our fiercest rage
my mother and I were
tender – we stayed and
fought because we could
not be disloyal, always the
same cause: the dress laid
out on my bed, the heels
when my father returned
he would find the two of
us meek, pretending no
calamity had ever struck
afterwards I would dream
something strange: once,
the dream involved a girl
standing at the sea’s edge,
waiting for a miracle in the
shape of a lone blue whale
all I remember of the rest
is that we were saved, and
I awoke feeling as if I could
continue to live in this body

Read more >
1

Untitled

Her eyes, though passive and weary, are windows to an inner furnace.

For this sketcher she will cooperate – she knows the drill; life is lived in a glass bowl. What an elegant straitjacket she’s wearing.

Her mind is as fecund as her body but society must validate her ideas through the mouth of her betrothed, that pea-brain who regularly repeats her words back to her, repackaging them as explanations she neither needs nor asks for.

Role-playing is so tedious.

2

The Last Portrait

... when I walked in it was pandemonium, brushes snapped, furniture upended. Paint ran in crimson, emerald and cadmium streams, flowed on the wooden floor. Stink of turpentine. The silk cottage scene backdrop, with fluffy lambs, ripped into shreds. Costumes everywhere. In the middle, the servant girl, or rather young woman, was crouched, rolled into a ball. Like a furious pebble, she rocked from side to side. Father was pacing the room, howling, "She is the last portrait on our list, and she refuses to be painted!" "No stuffed tigers" she shrieked back, and "No feathers in my fucking hair." Then, she stood up and kicked a hole in the blank canvas. "No one is changing my face" she said, and collapsed back on the floor. Well, everyone in the household had to be painted. Orders from on high. Nothing to be done. We, the portrait makers, had to execute. Decorate. Imitate. Duplicate. That was our devise. "Daughter, help me," father trembled and moaned. Never good when emotions rose. I took him to the kitchen for hot chamomile tea. Sweetened with acacia honey. I went back to see the young woman alone. She was drawing lines of scarlet on the parquet. With one finger, she traced a red web around her. Blood-colored ordinates. "We have to paint you", I whispered gently, kept my distance. Explained the instructions. Calmly. Added that there was a threat of death, or imprisonment, if we didn't replicate her face. She ignored me. But I could tell she was listening. Ear cocked to the side. She was young but bright. Knew the law. The portrait decree. Once a year, everyone had to be copied, imitated, portrayed. Hung on the wall by the end of the chosen day. Yet still, she shook her head. I begged her, offered to dress her in: the tiara, royal naval uniform, or the yodeling costume. Even as a female Elvis. Read more >
3

A found sketch of my mother

In a drawer, among her things,
I found the sketch my father inked,
Years ago, before my coming wrinkled her brow, sprinkled gray in her cascade of dark auburn hair.
She looks out at me, fierce, lovely, in a
frilly blouse, her bow to style.
Arms crossed she tries to defend against his
inking out her inner, secret self,
but he, in the quick strokes shaping her eyes, one half closed, the other smoldering
with smokey shadow,
he succeeded in opening her inner anger
to all who see the sketch – capturing her cynicism, tough love for life, and annoyance
that he has offered her the day's first cigarette, but left it untouched by a match,
probably refusing to light it until his pen
has finished having its say.
She always did dislike waiting. But she kept
this sketch among her other treasured ephemera
and so will I.

4

Madonna of the Cheroot

Esmeralda surveys the world.
Her dark eyes flash, an open challenge.
Arms crossed,
A portrait of serene disinterest;
Dark hair unbound.
No tiara or diadem for her.
A tough, no-nonsense Madonna
for the modern age.
In a borrowed dress, bored but serene.
She counts down the minutes and,
begrudges every second that passes.
daring the artist to flatter her.
Not caring if he does.
She looks out with a thousand yard stare.
Keeps her mysteries, no intention to share.
World wise but world-weary.
Her knowing gaze looks out across the ages,
Still fresh and clear as if
The lines were done only yesterday,
Given black and white immortality of sorts,
Even if no one remembers her name.

5

Between Acts

The extras always hung out in the alley that ran past the stage door to the street. That’s where I used to see her, the temptress of my imagination. She played those other women—the gypsy so-called, the Indian princess, the Ojibwe maiden.

I was young. I didn’t want to live in this boy’s body, to move this way. I played dress-up in my mother’s bedroom and changed my mind before I ever dared to change my clothes, my hair, my breasts, my cock and buttocks.

I didn’t loathe myself. I just felt myself differently. The smooth curve of my young hip made up for the buzz cut that stifled imagination. Still, I would wrap my head in towels like a woman just showered who kept her soaking glory under wraps. I would wear my mother’s slip over a sock-filled bra and steal my grandmother’s old but elegant cigarette holder and vamp across the master bedroom. Before the floor-length mirror. Absurd but beautiful.

At night I would sneak downtown to see the women at the stage door—shaking their hair and wigs, hitching up their elaborate costumes, smoking their anachronistic cigarettes. It was an old repertory for the classics. So the dresses—Oh, my! I still get chills thinking about how clothes remake us, how for a time they remade me, transformed my very sight and self.

And that unforgettable night. She turned her tired eyes to me, cigarette between two lush lips, and she let me know. Without words. Without touch. Just by standing there, facing me. That change was possible but exhausting.

And here I am. Alone. Backstage. My eyelids heavy. A cigarette between my lips. The very woman of my dreams.

6

Poem

I bury my nose in your scarf
where it hangs on the back of the door.

You're not dead, no.
You're standing right behind me

with that look on your face:
terminally unimpressed,

arms folded,
cigarette askew.

I want to say, 'Look outside,
everything's new.' But

you wouldn't turn your head
if I was on fire.

I know.
There's more to you than hair

and huge books.
Think about it.

7

Gearing up

for the local eisteddfod, I was, see.
Supposed to be in charge
of the petal-scattering nymphs
in that part of the proceedings
after some old poet has been robed
and sat down in his monster-chair.

Well I was ready an hour early.
Keen, I was, see, to do it all right
and the flower girls were already
herded and secure in their holding pen,
so I had a quick five minutes, didn’t I,
to pop round the back of the tent

and cadge a fag from one of the boy
clog dancers. I spotted his packet
poking out of his pocket, see,
and he said he’d give me one
if I gave him a kiss.
Well, fair play, to him.

So after the exchange, like,
he hobbled off with his mates, swaggering and elbowing,
and I leant up next the chip van,
and scrounged a light off greasy Geraint.
And that’s where you see me now, see.

8

Every lie a small play

She jabbed a cigarette at me, a Gitanes, ash a sinister red eye, a pop of expulsed brown air clouding behind it, fingers stubbed and accusatory, so furious she let her tobacco speak for her. Answer me, the cigarette said, and answer me honestly. But I am not a merchant of truth, my stock in trade are small, wheedling lies, which I dispense with virtually no pretext and for almost no reward. It's a meagre trade but the only one I have any skill for, and so I ruffled through my sales sack and produced the most meagre untruth I had in my possession, a tale of a night spent drinking with two sailors who later buttonholed me in an alley and stole three things from me, wallet, hat, and teeth. The cigarette went out and so she relit it, and it made one final demand of me: open your mouth. So open the mouth went, showing off rows of swollen gums, not a tooth planted anywhere. This seemed to satisfy the cigarette, as it ducked away from me, along with its possessor, a reminder of what I long knew: there are many uses for a pliers.

9

Across the ocean

You look me over from the pages. No, you stare to one side:
I am not of interest to you yet, have not reached your orbit.
I could conjure you to Manchester, I can see it, that way I do.
I could engineer us meeting, bring you to a festival, catch you.

Somewhere along the line I learnt to do that, found myself
on the phone to folk singers, hugging a tiny telly person,
and sometimes it was me who was magicked, inexplicably,
my need sensed by sandy-haired poets with cars and jeans.

I toiled to be like you, though, danced in and out of society,
the city my garden, mountains my muse, staying put, my fear,
and all I ever wanted. Women a brilliant, scary possibility.
I walked back to the university bookshop, into pure memory.

The ghosts made my head swim, but they had to have you in,
and I found you, in a red coat, and I took you home, to bed.
You told me what I had to hear from you, and hear now,
in my flat with pen and pad and guitar, the decade starting.

10

María at the Town Hall

She looks the part. Corrupt
officials ogle her
but, of course, dare not touch;
they glance and sweat and slouch.
How that fool clerk had wept
as she gave him what for.

You cannot smoke in here,
one should have said at once.
You cannot cross your arms –
Too late. Each learns to wince
or safely studies the floor.
And when the captain comes

out of his den at last,
she's just as cool with him.
"Your paperwork is done,"
he gulps...She can't resist
playing the bandit queen.
Grins as she saunters home.

11

Madonna, Not I

Madonna? Not I
You made me in your own image
The late nights and sixty-a-day habit
Dressing me with their colours
Clouding me with shadows
Shading me sleepless

You told me to take what I could get
So I took everything
Including the shirt off your back
To hide the lines
I learned by heart, engraved on skin
Inked tracks
Of needling, of needing

I am your blue-veined baby
Crying in the gutter
Watching the world walk by

12

Gridlock

You keep yourself locked
in the fold of your arms;
let ash drop and gather
in the creases of your dress;

stare at me – as though
the earth could open
up its core, take us into it,
let us start again –

as if we deserve another chance.
As if, we deserve another chance.

13

BLACK WHITE GRAY

Cigarette, unsmoked,
hanging from unspeaking lips,
defiant, uncompromised,
eyes in reverie preoccupied
though staring at me,
afraid of Nothing,
petrified of Nothing,
breath suspended
between inhalation, exhalation,
suspense unresolved,
night’s ebony tresses
cascading into the lungs,
twisting deeply,
stifling her heartbeat,
steel determination
unfazed by opinions,
well-meaning advice,
cigarette, focal point,
cigarette, her desire,
cigarette, indomitable,
cigarette, unsmoked.

14

Smoke Without a Soul

Your toughness and strength are impressive,
yet fall like ashes from a menthol cigarette.
They burn out into the last puff,
evaporate into the airy past,
like smoke without a soul.
If only you didn't‏ take life so seriously,
those random pitfalls
would be ignored.
If only you went with the flow,
perhaps your breath would taste sweeter
and not so stale.

15

You and your kind

You say I am beautiful
Don't you have any other words for me,
Or is it always just to get what you want—
Then you ask why I don't smile more,
That I should share my happiness with the world
Because no one's going to want me as I am,
By which you mean "miserable."

But you never asked why I don't smile
I might've told you if you'd been serious enough,
If your agenda hadn't pricked through this guise of yours.
No, I don't think I was born this way,
It's just how things have shaken out.

I once opened doors. Now? No.
I once spoke without needing to.
But who listens who does not see advantage in it?
I am not a brood-mare, I am not a portrait to appreciate.
Not by you, not by anyone.

No, it's not flattery if I see where you're going.
No, it's not politeness if I know what's beneath it all.
So the crossed arms, the downcast eyes.
You mistake these for being cold, but I am only protecting myself.
And, yes, I smoke now because I need something
To make me feel alive even as it's killing me.

It's not alone. Though you'd never admit to it...
You and your kind.

16

at the wedding reception

it is indecent for people
to make a ring around the woman
gawking at her
sitting still with her arms folded
over her chest
(can we really die so quickly)
and an arrow shot in the corner of her mouth
dressed in the black and white dress
especially for her wedding
she had inherited her mother’s stark beauty
but not her father’s quick reflexes
(I couldn’t stand looking at her)
people do die
I have lived this long
and not seen a dead person before
I told myself to forget about her
and walk away
but I couldn’t

17

Zigeunerin

I know you when you’re old.

The tired defiance in your eyes has been replaced by wisdom and patience.

You have grown a pipe in the place of the roll-your-own. Just like now for intimidation purposes only, clearly. No smoke signals.

The Austrian man who paints you (or is it a Hungarian woman?) clearly says “Zigeunerin”, but for an international auction the title is changed to “A Native American Woman Smoking a Pipe”.

See if you care.

A Mittel-European native. Once young, now old, waiting for all else to fail.

I come upon you searching for an image, a particular one.

One that would show how I see myself.

Fancy seeing us here again.

18

Vision on a Tardy Return

Nothing quite so attenuates the allure of a woman
as the finely woven material of sensual attire;
a nape that magnetizes the hungry tongue;
the disheveled just-out-of-bed hair
marauded by hair grips;
an unlit fag hanging from listless lips
and bedroom eyes which seem to drawl:
Go on, what’s your excuse this time?

19

Visionary

She knows
And she has seen more than a woman should
Flowing hair covers upright back
Proclaiming her victory and freedom
Eyes hooded, look askance
A mixture of pity and defiance
Someone has placed a smoking weapon
Upon full lips
It sits awkwardly there
Trying to detract from great purpose

Square posture,
Arms folded tight say she means business – Hurry!
Get on with it, while there is still some hope
Everything you need to learn
Has been within your grasp for centuries
Sitting overwhelmed in blowsy shirt
She wears it to defy expectations
High neck enhances her intensity
The cigarette means nothing, she waits
For you to catch up with her mind
Quick, to stop extinction you must act now.

20

intoxicated

she needs to smoke a haze
to soften your hard lines
she needs -
to raise mists to hide in
whilst she prods your soul

she fold her arms
but fails to thwart your cold
selfish use of her hot blood

through half-closed eyes
she sees manhood in you -
beyond machismo
she divines
your faltered human heart

her drug gives you to her
holds you prisoner in her reveries
fragile and fierce

until sober
she reverts you
a still corpse in cracked ice

21

SHE’S NO PICASSO

Not for her;
misshapen limbs,
contorted charms,
one eye higher than the other.

She may not know if she is art
but knows full well what she likes.
You won’t see her forward facing,
nose drawn sideways on,

fingers bunched like bananas.
As if embarrassed to show her hands
so deformed, she hides them both
beneath her arms.

22

Not Yet

These arms are folded.
I will not sway.
Tell me something new.
Make me believe it’s true.

I breathe in this new decade
with a knowing forgetfulness.
I release the unnecessary—
letting the smoke signals of
past hurt, and a sense of loss,
swirl up and away,
like the impatient kite string
of that other life.
So desperate to cling to it.
So desperate to keep it alive—
despite the burn marks.

What is to come
can only manifest,
if I hold the pale blue silk
between my fingers, gently.
It can only come into being,
if I loosen my grip—
welcome the unknowable.

Tell me what comes next,
insists my busy brain.
Tell me. Make this all less abstract.

Not now. Not yet.
Not yet, I say.

23

Is This the Look you Wanted?

It starts with flamenco
A minor chord and capo.

It starts with desire
then a warning – "caution

fold yourself up, tight."

It starts with flamenco
which ends up on street corners

where constant click-of-heels
echo down the generations.

*

Is this the look you wanted?
I’ve sketched myself in crosshatch.
I could be called Defiant.
Others' mark me as exotic.

Someone said I was the image
of a dry Sargasso Sea.

24

Yes, I said.

Attitude they said. I had attitude.
Bossy they said. I bossed.
Calculating they said. I calculated.
Demanding they said. I demanded.
Expects they said. I expected.
Fiery they said. I had fire.
Grown too big for her boots they said. I grew.
Hardly works like the others they said. I worked hard.
I
Just like a woman they said.
Knows her own mind they said. I knew.
Learn how to behave they said. I learned.
Mmm hmm they said. Yes, I said.
Not very trendy they said. I trended.
Opinionated they said. I had opinions.
Pushy they said. I pushed.
Quirky they said. I had my quirks.
Right one they said. I was right.
Slept her way to the top they said. I slept.
Trier they said. I tried.
Unbecoming they said. I became.
Very judgemental they said. I judged.
Watch how she goes they said. I went.

25

On Missing Stars

... Arms folded, eyes locked, feet planted. Neither of us speak. The sun shines brightly. Hot to the touch. I don’t. In case it all disappears. Still unsure of my footing. Only thing I know is that I can’t trust you.
The cigarette hanging from my mouth my only scent of familiarity.
In a former life this task would have been welcomed. Pick anything and share your opinion. I used to talk more than anything. Too much, some would say. I never agreed, though they were right. Forced confessions, fearful cover-ups. No thought to plead the 5th. First thoughts aren’t always best thoughts, I now know.
I served time – not mine, yours - for a crime I did not commit. You lost my trust and I lost my voice.
I waited for you to rescue me. Until I realized you wouldn’t. Then, I just waited. The evidence, formerly hidden under piles of carpet remnants and moldy towels, ultimately rose like the stars in the night sky.
Now that I’m out, everyone wants to know more.
I talk, not to you, but for me. I don’t want to forget. No one ever asks what I missed the most. But I tell them, anyway.
Stars of the night sky.
Meteor showers and butterfly kisses.
Freedom to turn off the lights.


I’m asked to assign stars to a place where stars never align. All of us, down on our luck. Dealt a bad hand. No Aces. Cast aside like Jokers as the Kings and Queens play with Spades.
I present your desired review of a 1-Star Establishment full of potentially 5-Star Humans. If only they were dealt a different hand. With no trick decks.

Read more >
26

Preparatory Sketch

There were no words between us that morning;
the only sounds in the studio
were the scratching of charcoal
and the gush of air from his lips
punctuating periods of concentration.
I kept to the strict instructions
to keep still, keep the pose, suppressing the urge
to break the space between us and catch
a glimpse of the sketch
and kiss his eyelids, mouth and fingers.

We had spent a sleepless night together
in the corner of the studio,
woken only by rays of sunshine that pierced
the blind in the skylight directly above us,
melting me like butter on the toast of his body.
I dressed for the sitting reluctantly,
longing for his gaze on my bare skin.

It was hungry work. He discarded the broken
stick of charcoal, put aside the drawing,
and brought from the kitchenette
a selection of cheeses and a baguette,
which we ate while waiting for a pot
of strong coffee to brew. Still no words.
Just the aromas of food and coffee,
until he produced a pack of tobacco
and papers, rolled two fat cigarettes
and lit them simultaneously.

Read more >
27

No, this is not Sierva Maria.

(after ‘Of Love and Other Demons’ by Gabriel Marquez)

Workmen dropped shovels and crossed themselves
when her remains were revealed. That dress -
but most of all the astonishing hair,
copper coloured, more than two metres long.
They whispered of hair growing in the grave.

Supernatural tales are the best, of course,
for reinforcing God, scaring children.
I’m very old now (you may think too old
to be true) - as a child I knew this girl
before she was exorcised - loved - to death.

If Sierva had her own demons
(not just those assigned to her, sotto voce,
in the chatter of indolent priests
in the limbo of shaded coffee bars),
I never saw any evidence.

I don’t recall her with lidded eyes,
smoking marijuana, defiant,
resigned to the mad dog in the market -
yet that’s the way she’s painted here.
Naturally with her famous hair unbound.

Read more >
28

Intrepid Belle

a
lone
ashen
cigarette
hangs like a minute
smoldering lamppost held between
flawless charcoal lips perpetually pouting; puffing
drag after drag, saintly halos
circle her raven
hair with
smoky
grey
crowns

eyes
gaze
beyond
vague New Year’s
resolutions, she
earmarks pageantry for future
emancipations; crossed arms convey sheer attitude,
glares caution each discomforting
conviction—yet brows
visibly
invite
love’s
touch

29

La Gypsy Girl, Smoking

My homegirls call me La Gitana,
that's Gyspy Girl for those of you
who are Spanish-deficient.
Started calling me that back when
we were just then coming up
in the neighborhood and tryna
impress the older girls on the block.
To be part of the club we had to be
hard, had to show them how tough
we were. And we figured a nickname
would be as good a place to start as any.
That, and fighting and smoking.

Let me see: back in the day
there were the classics like
Mousey, La Shy Girl, and Little Puppet.
In our crew there was Mary who
went by Giggles at first, but then
her twin went missing so she changed
to Silent. Laura took on Troublez,
or Travieza when she was feeling
all the way Mexican—all brown
not as a color but as her attitude.
Belinda so bad wanted to go by
Spooky but her eyes were hazel
so Borrada it was. It was her that
first called me La Gitana, and
all the rest of the girls musta liked it
‘cuz it stuck with me. Mostly, they
called me that ‘cuz I wore layers

Read more >
30

Interpreting the Image

The professor smiled expectantly as students stared at the image.

"So?", he said. "What is your interpretation?"

After several minutes of silence and glances at each other, one boy responded:

"I see Mary Wollstonecraft", he said.

"Excellent!" cried the professor, smiling even more broadly, excitedly, with the air of one who had set off a series of chain reaction.

"It looks like George Eliot's fed up with her pseudonym!"

Several boys sniggered.

"Maybe Judith Shakespeare?" said one other, a bit hesitatingly.

There were silent murmurs of appreciation.

"Bertha demanding answers, I guess", responded one, carelessly tossing aside the text of Jane Eyre.

"Wonderful!" the professor beamed.

"And what about you?" quipped the professor to the only girl in the class.

She smiled and said:

"Echoes of silence and sadness..."

31

Portraiture in Motion (Circa 1900)

Eyes
view a picture
-imperfect façade
of a popular poet posing

poetically for contemporaries
and posterity.

The subject is standing there
against the beige wall
hugging herself
against the cold
hard glare of attention
from her nearby male admirer.

(Their secrets
        are artworks
in the making).

A top brand cigarette hangs
from her nude lips
like a downspout
from a beautiful
neoclassical
building.

Read more >
32

Light up

The first quarter’s intention was to be a badass,
deploy it as a superpower, to kickstart other
mendicant lives and not just hers.

Even the divine demand cigarette breaks –
sporadic as needed – and while the tweets
of the saints might be insults too far, think

of them as firestarting gestures, the beginnings
of a new world. Intentions? To change everything.
Don’t be fooled that this is merely a pose.

33