• 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

I Was Not Like Her

I was not like her,
the girl in the picture
looking out
scowling
defiant
rebellious.
No I was not like her
not me
not then.

I wore the gloves in summer
that my mother bought me
the classic cut clothes
that she had always
wanted to wear
even allowed my hair to curl
as it wanted to
as she wanted it to.
No I was not like her,
the one in the picture
not then.

Read more >
34

Aunt with Cigar

I had an aunt who smoked cigars.
I don’t know if she did it once
running out of Marlboro Kings
on Christmas Day. Or if

it was a habit donned
to taunt her husband in some
unusual way. One puff could seal
a reputation. Hanging from her lips

with that unsmitten look, seemed
to mock all of us at first. As if
one of Ruben’s women had vaulted
golden frames to assail

the artist with her not so
slender fist, then inhale
exhale in the docile way
that she had been portrayed.

35

The Arrangement

She was getting married

Convenient/inconvenient

A not-so loving and blushing story
Photo after photo in a velvet album
Heartfelt and touching

Hers was a game
That lifted like cigarette smoke
In a room where someone lost
The bet of a lifetime

Giving and holding
In times that felt like ash and cold—
An eternity of regret
Frustration
And shame

36

Señorita Maltratado

Swamped by the half-fastened taffeta of her lady-like garb
Señorita Maltratado sits in her window spot
Left to right - right to left
Up the street - down the street
The hooded tiredness of her sultry gaze blandly slides

Sparing her head the tell of interest revealed by moving

She poses, arms crossed
Weighing her sullenness on the iron, half-cage of her window spot
Resolutely discontented with the world outside
She displays her contempt to the world outside
Cheroot hung lazily defiant on petulant show for the world outside

Studied confirmation of her resolve to revolt - one day

Even the slight tatter to her dark-haired splendour
Is no simple neglect or accidental oversight
Within the confines of her room
Her hard work wreaks its little havocs
And she will show it to the world outside

Passers-by, feel free to judge

37

Lonely People

Lonely people wait at bus stops.
Lonely people have that look on their face, and search for someone who doesn’t.
Lonely people travel by bus and talk and spill the truth about empty rooms and isolation and it’s the only conversation they have all day.
Lonely people wait to be asked how they are.
Desperate lonely people ask first.
Lonely people tell of their past and family and the way their daughter lives in Abu Dhabi now, and is on holiday in the Philippines though it’s a year to the day their partner died, and the boiler is broken, and the sky is dark grey, and the months stretch out greyer still.
Lonely people see you stutter and fail to reply, and then they step away from the curb and release you to travel alone in the next bus.
Lonely people will ring for the next bus stop and wait there a while and feel hollow inside.
Lonely people climb off the bus still wearing that look, the look people have in public when they’re on their own today and tomorrow and the world hasn’t been kind.
Lonely people practised that look when they were young, and curling their lips at their own reflection and deadening their eyes and folding their arms and yeah what? What do you want?
Lonely people never thought it would work so well.
Lonely people mean it more, the mask over misery. It’s been a long day, a long month, a long year, don’t bother me, don’t start, back off, come here.
Lonely people ride buses and they’ll look through you if you look through them.
Lonely people looking.
Lonely people, us.

38

Bridesmaid

My sister’s fantasy wedding requires a portrait for her album. The Disney location is not enough. The billowing princess gowns are just the beginning of the pageant she wants to orchestrate.

Maybe she thinks the corsages and floral arrangements will mask the smell of burnt coffee and toast from her job at the diner. The rented tux will distract from her groom’s perpetually grimy fingernails. Her costume jewelry and the limousine ride to the airport for a week in Florida will make them forget the monthly payments on the mortgage for a house they can’t afford.

She doesn’t see the fret lines on father’s face as he tallies the cost of my sister’s desires. On the other hand, perhaps this will get him off my back. No wedding frenzy in my future. I’d rather eat nails. At least my job at the garage is paying for the auto mechanics courses I’m getting at the community college.

But now I have to sit while this high school kid, a friend’s little brother, draws my portrait. My sister insists that I wear the bridesmaid’s gown even though the alterations have still not been made. The sleeves hang off my shoulders. It's at least two sizes too large.

The stool is hard and wobbles under my weight. The artificial light is too bright. I take out a cigarette and place it between my lips. I cross my arms under the billows of the gown. The peach fabric hangs from my arms like an old person’s skin.

Okay, I say. Ready when you are.

39

Anthropogenic Addiction

She rolls up the world
as though it is just for her,
sucks in flossy clouds,
breathes out fumy hues;
they fall grey as old veils.

She drinks the sky,
gargles on blue,
tastes the sherbet of mountain tops.
Thin glaciers plate her tongue
and quickly melt against the roof of her mouth.

She skims the seafoam with soft lips,
spews bloated fish
and whale ribs like unplayed harps,
gags on slimy nets,
is throttled by plastic tentacles.

In a long, slow pull, she draws what’s left.
Fires blackens her throat
and a dark confetti of moths
swarm her velvet lungs.
She coughs out ash
shaped like forests, life, hope –
and it sticks to everything.

Once she has imbibed the colours,
she longs to be infused by them again;
but they are lost forever
and she, too, begins to fade.

40

A portrait of Medusa

Who put a spliff between my lips
and smudged-in shadow round my eyes

who plucked my eyebrows
— catch that whiff of smouldering recompense —

who ripped the canvas     as he she or it
scratched-out my head of snakes

and scumbled-in     more fitting for a child
Alice-blue     a length of velvet ribbon

tied into a bow     around a fall of hair
that spells out innocence?

It wasn’t Michelangelo

41

Words & Ash

She has never smoked, but she rolls perfect cigarettes.

As long as her eyes are downcast and she looks occupied—ideally, doing something with her hands—they don’t seem to think she is listening. Rolling cigarettes keeps them satisfied. They accept them from her silent fingers and don’t question why a twelve-year-old girl is present.

When they arrive, they leave their pouches of tobacco at her corner of the table. It requires less thought than her needlework, allows her to take in more words as the guests shroud themselves in smoke.

Her father and older brother collect friends who light the cigarettes she so carefully makes off the ends of their last ones. Whose beards are stained sepia. Whose animated hands and voices leave the table strewn with ash, littered with words. “Resistance” and “pamphlet” and “fellow partisans.”

This winter, the evenings have seemed longer than before. Darker, too. They all drink black coffee as the light seeps out of the room. The ends of the endless cigarettes glow like a circle of strange, silent insects, bobbing in the hazy air.

All of the men talk, but they often interrupt one another. Chains of fiery words beginning before the others are extinguished. Pressing sheafs of rolling paper between her fingertips, picking threads of lose tobacco from her nails, she listens to everything.

Later, in the darker darkness, when they have all left, she collects the cold dregs of coffee. Traces her fingertips through the grey mounds spilling from saucers, looking for the meanings of the words she doesn’t know.

Read more >
42

Her Gaze

removes the singular journey
she has made. A Borgesian map:

her town overlays his city.
In his studio - cluttered, louche -

she sees children run underfoot
through failed paintings, first sketches.

He can’t see ghosts but she’s not sure
they are ghosts. She might be. Elsewhere…

he asks if she can remain still,
poised to capture her flush of scorn

he surrounds it with her boredom.
Uninterested in being

a subject. She’s perfect. She sits
for the whole hour he pays her.

She doesn’t look at the picture.

43

Resin

She wears her funnel neck blouse
with balloon sleeves, bifta lit
and brows harried. Stares me
out like I'm business of nobody's.
I turtle in her shade.
She tells me she dreams
in ultra violet. The bees
are back in her head, she lists
twenty-five bona fide ways
she'd finish off my father. At the pub,
she buys me bum-fragranced nuts, convinces the bar
man we're sistren.

The moon is a wheel of brie
without the spokes. She sips
an upturned bell jar
of something grassy and German
in the smoking shelter
whilst I read my future in the beer rings
and it says I am concentric
duplicitous, hard to open,
like a mother.

44

You’re Late

You’re late.
And because today
is Friday
and because Friday
is payday,
I knew you’d be late.
And drunk.
As usual.

But late
becomes later,
evening becomes night,
the house grows
cold and dark
and the anger
that kept me warm
has burned down
to embers
and the fear
that takes its place
is a chill, worse
than any wind
from the south.

Read more >
45

Power Play

Fuck, you bastard
I’ll wait till my lungs
shrink with a patience
drawn by outlines
of carved atrocities
sketches, painted faces
from colonial malfeasance
rebounded obloquy,
burning eye spy
a fish hook of empire
our death is bitten
with mud and spit
grinding away
an ink-stained
anger to a pinpoint
element of disdain.
so give me a fucking
light, now that
my knuckles
have warmed
up nicely.

46

What You Wish to See

I present to you an image, an image of hope run dry where only dust is drawn to be sipped from my well
You see a person who is weary of this world, tired of what it has become, worn down by all it has brought my way
You judge that I am run down by one day following another, with late nights and early mornings sandwiched between them
You cannot see past my clothing, deliberately voluminous rendering me shapeless, shielding me from your eye and the eye of others like you
I cross my arms to form a outer wall defending my true nature
My face I keep face flat, expressionless, my eyes deliberately dulled and downcast
I employ my lips to hold this cigarette firm, keeping them shaped in a parallel line
You ask me to smile, why should I smile for you, I am not here to perform like a wind up toy
I am me, myself, alone
You will sketch in pen and ink and take away nothing but a shadow of my true self
My true self, my soul I keep locked deep inside
That person is a treasure that I do not share with anyone
You judge that I have knowledge of nothing, as I lack an education
Yet behind these eyes I have experiences of life that no classroom could hope to offer
As you etch my image you think you have captured me
I cannot be caught, held, restrained onto your pages of flimsy paper
You draw only that which I wish you to see, and what you wish to see, nothing more.

47

Wild West

Confident in herself,
Arms folded defiantly,
Lacking nothing in composure.
Arrogant, no. Self-assured, yes.
Modern feminist;
Independent, in control,
Trailblazing the frontier;
Yes, siree...

Joltingly everyday, down to earth;
Audacious and witty,
New decade/attitude,
Eyes on the glittering prize.

In praise of Martha Jane Cannary (1752-1903)
Better known as 'Calamity Jane'
48

Séraphine and The Tender Claw

Séraphine has heard of the tropics
and of the multi coloured feather birds that
fly from and perch on a canopy of trees
that not only feed but also support and shield
many types of orchids from the torrential rains.

(Cattleya purpurata is one of them.)

Séraphine has heard of the tropics;
of the solitary leopard that stalks the riverbed;
of the otters that hide when it appears. She's heard
of the people living there, their faces painted
with pigment extracted from the core of trees; and how they
go about brandishing arrows of their own making.
She’s heard of the harpy eagles that build nests
on the Brazil nut tree.

Séraphine listens.

Séraphine lights a cigarette, it sticks to her lower lip —
the lower lip once gently bitten
by a man whose name
is a well-kept
secret.

49

Angled taffeta

Cigarettes are made to smoulder.
Eyes aren’t.

A match burns down in the sketchers free hand.
His cigarette trickles ash on the page.
Hers impotent, crying out for
a lick of flame.
A flame promised three sketches ago.

Her eyes the only weapon
against the absurdity of
an adult’s dress and unlit cigarette.

Crossed arms
built to cartwheel between the sheep
and throw cow paddies at fenceposts.
Arms kissed and scrapped by
sun, twigs, and rushing water.

Pencil lines etch rigid defiance into
soft taffeta
too big and fancy for the voyager within.

50

Wanderlied

(After Wilhelm Müller For Schubert)

I thought you were the girl
In Schubert’s Winterreise.
I wrote your name in frost
On snowy gates, on lost
Bare linden limbs brachiate
And stinging clean with cold.

But there you were sitting
Up in bed, the eiderdown
Kissing the rumpled top
Of your peasant’s blouse,
The persimmon heat of
Steam rising from the old

Iron radiators, and your lips
Wrapped round a cigarette
As if indifferent to the very
Idea of cold, importune
To fortune, as if ruin
Was merely another state of stone.

We were each other’s
Subaltern, that winter
Each being both at once
The central metropolis,
And the far port of call;
In miniver, in chains,

Read more >
51

In The Private Theater of the Mind…

Where weightless conversations occur,
where the Past nightly leaves its dirt shoes
at the door,
like a reckless blessing,
                              I had you:
ocean's cull & pale scow-salt on the skin of you
under skinned white rabbit pelt of a late sun.

Desire is everything and comes from nothing.

Nothing: water-drip-count to the forehead,
perfumed persimmon sphere ––the thought,
the taste before it happens––
                                   it can’t, won’t
sleep as I put my sticky hands on you,
as if for the first time
& kiss your exposed collarbone, my voice
etherized at the base of
your disappearing spine, square-
root of something that’s not ours, my face suffering
the look of that water, loose mouth of the sea
letting go its prisoners of stars…& just

for my fiction, your ghost-frame
syntax, your face for mine: a cigarette
you left, I’ll keep unlit
                         for those days, waking.

52

NO HARM DONE

Oh God
January the first
Shit, I said I’d give up smoking
I promised myself
I hate New Year Resolutions
How ridiculous
I must have been drunk
Was I drunk, Max?
I must have been drunk
I suppose I meant it, didn’t I?
Anyway I won’t light it
That’ll be OK won’t it?
If I don’t light it?
Just let me feel it between my lips
Quite a night wasn’t it?
Max, have you got a ......
No, I don’t want a light
I’ll just keep it here for a bit
Between my lips
I can smell the tobacco
Quite a nice smell actually
Before you set fire to it
It feels good
No harm done

53

Me – in reverse

You view me with contempt
And I cannot believe
You’ll value me once more
This is how it is
In your eyes I’m an anathema
It’s impossible to accept that
You’ll see my inner beauty
Deep within I understand that
Your love for me has gone
And I’m mistaken to think
My hidden self will shine
So know this, beloved -
I hate myself much more
And it’s no longer a truth that
I am mistress of my own fate

I am mistress of my own fate
And it’s no longer a truth that
I hate myself much more
So know this, beloved -
My hidden self will shine
And I’m mistaken to think
Your love for me has gone
Deep within I understand that
You’ll see my inner beauty
It’s impossible to accept that
In your eyes I’m an anathema
It is how it is
You’ll value me once more
And I cannot believe
You view me with contempt

54

Foreign Girl

It might have been winter
when she sat for Charles
puffed up sleeves keeping her warm.
The neckline was her mother’s choice.
Forget the bouffant hair!
The artist’s bold lines
captured thick waves of hair
her challenging look
arms a defiant cross.
Her slanted eyes challenged him
to order the cigarette out of her mouth.
At sixteen she might not have been kissed
but she showed him who is boss.

55

CALL IT BOREDOM OR WHAT YOU WILL

could there be a theme
the question is rhetorical
sketched in soft pencil to
amplify the contrasts yet
also emphasises light and shade
a fairly conventional take
on what can be called boring -
look you're bored bored bored
enough to go on for several/
many lines before making a
halt - to inspiration - call it
an unlit cigarette - you're too
bored to light a cigarette
after covering all the bruises
in a long plain piece
of clothing - there's a dark
patch next to the left eye
hard to account for in words
or in any respect - just
sketched in for the hell
of it as they say - a path
way to a world of ambiguity
where nothing else happens
a state of ennui both too easy
or difficult to sustain an
attitude bitten by the bug
of indifference where a name
does not exist - does not reach
out from the depths of
its distant eyes

56

A cloud is just smoke from a god bigger than us

With my glasses off I see her as a mountain
She’s bright in the afternoon, though shadows cling to her left, pulling her
Her smile is on break, smoke escapes from her lips but she is still

If she were a beauty, she would be porcelain, but she is real
And I know there is love in her shading, I live there, on her left
Her skin is sallow, sunken as the clouds tuck away the joy
Like smoke that flows from her, sighing out in a breeze

Her hand covers mine in shade and gives a gentle pull
She moves like it’s the last thing she will ever do
And her hand is clammy with the weight of the clouds

57

TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY BANSHEE

The corridors of the hospital are like a friggin maze, she thinks to herself as her bare feet pad along the homogeneous floors, careless of any infection which might have spilled and been inefficiently cleaned. She ignored the smear at the bottom of one wall, just below the sterile soap dispenser.

The nightgown she wears with such disdain is merely camouflage to serve with blending in while she seeks her client. She snorts at the political correctness of the term.

“Prey,” she vocalises in a hiss. “Goddamn PREY!”

A passing nurse stops in passing and makes to address her. She hasn’t time and flicks her will in his direction. He stares through her – blinks, squints at her position … but – unable to focus on her – shakes his head and carries on down the corridor muttering about sleep loss and double shifts. Despite appearances when she doesn’t take such extreme action to avoid notice, she is not a dour teenager in a light nightdress and luxurious loose hair – she’s an immortal bailiff of sorts, repossessing souls on a freelance basis.

Hell used to have the monopoly, but the economy being what it is on earth, the representation of the afterlife changed to allow humans to relate. Hence the p.c. shit and the move towards clandestine collections as opposed to the tattery cloak of darkness … and the shrieking she so enjoyed.

So, this was the source of her irritation and bubbling rebellion – lack of job-satisfaction … and of course the bloody labyrinthine design of the hospital.

Finally, she finds the ICU. She tries a smile with the charge nurse, querying after her client.

“Oh, Charlie’s recovering nicely. He was moved to the open ward not a half-hour ago.”

Read more >
58

Beach Party

'You don’t say much, do you?’ the boy commented.

‘No,’ I answered.

The boy laughed nervously. I gave him a scathing stare. My parents referred to this as my ‘stroppy’ look.

The stare unsettled the boy: he shrunk back, blinked and offered me a cigarette.

I took the cigarette and put it in a corner of my mouth. I let it hang there for a moment, unlit. Then I spat it out into the fire in front of us.

‘Not my brand,’ I snarled.

The lazy chatter of the other six or so teenagers ceased. One girl scratched herself. The rest of the group gawped at the fire.

I may not talk much, I thought, but now they’re fully aware of me.

I stood up.

‘Ridiculous,’ I said, shaking sand from the hem of my dress.

I was wearing my usual retro style because I’d understood I was going to a party, in a house. I hadn’t known I was going to squat around an acrid fire on a beach.

‘Going?’ asked the girl who was scratching herself.

I knew I couldn’t just walk away. I didn’t want these people making fun of me. I had to take the initiative.

‘Give me the blade,’ I demanded.

Read more >
59

Genealogy of Smoke

What must she have felt when she first put her lips
to it: a rolled textured sheet of paper or vice versa?
Was it still so poisonous, beginning from the slight-
est touch or was it soothing until it hurt? Like snow
/ like warm water? Like men / was it (what is)

masculine enough? Letting off steam. Was it lead,
arsenic, like rain, drenching her to the warmth of her
pale skin, or did it leave her dry, gasping for breath,
gasping for more? And say – did it – did it smoke
the first time she saw it, half coloured, like a

pole, catching her eye? It did, did it not? Or did it
just stop by, pulling her close, asking her to now
warm it / now set it on fire? Now smoke / now puff.

60

The last to die

The sofa was comfortable. She always picked a sofa in the corner, where she could sit facing the door, but far enough from the entrance to make this place warm and cosy, not disturbed by the cold wind that was trying to penetrate the space. There was also a big window nearby, and she could watch the street and the raindrops in the paddles. The window was an excuse to sit there alone without the embarrassment of having no book or no smartphone in her hand. There was just a glass of ginger tea and an ashtray on the table. It was one of those places where a woman could still enjoy a cigarette or two without disapproving looks and without freezing her ass off. She wasn't smoking, but she enjoyed having options.

She was choosing the same sofa for many years now. Her waiting was stripped of excitement. She was like a patient who is expecting the doctor coming in with the results at the oncology ward. The events were passing in front of her eyes. The same faces. The same words. The same life stories and questions. When she was still in her thirties, she remembered, it used to be thrilling to sit there all by herself. Beautiful memories were like a curse because nothing could compare to the past. The pictures of the yesterday used to be in full colour, and today they came in black and white. Mostly black.

The sofa was comfortable because something had to make the situation at least a little bit more bearable. She was waiting for inevitable like she couldn't just get up and leave. Something kept her hostage in the corner, something stronger than constant disappointment and never-ending remorse. Something made her patient enough to keep looking in the empty eyes of those who came to beg for a substitute of warmth.

Read more >
61

Etcher sketch

Tracy traced her eyes till they were tired,
Marble blot paper,
Stopped.

Tracy lifts a lid,
Two even,
Tired eyes tracing the lines of her last laugh.

Tracy takes her time to light one more cigarette and puff deep;
Willing sleep but wide awake.

Tracy’s face lies in white,
Charcoal sketch,
Ash,
Fleck.

62

Lighting The Cigarette

"Hey buddy," she hisses,
"Got a light?"
She mouths a cigarette in my direction,
leather boots bartering gingerly
with the icy gutter.
The cold asserts itself
despite her fur lined dress,
pierces her bones
but her shudder is more
for having to beg of a stranger.

I light that famished cigarette,
mutter a muted "Cold out."
She nods a grizzled agreement,
then, with a black-toothed puff
on all her addictions,
jerks away from the curb
and. in a shower of neon,
in clouds of gray exhaust,
is on her way.

So, it's on your way, young woman.
Once again, without me,
hell would be a nicotine-starved
hellish cold place.

63

Filipinas

Look closely at the map of my
country, and a lady’s shape will
emerge. She puts down the pail
of our poverty and looks back
to where we were once a people
of pride and unity, affirming life
as universal reason. Now her absent
gaze is fixed on the mirror, as if she
refuses to see her sunken eyes,
the way weariness is her last
strength to take another step.

Rest takes no part in her decades,
swell she keeps staining her lungs
black as smoke. Her waist-length
hair has forgotten the touch,
knows only water’s absence.
But we endure as children to whom
she remains dearest, dear love,
leader after leader fathering us
from her refusal to sleep
with thief and murderer.

64

Flamenco

I’m no Carmen. Well, I worked in the same factory and smoked the same cigarettes, even though I prefer cigarillos.

It’s just I could never flash my eyes and flirt like Carmen. People think I’m sulky, frumpy and nothing special. That I’ve got no ‘wow factor’ and of course I’ve never been a devotee of bull fighting. Definitely, no matador de toros, picadors, toreadors or rejoneadors for me.

My face won’t win any contest or a husband, but perhaps my feet will. I have the slim ankles of a dancer and express my emotions by tapping out my passion, clapping out anger with my skirts swirling, castanets clacking. I have no need to speak honeyed words, because words can be sharp as a sword, deadly as a dagger as Carmen found out. They fuel jealously and end in blood and murder.

65

Momma’s Portrait

When I was young—
Long ago,
There were no photos.
If you wanted to be remembered—
After death,
You were painted, a portrait.
It was expensive,
Momma had been saving up.
She sat down on the stool,
In front of the painter.
I sat on a stool,
Behind him,
Watching.
Momma didn't smile,
She folded her arms.
She pulled out a cigar,
She lit it,
She drew deep breaths.
I said:
"Momma?
Are you sure about the cigar?"
Momma grunted
The painter said:
"Ma'am?
Maybe smile?"
Momma grunted.
She didn't smile.
I said:
"Momma?
Read more >

66

Familiar Face

I think I knew her
not from the smoke hanging
or those droopy eyes bent on trouble

But from the one likeness
We all have
When we are down and not out

But defiant. As if sun, come my way
I will greet you with folded arms
and hair that knows no bounds.

I think I knew her from that long hard look
That neck brace, that spoke of another age
not mine, not this pent up 21st c flutter.

That sizzle dizzle broke up company
That thank-you-very-much-but-no-thanks
I would rather have it my way

Than avail your precious hospitality.
I do not know what time it was,
When she passed my way. I was a kid then.

All I remember is her long winded walk
That stop-stride-stop in her gait
And those eyes, waiting at the footpath

For the trees to pass.
They say she was already a legend
The first time her eyes fell on me.

67