Hunched in the bath, four ibuprofen gulped
too late to dull the muscle cramping
to sate a god who thirsts
monthly for his slake of iron,
I am just a body bleeding in bad light.
But after an hour, as the wrenching wanes,
I run more water in, remembering
when I was a girl my mother knew
one cure for this pain
and, while I cried,
carried me mugs of tea and whiskey
clouded with sugar cubes.
In a palm of pinkish water, I scoop up
a burl of my flesh, almond-sized.
The tissues settle, livid
red to nearly black as I tilt my hand
against the light to see it
glistening like a ruby cabochon,
appealing as it appalls,
recalling one future, years ago,
that would have borne itself on my blood
had I allowed.
The question swims into view:
would I harbor another life now?
Last spring, I sat above the harbor in Naples
with three friends whose children,
after a week’s vacation, were all
safely back at school. Palpable,
the holiday mood
a morning freed from offspring brought!
(I’d felt a guilty pleasure I’d go home
not to cook someone’s lunch,
but to read.)
Still, it wasn’t long before our talk’s
compass needle trembled north
toward the motherland:
soccer games in the Flegrean fields,
reborn and swaddled putto-pink
in mist above the fumaroles;
messes of gelato;
first words, whose honeyed gravity
weighed on me
like a toddler’s head
snugged below my chin in sleep.
Then, Serena described
troubles at her daughter’s school.
Their new principal refused to pay
the local gang’s protection money.
And so, the teachers
arrived at work one day to find
the hutches where the children kept
rabbits and a little clutch of chicks
From the playground swings
the throat-cut animals hung.
Next time we come for you
someone had written across the door in blood.
Now the parents wanted
the principal to pay:
that was how these things were done.
Screw her ideals,
That bitch is going to get our children killed.
A blade bossed with oyster floats,
the harbor glinted below Serena’s voice.
Into that water, Apicius wrote,
the Romans tossed slaves
to glut the eels they’d later eat
with tits and vulvae, succulently cooked,
of sows who’d aborted their litters.
And from that water,
fishermen pulled a girl
who’d been under
at least a week.
She may have been the missing one
the papers were reporting on
whose photo showed her
lippy, grinning, seventeen.
A week in that wake.
She was scoured of identity.
Water’s thick in Naples
as martyr’s blood
rusting in ampoules in the cathedral,
where it liquefies on schedule
—and it does;
I’ve seen the miracle—
to show the city’s
still protected by the saint.
I can’t remember, six months later,
loggy in my cooling bath,
if some net had hauled these images
writhing up at me that morning
as we sat together
near the harbor,
or if they’d tangled in my thoughts
that same evening after Serena’s dinner
honoring Women’s Day.
lapels flickered yellow wicks of mimosa,
marking the feast.
And in Naples,
flowers fumed for women
burned on the flank of Mt. Vesuvius
where they’d been sewing
sweatshop zippers on fake designer bags.
But as it did with everything,
the city managed to transubstantiate
horror into carnival.
With Theresa and Ellie
I’d walked home late along the harbor.
Fireworks seethed above the bobbing masts.
Mirroring those harrier stars
the water seemed to flame, while
drowned in lights
the Lungomare phosphoresced.
Scooters rippled through
the reefs of cars,
barely slowing for schools of boys
and women in flocks,
stiletto-heeled, who stalked
screeching over the cobblestones.
From an alley’s mouth
a gobbet of men disgorged.
One, drunker than the others, loomed
over and bent his face to mine.
Where are your babies? he hissed,
spit pricking my skin.
Get home to your babies.
Not just drunk but whetted, his glare
stropped beyond seeing and testing its edge.
for trolling—is that what he meant?
Or was he putting all women away,
including the vampire-
Whatever he meant, he meant to make us bleed.
I wince, drain chill water out,
drizzle in a little
more of the hot,
and wonder at this habit
of holding others’ words as worry stones
to fidget absentmindedly
when thought goes slack.
Agates of fury, quartzes of scorn.
Cold in my ear’s palm,
the hematite heaviness of a final no.
And I still turn over my mother’s words,
handed me years ago
in a college project on oral history.
She took my assignment seriously,
agreeing to an interview
as if it would allow
her, too, to wash
through the wrack of half-forgotten truths.
Painstakingly on tape
she recorded her life,
lapped by sluices and hesitations.
Her years in the Women’s Army Corps,
screening films on safety and hygiene
to bored enlisted men.
Decades as a secretary. Marriage.
Until, near side B’s close, there gathered
a final, muscled wave:
how, when she was well past forty,
her bleeding stopped.
At first, she thought it was her age.
She’d tried to find
a doctor who would help her, but
(her voice cresting, breaking)
five months along, it was too late,
even if she’d had the money.
The tape’s hiss like receding surf.
So here I am, at daybreak,
adjusting the taps with my toes.
I think we are shelled animals,
hauled at by tides, sleeking invasive grit
with our nacre. I think of her
hiding in the tub for half an hour
to read; think how pleased
I was, finding her, to pull her
back to me.
Little plumes of my flesh rock in the swells,
but my body is bland now,
yielding as kelp,
and with my toes I pull the plug.
Drained, I need a couple hours of sleep,
then I’ll start the day again.
And maybe, if I’m sleeping late,
the dream will come,
one that intrigues me almost
more than it disturbs, in which
I’m falling, bound,
into a bay of blood-threshed water.
Fear ties me; brine
bites my lungs and I can’t breathe.
Then, with a clarity I mistake
for waking, I wake
below trees, at a table laid
variously with meats—
meats I realize,
from a shudder in the grove’s air,
It should be awful; it is awful.
But with a calm
familiar only here, a calm
I’ve never known in any other place,
I find myself longing to taste
the dish’s savor,
braised and stuffed, as Apicius writes,
with larks’ tongues.
Source: Poetry (January 2010)