“Our mother tongue is not a mother at all, but an orphan”
Aunt Beth asked me to write about her life,
her journey, the one trip she took,
the forty years she spent abroad.
To write about her bad luck.
Beth believes that this autobiography by commission will change both our lives.
Beth expects extraordinary things of writing:
To write against asylum
to write and not be poor
to write and not have to cook
and not have to sleep
to write and forget.
In Perth Amboy the girls
seed the wind
with their tiny tears
to let loose the storm.
every first time
the mailbox, the snow,
your book of coupons,
your English class,
that smell of exposure
in the halls.
of the sidewalks.
in the corner of your mouth,
over the appliances,
the signs of life,
the deeps roots of rage,
sowing what’s solid in the grass
hardening the stalk of the rose
and the stalk of your goodness.
But I think,
that it must be true
that before us
there came another wandering tribe
in Perth Amboy
shaking out the sheets
cursing the weather,
their many tasks
and climbing forever
the proud hill
the first language that
we learned here,
our great unexpected possession.
is this shiny,
the land we were promised?
Aunt Beth shouted at her neighbors in two languages.
She never learned the names and faces
of the secret horde who took turns
hammering at her sleep,
stealing thirst from her plants,
uprooting the polished stone of sound,
their human rattle.
My aunt grew stealthy
like a quiet butterfly.
She floated through the rooms
and invented transparent sounds.
She kept her voice in a drawer with three locks
and took it out twice a week
to roar at us over the phone.
The bawling television flooded her house
drowning out noise with noise
and she stretched her body
over the surface of sound.
My aunt looked everywhere for the spy cameras they watched her with
and bought a boxing glove,
slippers for sliding through the room,
and to talk to herself
a lie detector
that was delivered right to the door of her house.
Even among her ruses
to expel those legions of solitude
she never thought to ask them why.
One day she signed her surrender
and left home
proud like a Roman general
expecting for herself nothing
but the gift of madness without dread.
I won’t praise you like repentant sinners do,
Because I loved you at your time, in the exact place,
And I know very well what you were.
Tía Chofi, Jaime Sabines
A few letters that still come for her.
Most of them because of a vehicle,
an insurance policy, a subscription she never had.
Still the inconsistency of her name (Botero/Viana/Ms./Miss/Beatriz),
war of words that now seems to me
like the echo of a battle cry:
It won’t be long before it rises up
this rubble of voices and questions for you.
And a gust will come and blow the final dust your claims,
the motes of light, the cracks of your yearning.
And a faint fog will erase the phantom of your passage
through the house you never had,
the family crest that no one sent to you.
And in the face of the men you loved
a wake of pain at hearing your name,
a brief, ephemeral commotion,
will be your final material trace in this world,
the only perceptible place
beyond the murmurs gathered
by these words,
because disappearance is also a legacy.