Look. This photograph...
It always begins with a photograph, doesn't it?
Monsieur Daguerre hiding in the chinaberry trees
while the crowd of mothers with their dying babies
wept on his front lawn for him and his camera,
his silvered trays of bromine and iodine that could hold children
in their fever, in their vomit-stained smocks,
and never let them go. And the whole time Daguerre,
among the trees, was thinking of Cuba, the early morning light
against the sides of white tile-roofed houses, the glare of the ocean
at noon, the flicker of a ship's polished railing
through the leaves of a palm.
So look at this, then. For his sake.
It is me: the ghost of me: 9 months before I am me.
It is the summer of 1962, and my mother is leaning out of a window,
her hair pulled back, reaching for the branch of a cherry tree
as you would tack a sail to catch a west wind.
The wavering sheet of blossoms, the push of twilight billowing around her.
A simple photograph. Nothing fancy.
And what it comes down to is that it is Albany, New York.
She has just graduated from high school.
The nuns have told her that all things are fire. The trees
through the window are merely flame, and to fall from the window
would mean giving up what has not happened yet
to the lawn graying in the sun just out of the photograph,
just as much there as the blossom falling from her hand.
It is 1962. That much is certain, and Cuba is in love.
With itself. With Manzanillo, Santa Clara,
Cienfuegos, their palms, their plates of paella
cold and uneaten. With the gas lanterns that line the villages
near the bay. With all of the old thieves that play dice outside
the brothels in Havana and knife each other in the alleys.
With two young thieves offshore stealing crabs
from wooden traps. Their boat made from banana crates,
its rigging their daughter's dresses. They are drunk on coconut wine,
and still, Cuba loves them.
And it is in love with the cigar makers
asleep in their shoes on the roof of the Hotel Matanzas,
the roll of their fingers caught up in the moment, the making.
The wild pigs in the forests, the pigs in the butcher's window.
The song of the child counting out grains of rice into clay jars.
All of it.
But the road to Carderras is caving in, and soon, there will be nothing left.
There are dogs gathering in the square. There are soldiers on the roofs
picking out the houses they will live in and the women that will love them.
The trees through the window have always been flame, and soon
Cuba will no longer be in love.
The face of my mother in a window, gasoline
in a bottle. How could she have known that fire can last
only so long? That before the photograph was taken,
before she reached for the blossoms, before she smiled
at the thought of falling into the branches and resting there,
her face became mine for a moment.
What did she know of Cuba then? That it is only ash
and rum, a kettle burning (and love, if it can be called that,
is a leaf pressed in a book).
Maybe pineapples, or the dark men, their white shirts on clotheslines
hanging over the streets. Maybe that is not the right question.
What did Cuba know of her? That it hated her. Well, yes.
That America is nothing more than a barn with an old blind mule
tied to a post, biting at any close and sudden movement, mostly biting itself.
Yes, that too.
And here I am, thirty years later, in that Cuba she never knew.
It is hotter than she would have thought, and there's a sound
that I can't quite place coming in from the sea, like the bells
of a cathedral, a morning fog slowly fading.
Would it help if I told you Daguerre took the photos of the babies
in their mother's thin white arms and kept them
for himself: a wall of dying babies in his studio
to remind him of what he had done, of what he had become?
That he had never even heard of Cuba?
I would be lying if I did.
To come here was a mistake. I know it, now.
Listening to the couple from Ohio
in the bungalow next door make love last night,
the woman high-pitched, a chickadee, and the man
never saying anything at all, I felt the glorious pain
of being alone. You know that pain? You, asleep beside me,
as close as you could get, and yet I was alone.
I could feel your breath on my arm.
I didn't want to be here, and of all the things
I could have thought, I thought of that photograph
of my mother, the one with her in the window
of her parents house on Third Street, of how she looked
almost like me, of how if it was me instead of her,
I would have never left that window or those white blossoms.
I would have become one of the blossoms, faded into winter,
and pressed myself into a book.
What a stupid thing to think, but I did, and I got up and walked
to the window to look out onto the sea and the night beyond it.
I wanted to say something about the sky, how wide and swirling
and completely beyond us it was, but you were asleep,
and I could not stop any of it, so I said it anyway.
The river birches burned that year.
The fire jumped the river and took down both sides,
a mile each way. The steel shells of the warehouses,
the furnace factory, and the docks
all burned with the birches. Then it rained.
The Hudson rose and would not stop and the fire, the Great Hudson Fire,
was out and my mother could speak again, lying on her bed,
reading the cracks in the ceiling: a capsized boat, two drunken men
leaning on each other wrapped in the dress of a sail,
their faces identical, their faces hers.
Disasters made her speechless, and sad, and even beautiful, I have been told.
The brilliance of her hair against the summer sky through a bedroom window...
The river rose and Albany rose and she wondered when it would stop,
wondered when, if the end came, the city would give up
its flicker and groan to the river and become a mountain.
Can it be that she did not understand any of this?
That a disaster on top of a disaster becomes absurd,
and the only thing to do was laugh, and imagine yourself
far away, maybe on a beach, somewhere where there might be trees
with blossoms all year around.
That my birth, when it came months later, was beyond the burning of logs,
the coals washed out and solid on the banks of the Hudson, my father
wrapping her in a blanket to keep the mosquitoes off, and me suddenly there,
a thin candle's flame in her womb.
If there was a choice, I might have chosen to remain there
on that beach between the campfire and the slim gusts of wind
that took me from absence to combustion,
between the Cuba that is far away and loved, and the dark cloud of sea.
But I am here now, with you, the product of a summer night and a trough
beside the remnants of bonfires, dug in, kicked over.
Maybe it is better to not be born just yet.
Maybe if she steps back from the window,
she will see that women are shaped like leaves
and men fall. A month before the photograph,
she will meet my father for the first time
under the awning of a movie theater,
and realize that need must be spoken:
a crawfish burrowing into the mud.
In Cuba, they do not bury the dead.
They keep them in rooms, and talk
about them, as if they are not there.
Remember the trail to the bay?
Inside those tiny huts of tin cans?
All dead. Those creeks leaf-choked?
Dead. Sometimes it is that simple.
A word. A whisper. You can only have so much.
The clay jar of rice you hid on the top shelf
was found and searched this morning.
The soldiers ...they have nothing else to do.
It is almost a game to them. They miss loneliness
so they take it from us. They want to know where everything is
at all times, and that thirst keeps them going.
There is, of course, no need for dreams here.
They come and go, without cause or want, and become others
the next door down, the same one over and over.
The palm-leafed roofs let out the cooking smoke,
the cooking fires bronzed with salted plats of wood,
and the children play with their wooden figures of the Apostles
found on the beach when the American ship sank.
Enrique the grocer wants to know if you still need
the white pineapples you asked him to save for you.
Tell him, when you come back from the village,
that pineapples are nothing, that his country makes me sick,
that tomorrow the tide is coming in higher than ever before.
Albany, 6 p.m., and violence is everywhere. My mother, scratched
by her cat that can almost speak her name. Dianne, Dianne.
Her father; lump-headed from a fallen wash-tub, a creaking shelf.
Her brother, the ice cream truck's door, a broken nose.
The shore of the river collects what it can for the winter,
for the long path to the ocean. There is a candle in the window
of the bowling alley, lit for the birches on the riverbank,
for the president, for the ships waiting offshore from Havana.
My mother walks by the river, and tries to skip stones
across its weightless back.
They sink, and nothing changes.
She lights a cigarette, the smoke-drifts of her mouth a ripple.
Two field sparrows above her, on the branch
of a blackened cherry tree, watch her trace the cigarette
in the air, writing her name, her questionable conversations,
into a burning arc of light.
They see something in the river, a clump floating near the opposite shore,
and they sing to it. Reflection of warehouses, street lamps:
her own blurred body an open window: she speaks to it.
But doesn't know what to do, or what to make of it.
A dead body? Walk away? Dip her feet?
So she stands and lets it rise around her, the stumps of barrels
and sewer pipes drifting in their own rust. It is this simple.
The rising, the falling. What could anyone do but stand and let it happen?
It is still 1962. There is no changing that. She is seventeen.
Change becomes her. She will attend nursing school this winter
and see for the second time a dead body, and she'll tug at the eyelashes
to close the eyes. She will ask the doctors whether or not hair keeps growing
after we die, but not what she wants to ask, which is whether a cigarette's flame
can bring back the color of the Hudson on fire, or what she wants to know,
which is whether the child inside her can feel the warm swirl of night
growing around it. So many questions, and Guantanamo
is just washing out its nightshirts,
the dark skins of the women's backs on fire.
You, under the bed, picking each grain of rice
back into its jar, look. The sun is setting.
I won't talk about the photograph anymore.
It was silly of me.
Watch the soldiers in the street, smoking their cigars.
Or don't. I'm not making you.
Of course. I understand. The light is going.
You need it. There is only a certain amount of time
left for this, for us. You never met my mother,
who asked a surgeon to leave behind a photograph
of the Hudson in a tiny plastic capsule after
he sewed her up, so she couldn't forget.
If she were here, she would like you, that you smoke,
that your face is not as white as it seems. Go for a walk,
she would tell you. It puts color into your cheeks.
But what good is any of this? I want to know.
This morning, there was a wasp flitting from wall to wall
to the window's white framing of sky, and I wanted
to let it out, into the trees and into the sails on the bay in the
distance. Then, for some reason, I began to like the idea
of it bouncing from the walls, confused with the whiteness
or just tired of looking for the window, as if bouncing
could help it find a way out, as if it could slip itself
between the white and the window and find the trees
shining in the bright, day, fall into them, and wait
for the sad motion of rain to come and wash it away.
What good is that wasp when it is no longer 1962?
It is thirty years later, a dead husk of wings on the sill.
Must I tell you this? It has always been thirty years later.
Always Cuba and Albany.
Even now, when I look at you, it is thirty years,
and what the nuns told my mother is a cup of leaves.
Thirty years is thirty years, and what have I become,
holding this dead wasp up to the light?
I am going to say what the sea would say to me, which is
nothing can become more than it is.
I am going to say what my mother would say to me,
but I have forgotten her voice, hovering above
the blossoming trees, the drowning city. It is hard to admit, this forgetting.
The bananas ripening on the table, pin-drops of rice into a jar.
Let us part here.
Maybe it is better to spend the night alone.
The walk back is too long. There are shapes of water
on the walls of the white buildings.
Your sandals are falling apart. You won't make it.
Sit here and watch the ships, the hills above the village,
the wind (or is it the soldiers?) pushing open each red door
of the bungalows, and the scent of lemon trees curling inland.
It is something to remember.
Shaped from the grayed edge of flame, this becomes
what it is supposed to become. Memory. A photograph.
A souvenir. A measurement of the unsaid,
lingering and wind-filled. Over the sea: the root of smoke:
within the star: the trembling world.
Louis Daguerre was nothing but iodine on a sheet
of copper warming in the sun, tugging at his own eyelashes
under a portrait of his mother on the banks of the Seine,
parasol sagging from a morning rain,
and I am not where I need to be.
Maybe it is better for you here, in this Cuba of your eyes,
where every woman leaning out of a window
to empty her washbowl has my mother's face,
where all the dresses are white and rented
and all the white pineapples in the market
are free if you know what to say,
if you can speak the tongue of sickles, of sugarcane.
Wait. Let me tell you something before you go, a story.
There was a river, once.
A boy holding his mother's dead hand.
There were men's faces in the trees.
Joshua Poteat was the winner of the University of Arizona's summer residency program.
Copyright ©2002 Joshua Poteat