A Poem: Invisible Architecture
a pecha kucha after Richard Serra[SEA LEVEL]
The priests never teach you to lock your fingers inside
rather than fold them over when you pray. It is better to
let the knuckles form like a crocodile’s knotted brow bone.
The skin forming zigzags of brown teeth. Better to let
your nails practice what it means to be landlocked.
What it means to be a Midwest girl meeting her lover’s
mother for the first time in the heart of South America.
Nowhere else could a bare-throated bellbird mock me
with its blue gullet feathers as though to say, if I had
a white body my chin might dribble sapphires too.
Lapacho trees trumpet their pink dresses over brown
limbs. I lick my lips—this bruised windpipe to blame
for the lack of rolled r’s in Spanish. I would later learn
how to roll the dough for chipa. The cassava flour
dusting my hands in Easter snow.
My lover’s mother sold chipa to men on buses when
carrying him in her womb. Her belly swelling
like the green hills of Paraguay, hills reminiscent of
the Cahokia Mounds I visited on field trips as
a Catholic schoolgirl.
Gasoline muscles through the air and by midday Asunción
places its sticky fingers in every crease of your skin.
My sweat glides through the wetlands of a country
whose native tongue I have never gleaned like the accent
mark slanted back of a waxy monkey frog.
How do you tell an anteater that you are the descendant
of a slave? That you have dreamed of Jesuits riding tapirs
to the water’s edge to drink. I once heard a poet say
there are people who fear even the trees.
We visit the stone church his mother wants us
to marry in. Men in folding chairs pass mate
outside like a holy chalice. Their puckered eyelids
reciting, eat my body, drink my blood.
The fourteen Stations of the Cross all perfectly
drawn from memory on my thighs, the paintbrush
of my lover’s tongue now drying in the sun. His open
mouth the bell rung before mass. Confession a peephole
in the wooden outhouse door.
In Paraguayan folklore there are seven monsters.
The Guarani say Kurupi comes at night
His penis wound several times tight around
his waist , a belted vestment of sorts.
His reach extending through the windows.
A scapegoat for how a woman could come
to be with child. How an 11-year-old
gives birth after rape.
A jaguar whips its cat-o’-nine-tails —a symbol of self-
flagellation, its spotted back stained with welts,
sins branded deep in a golden coat. Whiskers
glistening with beer and spit.
There is a place where scent and sound merge,
where I can smell the word for mother
from the kitchen. The parts of her body
an ecosystem. A crucifix shaped pipeline
My lover wants to buy his mother a house,
before the diabetes settles in the shantytowns
of her arteries, before her small clay body rattles
with every breath. But even in perhaps the final hour
there are names some mothers won’t provide.
I am with my lover in his homeland to find the man blood
says is his father. In the picture the man dresses as gaucho.
In another life he and my lover would have ridden
horseback, eaten ox meat by the fire, trading stories,
stevia root melting sweetly into their tongues.
In his mother’s house, the shadow of my lover’s father
scrapes itself across the floor just as the wiry old broom
sweeps bits of dirt together under cover of a dustpan
black as night. A child can never really know
their father anyway, never know his face by heart.
I could never trust what the blood said was mine,
how the blood sung a song of myself.
Most people are really just other people.
There are three bones in the human ear, one broken
from the voices it doesn’t recognize as its own.
They say a man must know his father to raise a son.
But expectation and disappointment are second
cousins, first removed on both our daddy’s sides.
Kierkegaard says to name is to negate and yet
we blindly name the living after those gone ghost.
I watch my lover stare at the photo of his father.
His wanting eyes scanning his mother’s praying hands,
traveling every crooked vein in search of his namesake.
Will our child grow up chasing origin by its wiry tail?
What fearful family tree will it find to climb?
We could have ended up with any number of different
lives, an infinity of possible configurations and so we
pick apart the parts of speech until the day that we are
pronounced dead. The language has that funny way
about it, like air sticking to the teeth in a hiss.
My mother is indigenous to nowhere. My lips curl in blood
at the rising of the father. Black is not a primary color.
A brown woman can still get killed for saying no. A domain
name set to expire. When remote the connections get lost.
How did hips learn to sound out a child?
This piece was originally published in The Offing.
Alison C. Rollins, born and raised in St. Louis city, currently works as the Librarian for Nerinx Hall. She is the second prizewinner of the 2016 James H. Nash Poetry contest and a finalist for the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Meridian, Missouri Review, The Offing, Poetry, The Poetry Review, River Styx, Solstice, TriQuarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Vinyl, and elsewhere. A Cave Canem as well as Callaloo Fellow, she is also a 2016 recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship.