I’ve inherited a notebook from my great-grandmother. It’s full of loose-tucked notes, scribbled on scraps and receipts. My great-grandmother was a writer; she wrote a book for children about growing up on the prairie, and a column for a women’s magazine about being a Kansan transplant in New York. My grandmother has kept this journal for me because I am the next writer in the family. It’s full of half-formed thoughts: a description of a brush fire in August, a sketch of trees moving in the wind. The dark tornado cellar gets a few notes. I try to picture her down there, breathing in the cave-like quiet with her family. The great flat wind-blasted earth above them, a landscape I’ve never seen, strange as the moon. The fear of that waiting space, of burying yourself in a tomb just to stay alive in a hostile time and place.
In one note she writes of riding home in the buggy with her parents during a lightning storm. When thunder rolls above their heads, her father yells to her mother to get out of her metal hoopskirts. She strips as fast as she can. They ride home with the sky threatening. I picture lightning jumping up into her clothes.
My great-grandmother wrote a second book about her life, a sequel to her childhood memoir. My mother and grandmother found it when they were going through her papers. It was in a sealed envelope with a note attached: BURN THIS MS. DO NOT READ.
They obeyed. I want to reach my fingers back through time to that moment and steal the book away from these obedient daughters. I want to know what my great-grandmother thought wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t born yet when she died, and now her notebook is mine, all the fragments of her life that she cared to keep. They’re just like the pieces I use to assemble my stories. I tell myself, I would not burn that book. I would read it. I tell myself, her thoughts are like people huddled in tornado cellars, afraid to come out.
Some [stars] are there but some burned out
ten thousand years ago…You see memories.
We built gods
on that stage
the bass pumped
like pure ghost
had climbed up
in church hat
in blue dress
the pews full
but none sat
in god’s house
the fake dark
the track lights
the sound man
he’s drunk but
we built us
this big sound
this black shit
of raw truth
we built us
we bang drums
we sing loud
we’re break beats
we’re hands up!
the whole crowd
but who cares
you paid ten
but so what
your head nods
for my beats
your arms up
for my words
your drunk dap
for my fist
your drunk lips
for my lips
your scrunched fives
for my wax
your drunk love
in drunk eyes
for my swag
for my steez
that I know
is dead light.
Enslaved by circumstances, to wait, without vanity, uncalculating and available, for the whim of the marketplace, to wait, without pleasure, for routine or for chance.
—Joyce Mansour, “Practical Advice for Waiting”
(Translated by Myrna Bell Rochester)
The train crouches like a gun.
Anachronistic steam from air brakes
frosts parallel gray rails.
Above—the traditional dusty glass,
thick air rising from a line
of the frightened humans waiting here.
On the platform, a desk. You hear
wheezing lungs—an old gun
squeezing a bullet into the chamber. The line
is frozen—a glacier—it breaks
like an icicle, like gray glass
overhead when rain falls like steel rails
in winter. Looking down, you see one rail
is crooked, twisted, and over here,
a spike’s rusting. There’s a fine dust of glass
covering cinders, dark and bright as gun-
powder. Even you know the brakes
will fail. You shuffle along with the line:
One step and stop. Those blue lines
on that page on the desk are trails
of unreadable names with no breaks
between consonants. They mean nothing here—
A broken alphabet of notches on a gun.
Stand up straight and focus on the split glass
of your bifocals. Don’t think about the last glass
of wine you’ll ever know or the hairline
fracture in your knee. She didn’t fire the gun
on purpose. Behind you someone starts to rail
against injustice—as if anyone could hear.
Others laugh, loud and sharp as ungreased brakes.
An order is given. Movement. Try not to break
into a sweat or tears: A perfect glass
chess piece moving from there to here
under a cold hand that understand this line
of attack. Walk straight until the rails—
cool and blue as the barrel of a gun—
split you into a new line. The kiss of air brakes.
A dull glare from the rails. All that broken glass.
A gun firing a shot you’ll never hear.