Lisa Allen Ortiz
-I wonder why I even went back to school. Like, I have to memorize the names of 100 native plants by December. Like, I have to remember what they look like. Like, I know it's not supposed to be easy, but still. -Barista at Coffeetopia
Outside the door of the coffee shop
the barista balls her apron up,
unlocks her bike. Around her, specimens queue
by common name-Alum Root, Apache Plum.
One by one down to the smoke shop
an alphabet of plants: Bad Dog, Balloon Flower.
She mouths the names she knows, jostles
with acknowledgement: dicot, monocot.
All of it like. Like when she drove out here
in her boyfriend's car and looking
at all the western vistas and scrubby wild,
she thought, I want to know all this.
But how this knowing grew in her-a savage plant,
stem and leaves obscuring what joy
she had before: the simple sun, the nameless clouds.
She's grown blind with sight!
Oh, to let it go, syllable by syllable
each name picking up and off.
Let the wind. Let the light. Let her sweater
lift from her shoulders like-petals
of a Flannel Bush, a Gambleweed, a Fiddleneck.
-with excerpts from Robert Hooke's 1635 book
What is looking made of?
The naturalist saw in the planet of his eye,
drew with his quaking imperfect hand,
wanted with his furious, damaged will. He wrote:
the imperfections of our senses
and listed figures with letters and numbers,
annotated: proleg, mesoleg-
a biting body enlarged and unfolded from his book.
He titled it: observations and inquiries.
What startles so? Pen in his hand,
glass lens, a tube filigreed in angels.
Look: minute bodies, little stars of snow,
a human cell like a honeyed room,
monkish writing on the walls-
manuscripts of illuminated ribosomes.
Box of Owls
Back of the museum, an acrylic box
of taxidermy owls.
It's okay. Some things
are lost, some saved
with salt or drying-
we can learn from this exhibit
what happens when
we hang on with talons.
Remember the summer
we hiked out to the hollow tree?
We didn't know how
we ruined things by looking-
the downy heads of owlets,
the parents' absence disquieting the trees.
Our house had many windows,
so at night we lived observed-
stars in windswept robes,
animals with flare-green eyes.
Love bears itself. Love waits.
We had babies and made our way.
I didn't understand it then
but I've since learned to explain:
those days were a kind of falling
wide-eyed into glass.
Gone forest, gone windows, gone trees.
I kept what I could in boxes
lined up inside of me on shelves-
glass eyes and brittle feathers
that rattle when I breathe.
-from Guide to the Exhibit, Perugia Press 2016, selected by Associate Editor Amie Whittemore
BIO: Lisa Allen Ortiz was born and raised in Mendocino County, California. Her poems and translations have appeared in Narrative, Best New Poets 2013, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Literary Review. She is the author of Guide to the Exhibit and two chapbooks, Turns Out and Self Portrait as a Clock. She lives in Santa Cruz where she teaches creative writing to middle school students.
PROMPT: In these excerpts from Guide to the Exhibit, Ortiz's preoccupation with the limits, problems, and possibilities of vision come through: the barista "blind by sight," the naturalist furious about the "imperfections of our senses," and then finally, in "Box of Owls," the speaker feels as much observed as trying to observe what this life is all about, "boxes / lined up inside of me on shelves." Write a poem where you consider the limits, problems, and possibilities of a different sense: scent, touch, taste, or sound. What, for instance, opens to us through touch? If we can be "blind by sight," can we also become 'intangible by touch?"