8-31-2020

Michelle Penaloza

LETTER FROM MY MOTHER

 

Dear Bunso: Fall settled in the backyard today.

I finally turned on the heat inside the house—

it gets so drafty—maybe I should get someone

to seal the windows? Maybe you can do it

next time you visit? The green herons have stopped

visiting my pond and the cattails you broke apart

this summer are gone. The maples, though, they

look like they’re on fire. I was single the first time

I saw fall, you know. Single and newly arrived.
So many leaves, so many new colors of leaves.
Did I tell you? Wowie’s planning a fall wedding.

She’s picked the bridesmaids’ dresses (I hope you like

orange). Be nice. Don’t complain to your cousin.

Maybe you and Alex should start some planning.

Fall is a fine time. Did I ever tell you the time

Daddy took me on a hayride? He picked the fallen oak

and maple leaves from my hair. I think we carved

pumpkins that day. I know we drank warm cider

under a cold sun. Anak, that day, like a postcard.

I went to Meijer today. They had pumpkins for sale
and a deal on apple cider—2 gallons for $4.
I bought some mulling spices for you. Kumain ka ba?
Have you been eating? What did you make Alex for dinner?

Remember: be patient and kind. Even though you aren’t

married, love is all kindness and patience (Daddy—
always that way). Have you bought any pumpkins?
Maybe I’ll buy one for myself this year. I haven’t
carved a pumpkin since you were a little girl.
Lately I’ve thought: A decade is a long and not long time.
I’m getting old. I feel it when I climb the stairs before bed.

But, don’t worry. I go on walks. I did some Tai Chi yesterday.

Maybe show me how to yoga when you come home
for Christmas. You still have a lot to learn from me;
what I know fills books. That’s what they say, right?
You could write about me, about things that happen to me.

I’ll send you poem ideas. The other day a bird with a
snake in its mouth crashed into the Blazer’s windshield!

Talk about symbolism. You should write a poem about that.

Or your cousin Andrew, who’s too stubborn to speak,
or Lola and Daddy—you should write poems about them.

Oh, I know what you’ll say—they’re dead, Ma,
let them be dead. But you’re more like me than you’d like.

I’ll be glad for you to come home, Bunso.
For now, I’ll watch Dancing with the Stars
with your Tita Nora. Watch for the birds that are left.

 

 

WHEN MY MOTHER WAS EARTHA KITT

 

 

Along the bottom of a forgotten bankers box:

a pair of black patent stiletto boots,

knee-length, and, somehow, once my mother’s.

The woman who bought these boots:

twenty and nubile, she smokes Capris
and throws back her head, laughing at off-color

men who broadcast their broken attempts
to woo in languages just as foreign to her—

konnichiwa, ni hao ma.
She is impervious and breezy and says things like,

“Now I bet you’d never try that with Julie Newmar!”

Her world, onomatopoeic: heels staccato
pounding Detroit’s salt-ground pavement; men drop

their highballs of bourbon—Bam! Pow!

Kaboom!—as her slight frame slinks

past rows of wooden barstools. She purrs.
When I found those boots in the 6th grade, I knew
my own feet would never unlock their magic.
My own body monstrous and lumbering
compared to the petite contours from which I came.
I knew men would never whimper to tongue my boots.

Eartha Kitt mother, what would you say
to the woman before you today?
Would you understand your daughter’s
self-fulfilling prophecies? Her need
for distance, her proclivity for
the third person. Her intoxication with
the power of a man she cannot name
emptying himself inside her,
the hollowness of his embrace.

 

 

WE ARE SO SORRY FOR YOUR LOST

 

 

We sort the cards at the kitchen table.

Instead of flowers our people help
the family pay for the funeral.
My mother and aunt document

the names and amounts of money in each envelope.

Silent clerks of the economics of condolence.
I alone read the short scrawls of sympathy.
Inside a card covered with lilies, someone writes

We are so sorry for your lost.

My uncle has lost his wife.
No. My uncle’s wife has died. No.
My aunt passed away. No.
My aunt died. She died
in the summer, in a season of gunpowder,

succumbed to fire in her lungs and stomach

and throat and everywhere.
This scrawl makes more sense
than anything else anyone’s written
inside a sympathy card.
Our dead are lost, aren’t they?
There is always some mistake:
lost down a well, lost in the woods.
Lost for words, lost to the world,
we’ll never make up for lost time.
The sheep, the baby, the prodigal son,

wandering beyond our imaginings,
along the border of our grief and need.

-from Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, Inlandia Institute 2019, selected by Fall 2020 PoemoftheWeek.com Guest Editor Angela Narcisco Torres

Michelle Peñaloza is the author of Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, winner of the 2018 Hillary Gravendyk National Poetry Prize (Inlandia Books, 2019). She is also the author of two chapbooks, landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias, 2015), and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes (Organic Weapon Arts, 2015). The recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Oregon and Kundiman, Michelle has also received support from Lemon Tree House, Caldera, 4Culture, Literary Arts, VONA/Voices, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, among others. The proud daughter of Filipino immigrants, Michelle was born in the suburbs of Detroit, MI and raised in Nashville, TN. She now lives in rural Northern California.

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