Mudlark Poster No. 40 (2002)

Amy Pence  |  Red Toenails

Red Toenails | The Year | Accretions of Pain and Goodness
Written in the Body | The Dirt of Chimayo | Armless
A Forbidden Room | The Unrescued | Simile & Parable
Little Diary of Cruelty

Amy Pence has published a variety of poems in different magazines including AMERICAN LETTERS & COMMENTARY, NEW AMERICAN WRITING, and SONORA REVIEW. Her interview with the poet Li-Young Lee appeared in POETS & WRITERS (November/December 2001).

Red Toenails

Sometimes, they’re mythic
like drops of blood in the snow—
sometimes, erratic
like evil or stoplights.

They’re traitorous, treacherous
the Nile and all its inlets—
angels clattering,
icons stripped, nipples
flaring—vivid in primary colors
an elemental
connection to the womb.

            Don’t flinch:
they’re just costuming,
my heart beating
at cross purposes: always wanting
what I cannot have.

They flicker in their flight—
notice this:
away from you.

The Year

Our year, oh Lord, stands naked before you
pierced, nippled, dimpled,
            The year: runged and silvered
where sky abjures earth
where bodies—pearled—lie.

The year reveals:
so many mouths before you:
            filled with ash, circled in fear.
Mouths salty, praying, jammed,
sickened, breaking, twisted
by hate, muffled
by cloth            Shut
by bullet
Head to dust to pavement
pungent as fruit, the year

held its betrayals:
the man who assaults,
the man’s secrets and lies
the woman holding each child down
in water.

            In the alphabet my daughter writes
the year reverses, as she
tries to lie about his hands
on her            as we try
to uncover lies
to excise
images made in our minds

Lord take us                         heads from the bodies
far from regret                    lips frozen: torso
protect & keep us               clutching the child
as mouths shape                 a man & woman drop
beads words make             stories together

The year descends
into the underworld where mythos moves
sinuous to Orpheus who seeks
            his Eurydice
tries to rescue what has died
tries, but our eyes turn
too quickly to her: dark night, open
mouth            my daughter’s lost and angry
cries            so we cast
the year
back again.

Accretions of Pain and Goodness

for Katy Silliman

Days filled with beauty
Days filled with pain—
(put details here: typically three)

Days devoted to the child’s mouth:
warm imminence of sleep and dusk
(the little halo between her cries).

Days in foreign airports
body cushioning and pinioning,
sensations flashing
across bleak eyes at ticket counters.

Days consumed with laughter
(orange Kharman Ghia westbound)
your friend crouching with a camera at the Mission graveyard
the awareness of bones
(two lovers buried there; a fatal duel)
like salt rising.

Cold days (snap of Dostoyevsky on the tongue)
trudging back to your dorm
Days of subversion, innocence, trust.

Certainly stones popped back from the tires
your car veered closer to the pylons
to the median, to the wall.

Days you fought off illness, humiliation,
sweat-soaked sheets—

Irritant of wrong
your father’s death (put circumstances here)
the godless freight of angels
love that moves across your body
(ephemeral/ sweet)

Days when the mind winds its own gear
tuned to the panic station
when (detail detail detail)
you are windowless and imprint

Just template
pressed full and hot
across the earth’s particulars

Bones:           minions of sleep
Mirrors:       dull clack of self loosening
Dreams:       aftertaste of memory
Tragedy:     all teeth and eyeless eyes

Mother coiled in your backbone
Father fractal in the mind
The (I) untrammeled
trammeled now
and loosening:

endless duplications
this rent and visible body

Written in the Body

The words: black, incisive, printed
into my skin, on this—
my torso, my breasts—the wet
in my arms. Like Nefertiti, my neck
elongated with the complexity
of this: my story.

          The story my body tells
is the story she told that now
she cannot tell,
cannot tell
enclosed in the very wound
of her body. Like
these words my mother
dreamed—written all over me.
Tattoos enmeshed in black, in red,
veined in pink—
orchids flared.

The daughter in the mother
in the mother in the daughter:
mouths opening,
little girls opening—

See how the story turns
so naked
to you?

See it as the truth a mother
knows and dreams and shows
written in the body—
See it as what I could read
in the blunt calligraphy of her eyes.
See these strange markings
he leaves? Eviserated by word and deed
by this: the truth, and our story.

Read it, as they say, and weep.

The Dirt of Chimayo

for Valerie Martinez

          I am gold these afternoons
with my slick patina of use: lined and unlined.
Drive, heated, into the mystery of usury:
glittering icons
earthen floor—hands
at the cradle of my skull
          Prayers sent up
for the dead and forsaken:
the minute and blessed
that try and try
to work their way down into this pit of dirt
          this heaven

Heaven rocks the tongue back
          because it is continuous
Heaven heaves the world, leaves and greets, preens
          when necessary—
gets itchy on the skin—stains
like blackberry juice          the flesh
the eyes/          Heaven help me
It is all wattle and mud
like the Pueblo village sentient/ inspired
red like Georgia clay
or bloody like the Valley of Fire

It is coiled intestine, digestion
Heaven is eating and eaten
chewed from within
          How my heaven
wakes me with a pain I can’t name
gold filling the chest, the lungs
          gold spired
tunneling down
the refined and refiner
Heaven is black, layered
an archeology: earth
in fragments, its bones—
a faint and elderly pinprick like stars

a mastery sidelong slipping frantically down
to overlong glide:          Heaven
contained/ framed/ immense, eaten
roiling the great gems of the universe
in its mouth

Heaven is a small bucket of earth in the back room
church at Chimayo:
Look out: I'm going in.


Who has time for the sodden agony of angels?
They fall, like dimes, fattened gnats
from the heavens—
                     Notice the architecture of their wings
                     easy and hinge-less they open,
                     already plied by too many hands.

Who has time for their keening?

Like dying rabbits, they leave
trails of sound you recognize:
that old aching pressed up against the bedroom wall.

Don’t cry, someone might be saying,
don’t cry.

Who will catch these tufted, fleshy creatures
their beautiful dark hair floating
past us?

Who among you
will help me hold them?

A Forbidden Room

The way white cells grew, thrushed
through my father’s veins—
                                Art invigorates
all things: opens the closed
doors           opens the closed
valves:                 the heart
illuminates what it brings

closes what it cannot under
stand           cannot stand
so wall to cell to room           my father
remained quiet.           Shut – open – shut –
where in my father
were you?

                       Where my Father
are you that I call and call through
the heart’s chamber     to that closed room.
For some, the flesh is weak
for others, the hands mean.

Enclosed in the cell’s irrevocable motion
Bluebeard’s wall of secrets: art

initiates and clings. Raises the poem’s
head: a slick bloody cell,
artifice contained.

The Unrescued

Having painted them on my daughter’s bathroom ceiling,
I know that each of Van Gogh’s stars bears the deep
and penetrating blister of love.

Love stolen, mis-
begotten—love’s thick
chokehold—only that kind of layering
cuts the bountiful sky open.

Here: my Godawful, he must have thought.
Here: my Spiral Damned. Here among the taut
wind in the cypresses, the whole city
spread with toys for my agony.

See how the world keeps me here
among liars? Their persistent torment,
the scalpel of blue, spoked moon,
the way God presses me
under his thumbnail?

The stars, oh Lord, are painful.
Because they tells us we live among evil.
Because they impede on the thick fabric of night.
Because they are magnanimous, haunting.
They are not about safety, but isolation.
They are not about calm, but the factual

arrest night spreads in our minds. My God, the stars:
they eat and eat. Spread-eagled under them,
don’t we just know ourselves incomplete?

A coward couldn’t paint them.

Simile & Parable

Raiment of pink in the solid mirror; identity flattens the girls to too many leagues deep
in the toddler ballet class. Just past them, we peer in through glass at
these figments: pink and heated the limbs that flash. Like the overlapping windows
where I moved each Saturday through the fated labyrinth of New Orleans: by bus, taxi,
then trolley to the Garden District, to the abrupt barre and Miss Rae-Ann, doused in a
sick violet scent—her flesh powdery-thin, her surroundings lilac, deep
purple—everything bruised-in to
impress on us what is both beautiful and cruel. So I

turned and turned in the mirror with no regard for consciousness, only the beating,
beating of my wings against the glass. Only my body: knotted & neat, small &
contained that wanted out, that wanted in. Girls, dolled in pink, prepped and primped,
primed to reside in the violable body—to hold
every violence inside.

Little Diary of Cruelty

Poetry’s great body hums like bread
through my ears. Of course
you hurt me with your callous
inclusion of the exotic. Meaning
I whet my appetite. Meaning
I consider to consider. Breakneck

            through the airport
on tall boots with soundproof
soles, I foment disbelief—
given your almosts and
wheretofores, given
I am foundering. Given 21st century etiquette
has it that though we love
we turn our backs/ that
the cold bones: your meaning
cloaks and hides
what was open
before you.

Copyright © Mudlark 2002
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