Lee Ann Roripaugh

 

 


The Desire for Space Travel Is a Metaphor for Escape

 

Christmas Eve, and how deliciously soft-shell crab
crackled in my mouth at the San Francisco sushi joint
where dishes circled on a mechanical conveyor belt
like a school of Cubist fish—price determined by size,
color, and shape of plate, customers lunging up to strike
at what looked tasty.  I missed you, so I tried to remember
the delicate grit of breading, shell melting in a brittle
sizzle and flake against the teeth like phyllo pastry,
vinegary tang of Ponzu sauce, then the tender-
bellied flesh of stomach crumbling across my tongue
in a gray, sweet creamy paste.  I wanted to tell you how,
stepping outside afterwards, the cool astringent pepper
of eucalyptus scoured the silvery night air into a high,
bright polish, how Christmas lights twittered in palm trees
along deserted streets where the only other people
were a shy, smiling transvestite with glitter eyeshadow,
and a Chinese man clopping haphazardly down the street
on stilts, shouting Happy, happy, happy! over and over.

But then again, maybe I have it all wrong.  Brillat-Savarin,
the gourmet, once said, Truth only exists in the first bite,
so maybe it was all nothing more than perception, reshaped
by time, desire, language, and whimsy—a simulacra
of soft-shell crab, eucalyptus, a pretty transvestite, stilts,
and the echoing, insistent cries of Happy, happy, happy!

Or maybe it isn't even simulacra so much as it's
evolution, or distillation—like the systematic decay
of radio waves, or light from a star in another galaxy,
radiating away and away, like ripples in a pond—so that,
in the end, I have to ask myself which is more real . . .
the bit of wave that splashes across my toe on the shore,
or the original, distant, and ultimately unknowable source?
Was it your voice crackling on the line from static, a bad
connection, telling me on the phone you were exhausted
by all the coming and going, or was it the dizzying intake
of breath, the instinctive inhalation, smelling each other,
in that hair's-breadth moment before our first kiss?

Days later, unable to sleep on the red-eye home, I opened
an old fortune cookie forgotten in my carry-on.  It read,
The desire for space travel is a metaphor for escape,
and I wondered what it was, exactly, I wished to escape:
Perhaps the circular, rubber-band pressures of gravity
and orbit?  Quotidian drone of flossing and taking out trash?
Or what about the obsessive, shark-like circle and churn
of my own thoughts, which even the glossy onyx serenity
of space travel wouldn't be able to smooth into silence?

And isn't it possible that rocket science is somewhat
overrated?  All that preposterous skyward catapulting
just to quaver precariously in the quiet of the cosmos
and chug stalwartly along—space capsule reduced
to a primitive speck of protozoa.  And what does
primitive mean, really?  What to make of the terrible
purity of jellyfish, for example?  No bones or brains,
eyes or ears.  Certainly no heart.  Just translucence,
the flimsy negligee of its astonished body a shimmering
round "oh" flushing the synovial fluid of the ocean
through itself—a pellucid scrim of phlegm hanging
in the balance between antonyms, delicate ampersand
between positive and negative, yes and no.

Or what about the underrated luster of silverfish?
Like a ruptured spray of sparks from a welder's torch,
they scatter from light, scuttling deep into cracks
and crevices, where they can remain sequestered
an entire year without food—too slippery and quick
to catch.  Once I briefly touched one—cool soft body
liquid, ephemeral as mercury.  It wriggled free, marked
me with a faint pearled dusting of scales spangling
the tip of my finger like the powdered glide of frosted
eyeshadow.  Was this the same way you and I marked
one another?  Secretly, and under cover of night?

(How soft, your flushed cheek brushing against mine,
your silvery wetness gleaming crushed pearls against
my fingers—evoking the whispered, clandestine pre-dawn
comings and goings of Heian courtiers behind rice-paper
screens, a game of smoke and mirrors, leaving only traces
of perfumed incense limning silk kimono sleeves,
a calligraphied "morning after" poem arriving by courier.)

And isn't it strange to think silverfish fossils date back
390-million years?  Instinctive survivors, they'll eat holes
through these very words—disrupting syntax, reshaping
meaning—yet they never evolve, and remain incapable
of metamorphosis, shy of light, intolerant of scrutiny.
Wingless anachronisms, do they ever wish they could fly?

New Year's Eve slipped into Near Year's Day, the fortune
cookie stale but I ate it anyway, and the plane began
its descent—guided down by flashing tower lights, blinking
semaphore of flares, glow-in-the-dark strips illuminating
the runway.  It seemed the plane was a clattering metal
insect, the airport a hot neoned flower—cars tiny dark mites
furiously inching along below in regimented swarms.  I thought
of how insects can see ultraviolet, and how some flowers
have petals tattooed with ultraviolet-reflecting honey guides
to beacon the insects down into sweetness and gluttony.

Two hours and two state lines home from the airport.
I knew you wouldn't be there waiting—one leg flung
outside the covers, sleep-tousled, the porch light on
and bedroom door ajar.  It was cold and clear, an infinity
of night broken only by glinting studs of stars piercing
an expansive sky.  Suddenly, two brontosaurs loomed up
on the
side of the deserted Nebraska interstate: life-size,
garnished in gold Christmas twinkle lights, slender necks
entwined, a red heart emblazoned above their heads.
They were corny and improbable, oblivious to the fact
of their own extinction.  Tell me . . . how, exactly,
should I have read these signs, if they even were signs?

 

 

 

Marvelous Things

 

A hairy caterpillar, silvery-
plumed like a Persian
cat's tail, inching along in the ivy

on pudgy, suction-
cup feet, with eyes like glassy black pinheads.
A perfectly ripe

white-flesh nectarine one slices into
four cold sweet sections
and eats standing over the kitchen sink—

pit-stained flesh breaking
easily from the seed, juice running down
the chin and dribbling

into the webby clefts of one's fingers.
A mayfly, just at
the moment of splitting open the seam

of its former shell
and pulling itself free from its old skin,
steps into one's hand—

freshly-oiled golden and brown scales gleaming
like the patterns in
a Navajo blanket—so that the first

thing its feet will touch
at the moment of its transformation
is one's skin.  Brubeck's

Blue Rondo a la Turk in the morning
with peppermint tea.
The scree of insect song scrimshawed into

the night's horizon:
the cicadas' sandy rhythmic shaking
like cocktail shakers

and maracas; the katydids scratching
salsa on wooden
cabasas; and the short sharp whistle spurts

of crickets, also
sometimes like the soft jingling of sleigh bells.
A pair of rabbits

that come loping down one's sidewalk in moon-
light after midnight.
The Miller Moth who lands on one's finger—

a merest nudge of
velvety thorax above the knuckle-
bone to adorn one

like an exquisitely coppersmithed ring—
colored like bright new
pennies decorated with shimmery

flecks of beaten gold
and maroon circles stamped in the center
of each powdered wing.

Baby garter snakes in a tangled heap
drowsily sunning
themselves in the front garden—their braided

bodies thin as shoe-
laces, intertwined in an intricate
knot work.  One by one,

they disentangle
themselves, with a fluttering of red tongues,
and slip liquidly

beneath the porch steps.  Raw honey, waxy
gold and honeycombed,
stirred in spooned dollops into peach green tea,

then there's a tickle
and buzz at one's lip, the discovery
of the tiniest

of bees, with miniature bands of striping,
a translucent fury
of wings.  Reanimated by steam heat

and boiling water,
awakened from sweetness, and even though
it seems almost too

incredible to be true, it shakes off
the damp from its wings
and flies away into a whole new life—

miles from the petty
tyrannies of the apiary, and free
to suckle flowers.

 

 

 

Chambered Nautilus

 

Today, the movers come
                                   
to empty out my rooms.
They take away boxes

and furniture, holding them
aloft—like leaf-cutter ants
transporting deconstructed

fragments of tree leaves, fragrant pink
curls of flower petals, back home
to their nest for cultivation
in mossy compost gardens filled

with edible fungus.  Keys returned,
the last apartment cleaned and sealed shut,
the new apartment is a puzzle
I reassemble—from old scrap parts,
the accumulated detritus

from all my past selves—into something that's
new and hopeful, that denies the defects,
or at least disguises them as being
something else, that takes the worn familiar
tiles and, like the turning transformation
of a kaleidoscope, clicks them all back

into place in some type of arbitrary
mosaic.  If I'm lucky, as in Howard's End,
my belongings fit like fingers in a glove
and I can pretend this transient chamber's home,
but if not, I pretend I'm on a downward
spiral toward genteel squalor in a series
of rented Paris rooms, like a character

in a Jean Rhys novel, where even squalor seems
to hold a tired kind of glamour wedged, as it is,
within a dream-like cycle of sex and absinthe.
It's a kind of compulsion, this constant moving
every few years, leaving behind old apartments
like abandoned shells when they start to grate or chafe
from being filled with too many secrets—secrets
that rub themselves raw up against the walls, scraping

off the paint and spackle, clogging up the old plumbing,
and making the ceiling buckle in a headachy
spider's web of fractures and cracks.  When a structure seems
unsafe I condemn it, seal it, lock it, and move on
through a rote progression of increasingly larger
chambers until the architecture becomes too top-
heavy, and the empty chambers must be flushed and filled
with hot air, blown through a straw-like siphuncle, in order
for the entire operation to remain upright

and afloat.  Sometimes I think it's all a metaphor for
memory: its unwieldy, constructed carapaces
of history and nostalgia lined with pearl.  Other times,
looking out the wider operculum of a new front
window, I think it's all a fantasy of space travel,
even though I'm never really sure where, exactly,
I think I'm going—although the cold, dark, and quiet deep
preferred by the shy and enigmatic nautilus is,
I suppose, an inner if not an outer space.  What do
they see down there with their primitive lens-less eyes—making

their images through tricks of light like old, pinhole cameras?
Do they see the coelacanth and recognize a stranger
from their past—chambers rewinding, pinwheeling backwards into
prehistory like reel-to-reel tapes clattering on their spools?
Do they even really see at all?  I take my glasses off,
look out from my new front window onto the unfamiliar
street below and feel the blur: camera obscura, velvet
photographer's cape, wooden box steeped in sepia after-
images like a tea-stained cup that holds the tint and flavor
of past leaves.  I wonder if what the nautilus sees is right-
side up or upside down.  Who's to decide the difference?

And what can possibly ever come of all this tiresome spiraling?