My mother smoked a cigarette with the lighted end
inside her mouth. I would watch her as she sat
on a stool doing the day’s wash. She blew
a constant stream of smoke from the left side of her lips,
while her hands made soap suds billow and burst.
In our village not known for unusual things, it was
short of a miracle, the ember not dying
in her mouth and her palate not getting burned.
Style is the perfection of design, a habit
of usage that strives after elegance,
by which a language is renewed to bridge
desire and idiom, not to singe the text that pushes
into the air but to clarify the warm edges.
Fine rhythm, no spittle adrift or, if a landscape,
no embellishments to spoil the perspective.
Nature rendered into a convincing craft makes
tension bloom from puffs and billows as in
a night song rain drips from branches over a lagoon.
It’s not survival that is the leitmotif, but a solitude
in working out a peace of mind or a pattern
of units above the dense imagery, so that
to suffer is to suffer wherever the place,
to love always has an ending. What is forever
but a chance encounter with the sublime
while the here and now, immersed in soapy water,
is erasable, therefore improvable.
Mother did not have to choose. To be where one suffers
is to suffer everywhere, so to get somewhere
you must construct a fable of pain to soothe the ache.
Mother would spit the cigarette on the grass and start
a new one. The art is in getting used to it,
its essentials and fringes, its common moves
toward meaning that unclutters the mind,
fire’s danger considered. When the breathing normalized
there might be a tune in her head or a frenzy
in her hands, every squeeze on clothes a validation
of her history, the ragtag ghost army of it,
the soap that stings the eyes and washes away the tears
of cold neglect. Style is not about freedom.
The poem first appeared in Things Happen. Poems 2012
(University of Santo Tomas Publishing, 2014).
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