haibun in the year of return
the ocean I cried drunkenly is my mother
you tipped your head sea spray slipped into your throat
I wanted to walk into the high tide– not to die, exactly,
but to feel better
the aftershocks of becoming
oscillating in the dark century –
two months later
on another coast, we gorge on salted shrimp and crab
legs I hate myself for judging the mom way
all the mothers clasp their toddlers’ fingers with wet wipes
and twist we go home where all
we want to do is drink water after water
in Ghana I saw sheets of sardines spread out to dry
along the road like metal earth shields deflecting
the equatorial light— reminded me of my mother
protecting us from ourselves at the end of the
dust road, waving with fingers the size of continents for
me to keep walking, that she’d meet me on the other—
I remember you kept losing a shoe to the water
as she chased us up the beach, back toward the
safety net of palms and as we scuttled you
do you love me? are
do you remember?
I ask, my hands
still smelling like Old Bay and shrimp shells, but
you shake your head no.
a better question would be,
how? though nothing I summon would explain the
sequence of events nor fully recollect the ships,
the planes, all the near-death twisted from our finger-
tips before being released from mother’s grip.
I can’t fathom it I mean I cannot
plumb this kind of depth I’m six feet under
the surface and still not sure
what my mother means.
there are days
rage burns a hole through both hands.
I hear my descendants more loudly these
days, asking for answers. one use of a
uterus: anger machine, hot fist in my belly.
there will be a day I’ll have to explain where I was,
which insects I sheltered, what I did with my money.
my chest a witness. in the documentary they forgave
the murderer – something something religion
but all I could pull up after were cramping sobs,
three-day panic – a kind of birth. in slow motion
my anxiety is actually grief. suddenly I can’t
imagine a comfort other than saltwater.
these days bumblebees have become
precious – sweet fumblers of fertility
bobbing around my tomato flowers.
no, I didn’t ask to be angry. yes, I knew
it would settle along my bones and under
my spleen. yes, in those days medicine was
lavender steam, mugs of tea, and begging
forgiveness of the future. my congested bloodbag.
I don’t want to be a murderer but I still
pay taxes. now my palms are windows.
I plunge them into the bowl of my pelvis.
there are days I stir and stir and never cool.
the forest fire of family trees
the problem is we don’t know
that many ways of doing things
for instance, neither of us can
fry an egg without public radio
chattering in our ears, & there
are worse blueprints for a home,
like what my grandfather taught
my uncle. we think we know
people until we see the way
they eat a banana, totally unlike
how we peel and devour the fruit,
only instead of eating a banana
it’s something way bigger,
like loving another person.
as the snowflakes get thicker
I hear myself say exactly
what my mother would say
when faced with this same
situation, and I say it
in her voice. it’s not that I’m
ashamed to share all my DNA
and most of my life with these
two people, it’s just that I worry.
it’s not easy to recognize
the odor of toxins you
release, day after day,
which, when rearranged,
spells door. you cross
the threshold & think it’s just
the cologne of the world,
not the smoke in your
blood, not grass burning
from the little fires ignited
by your feet.
Irène P. Mathieu (she/her) is a pediatrician and writer. She is the author of Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019), orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), and the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Narrative, Boston Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Callaloo, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from Fulbright, Callaloo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia.