Vertical Answers

 At the 2013 Retreat closing ceremony,  Bhanu Kapil, writer of paradigm-shattering poetry and prose (and 2013 Retreat Small Group Facilitator; Mind Stretch and Desert Delight Contributor) shared her immense talent for creative alchemy by compiling, over the course of the week, words from the approximately 100 women in attendance. What resulted was “Vertical Answers,” a poem whose generative and synergistic energy clearly demonstrates that we, as women and as writers, are more than the sum of our parts, that our coming together makes possible such powerful syntheses and new awakenings.

2013 Retreat cropped virginia & pedernalBhanu explains:

“When they arrived at the desert, the women of AROHO answered two questions, taken from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers: ‘Where did you come from/how did you arrive?’ and, ‘What would you say if you could?’ Two completely blank index cards were returned, and I tried to include those too!”—Bhanu Kapil

Vertical (2):

A vector, a visa, the metallic scent of lakes.

I don’t come from a lake.  I come from a red desert with no plants./ I come from a fire that ran alongside the dark stream of forgetting./ I come from Queens.

Doing what I was not meant to do was how I arrived./ Can you hear me?/Sometimes I think it was a mistake being born to these parents./Say the truth.

I come from an Irish father and a German mother, both middle 40s, 5 other children, none less than 6 years older than I./ I come from five women./I come from the tops of the mesas and the depths of the seas./ I moved to L.A./ Every morning, I opened my mouth to the blankness, swallowed it, then lay down. /It was: enough.

Twenty years ago, I barely spoke.

 We never met./ But if I could./ I would sing the songs of my mother and her mother: the wild and beautiful stories they lost long ago.

I won’t fail again./Earth behavior, a valley of small rocks.  A face that opens then closes./[Like] a swan, / [like] shattered glass/ [like] the deepest listen of all.

I come from a family of strong women unappreciated by the men they loved./ From Maryland by way of northern Illinois./ From Irish immigrants who work the land./ By way of Los Angeles and the muck of a loved one’s needs./ From the last two and half years./ My eyes: a steep hill./ Above a river./ Where my grandmother loved me.  What she was to me.  As a child.

The last two and a half years have been very hard./ There were fusions I did not predict./ I wanted to bellow it out./ I wanted to know if it was true [/] in the absence of clarity and grace./ Perhaps you will not understand the rest.

I arrived feeling disheveled and tired, a little anxious./  I walked through./ Until./ Into./ A becoming.

A vector made visible: [by] passion, [by] awareness. On the backs of them all.  Is this real?  I do not know.

I come from the sea./ From the mountains where the wild onions grow./ From the orbit/ [of]my mother’s womb: [/]a dangerous territory/ wide and rushing/ [like] a great poet.  And I opened to that blankness/ [like] an ear.

I come from a frightened, broken-hearted singer woman who was stronger than she knew. / I come from a long line of Southerners./ From the skin of my teeth./I’m still arriving.

In love with the red rocks./ The Perseid meteor words./ Fields  of energy pouring into this point of focus.

[But also]: shame. / A lifetime of being diminished. / And the silence that followed that./ A place more deserty than this./ And the question I asked was this./ What would I say if I could not die?

For both of us./ I asked [:] To breathe./ To go./  To Italy.  To India.  To Hannibal, Mississippi.  To Northern New Hampshire, ending up, three months later in Taos, New Mexico, to become a writer.  To inhabit: a sense of reciprocity.

I didn’t know what the price of love would be.

So I want to be honest with myself. / Now./   I want to do something practical and overcome my fear./  I want to say what I am afraid to say.

Did I arrive too early?  Was I right?  Was I open?  All these years later.  Did I have the courage “to go with my grief?”

On a street in the Bronx.  On the burning streets behind Tiger Stadium.  On an urban street via the Sonora desert and migrating parents.  In the mossy woods.  On the South Side of Chicago. Beneath the red cliffs.  With the surprises that come with the sunrise.  Inside another human being.

I do not want to stay in the trenches any longer.

I came here to write. /To tell you something./ How?

I got here through an ad.  It was an ad in Poets and Writers magazine.  Like the darkness of an Irish bar long after closing.  Don’t offer me a drink.  I want: “even more.”

I dropped out of medical school.  That is how I got here.

I came from the Arabian desert, from Vermont, from a scream of milk.

I came from the last 9 to 5 job I ever hope to have.

I answered the call of my beloved.  I was tired.  I came here.  [That is] who I am.

[How will you live now?]

[How will you begin?]


[The words, with the exception of their syntax and arrangement, the linking bits in square brackets,

and two words – “vector” and visa” – are not mine.]

With gratitude to Diane Gilliam for permitting the use of her phrase “I come from” in cyclical form. 

Author: A Room of Her Own

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