Demonstration – a pirouette (video)

When I witness Spoken Word poets, Slam poets, artists, it is literally the best thing ever. For so many reasons. As a poet for a long time, since I was 10 years old, I know it takes so much practice, editing, and effort to get something ready to share on stage. Here is one such effort!

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A Demonstration…Pirouette

The way the words work
whisks a rhythm like an egg yolk
a dancer, bathed in gold
leaf, slimy covered moss
smothered stone
alive, ancient

since we’re talking about ancient:
which came first, the chicken or the egg?
It’s an egg this morning,
you don’t know, but I dropped one
as I wrote this it flowed out of me with iron-red skirts surrounded
drowned in fertility and
mis-matching the rhythm of sex
Always just out of step

Like the day it happened for the first time
and my childhood rhymes faltered and fell out of tune

I’d never written a poem about bleeding.
And I had written a lot of poems.

On and on came the other things, unexpected as a pair of wings that don’t fly
bigger boobs, hips, imbalanced body, lips
that stung with dreams and desires
that terrified me

me, once a ballerina
then a body betrayed in plain sight
Too many eyes alight on my frame
on too many soft places on top of too many rigid heart beats
swaying feet,
countermeasures and leaps
and landings
I gave up on dancing
when I was fifteen when a little boy in the audience yelled out in the theater,
“Look at her boobs bouncing! Her boobs!”
And he laughed and laughed while the music died inside me

But the measures and the mood persisted

They twisted me up through language, syllables,
songs arrested my imagination
throngs of people living under my skin
people I had never been or had yet to be
who shook the pages of poems bleeding out of me
I did not give up the pen.

Ink forms a chain
link after link
Words form the geography and contain
what is purely uncontainable
a claim
on my body.

Then how is it that white supremacists are entering my poetry?
Crawling in through my skin
my capillaries
and my cavities?
They live on flesh, like zombies,
but their spirits are dead.
So they alive-haunt me, in all the hiding places in history
the ones that hide in plain sight.

There’s a white girl out there in a body like mine
she raises her arm
and salutes white power
salutes the disease of dehumanization and subjugation
that come along with that stance.
At a glance, she puts me on her team.
Counts her blessings and bottles her fear like snake oil.
Here, it’s good for you.
a body coded, labeled, counted for causes of cruelty
a body that is a dancer
a body of poems
a body of unrestrained sexual energy
and a white woman’s body
some body who benefits from the privileges that white nationalists would kill to maintain
except they don’t have to
because when they look around
they assume we are on the same team
and while we say nothing, our bones asleep and our tongues dull
they march from the margins
they demand a violence that is unfathomable
in its brutality
unfathomable if it doesn’t cost you and your loved ones everything
because it takes everything

As a woman, a dancer, a writer, a human
I want to make you uncomfortable
The words I spin with now are aggressive, historical,
they are not only my own, but they are undeniable
that ancient being calls for justice and will not be silenced
as she dances
dressed in vines and calling for us to get in line
and loving us but screaming at our humanness
to stop taking its fucking time

The claims on my body are over, it’s done.
I say to those white terrorists,
Your hatred is a cautionary tale
and your time is up.

Humanity flows in me like my moon blood,
empathy and grief and my capacity to grow life inside me
to heal and to celebrate the broken
the thriving
the dancers and the rhythms that we dance to
the striving
for our utopia
the one where my liberation is bound together with yours
the one I will fight for even when I am nothing but a gleeful ghost pirouetting on their segregated graves
a dancer bathed in gold leaf, slimy covered moss, smothered stone.
But I am alive to help whisk the words like an egg yolk
a world
about to be born.


When My Older Sister Visits


I always pretend I have a sister

She’s just out of reach, out of touch
because she took a new job and lives far far away doing the most important things
that help all the people in the most important ways possible.
She’s a master task monster.
And I blame that for taking her far away from me.
So far away that she can’t let me know what she thinks of me,
of what I’ve become.
But she sees me, she knows.

I met my sister once.
That time on a breezy, spring green, grass covered hill
the granite boulders notched into steps
rising up and up and up above the valley floor.
At the top, a hill
a place where lanky limbed pines consulted each other for wisdom.
Their shadowy needles nodded in the wind, or they shake their heads, sighing.

I didn’t know she would be there, didn’t plan it.
A place where our eyes, hers and mine, would surrender to infinite depths of horizon.
I could see for miles.
We could see the rounded backs of giant emerald tortoises paused in thought
on their march across the dewy world.
Or so it seemed that way.
That ancient beasts, enormous, the size of hill tops had fallen asleep when the Earth was new.
–there– hunched in stoney shells
millenia of flora had crept up through cracks in the scutes
and transformed the armored backs into lush forests stitched with vines and ferns.
Their presence impenetrable and utterly lifelike
one after another cascading deeper through translucent veils of sky.
My sister and I

both understood at that instant, in a way we never had before,
our infinite mortality
the piercing reality of being consciously alive
with a knowledge of death

Here we are, a vigil held with primordial hills
who will one day wake
and find our entire existence
a brief and fascinating dream.

We didn’t have to speak of this.
In fact, I couldn’t see or hear her.
And I wonder if she felt my chest clench when I fell to my knees
when my fingers sunk into the damp dirt to grip the roots of grasses
the grasses that grow at the top of the world.

What did she think of my wet face, the gush of tears some kind of sign of something uncontrollable spilling out of me?

She couldn’t say.
But we both knew what we knew.
And I could breathe, gasp even, the relief
to be in the presence of her silence.

Years of my life I had berated her memory.
Unleashed my well-worn demons on her.
All the lost pieces to the puzzles.
All the lost pieces to the girl.
The unfinished me, the ideal person just out of my reach.

Why did you leave so early?
Before I knew anything? Before I felt safe to figure it out on my own?
Before I met you?

All those lost things you could have found

if you had lived.
I would be different

if you had lived.

But she only occupied an infant-sized space in this world for three months
before an accident happened, took away her breath, her little life
and changed everything.

I came along, shortly after, born into the wet, messy grief of my mother and father
who had just lost a child a year before.

I think Katie’s gift to me was grief.
A powerful loss that never allowed me to feel comfortable.
I always knew she had died. That she was dead.
But I always pretend I have a sister.

She, who came to all the realizations before me.
Racial injustice, legacies of colonial inequality, feminisms, class discrimination,
intersections of identities and communities and the land
love, compassion, and trauma that can be healed.

I imagine that she knew all these things before me,
and she’s just waiting and waiting to meet me again in the quiet.
To greet me there,
in the place where I accept silence.
A petal unfurling in the world
to be
to just be
to listen.

Listening as an act of work, a way to be in the world.
A step towards reconciliation.

I met her that one time
at the top of the world
as I imagined all the listening she’d been doing
and all the things she didn’t have to say.

She just exists, and she knows
that while I will always try be something essentially me and something essentially better
she knows I will be alright.

Urban Bliss

Ecstatic feeling of happiness. Urban bliss.
When the wind is soft and cool and the sunlight strong and steady.
Careening and winding down and through the narrow streets on the back of a motorcycle taxi.
Heat and freshness blend onto my skin as if by an enormous brush, streaking through my hair and down my arms.

Do I love this city? The way each moto driver and pedestrian navigates an intersection as an individual with practicality and grace, inducing the energy of a chaotic, rock-filled stream. No stop light is an obstacle big enough to contain the merging rumble of traffic. As horns sound off as introductions, interruptions, warnings, greetings,
light streams over the top of yellowing flats,
web-like cracks woven into the balcony columns where fresh-washed underwear and blouses flash in and out of the shade thrown by high-rises.

I strain to catch glimpses of aging cinemas, where the neon lights have been stripped, the facade left pock-marked with small iron posts revealing a spectral outline of an old marquee.
At eye level, in every direction, a ripple of sea-green fabric blowing in the wind. Sometimes the mesh-netting extends for stories and stories into the air, swaddling one construction project after another.

I’ve heard people speak of a time when the city was full of ponds,
small lakes that filled up with rain from the monsoons and bred fish and water vegetables.
Sand replaced water
concrete and rebar replaced aqua-culture.
Now there is the beautiful disappointment of green construction-netting.
As it billows and crests in the breeze, it speaks of the ocean.
And somehow, with people piloting their everyday errands, tasks, desires, I feel that our eyes seek this out.
This gentle beauty and ephemeral joy in motion.

The driver has two metallic teeth – one on each side of his mouth. When he sets me down at the Chinese Embassy, one of the few sidewalks with towering trees above me, he smiles a glittering, bejeweled crease in his face.
And he laughs because I speak very simple Khmer with him.
I just say thank you.
Does my bewildered smile reveal something about what I love about the city?

Yesterday I spoke at length with the taxi driver, though his questions and responses whipped past my ears and leaped into the arms of steady traffic, honking, the crunching of cast-off water bottles and take-away styrofoam.
I even described the journey of my past year, living in Australia, receiving a research grant, my curiosity about the past and memory, and moving to Phnom Penh.
Missing my family when I’m away and they all live in Idaho, USA.
I told him that I like it here.

I didn’t mean that I like it everyday. I don’t know anyone who likes it everyday in the city. It’s a life. People live and love and tell stories of who they meet along the way.
They ride home in the evening, maneuver through traffic, and finally rest,
maybe for just a little while that night.

And I don’t know how other people catch momentary happiness.
But I can’t be both electrified by the sun and city
and focus on my swollen, child-like tongue at the same time.

So today there was a small joy. And I did not speak.

Meditation on the Fear of Womanhood

I’m afraid to put my hand to the surface. To dip my fingertips underneath.

I pull back, and there is blood. Like the moment your menses begins and your fingers raised in front of your nose shine back at you: red. A breathtaking, shocking sheen but with a shadowy depth to it that rolls down one knuckle to the next knuckle with a trail of metallic smelling sweetness. Its from inside me, but I’m not dying.

I remember watching one dew drop of blood blossom from between my labia, out from my vagina when I was twelve years old. My thighs opened on either side, neck craned down and over to peer at and inside myself. My thoughts were incongruous. Dissonance bubbled around between my ears because of the two things: I was bleeding; I wasn’t hurt. Why? Even now, the way my mother answered me, hugged me, used our landline cordless phone to bring the news of my first period to her sisters and mother, the details of that scenario are blurry at best. The bead of blood from inside me was the greatest mystery. Who am I? What is this body if it isn’t me?

Blood curdles, bunches, and leaks out of me like sap from a tree trunk. And poems the same way. A word that puddles at the base of my ballpoint. It feels like I’m bleeding, but I can’t find the wound on my body. Sound curls inside of me like a rushing wind before the lightning strikes. But all I reveal is a word on a piece of paper. If I open my mouth for that word to jump in, I will only find ashes.

The mysteries of blood and ink characterized my childhood. I knew that sexual desire pooled and pulsed in that place below my belly button. And sometimes I thought that it bled out of me, because I could never write it down. Too great a mystery. Too shameful. To want. To want. To want.

Too much.

I never believed in auras, but I felt that words that went unwritten and the blood coiled in my low belly were signs of a woman who lived outside my skin. The boundaries of my body could not contain her.

I grew deeply afraid of myself.

I seconded the blame for this fear to a lack of will. A will that was stolen from me. I created the myths from the bones of grief that lived in my family.

My parents held their 3 month old daughter, out of breath, out of life, in the car on the way to the hospital. This was before me, and I came after the death. And two more of us followed. So there were four. And always one soul somewhere else, a sister soul. Was she an angel? Was she my guardian? Was she a sexless pure being meant to become one with God? She made my mother and father very sad. A sadness that was so foreign to me it could have been the deepest treacherous parts of the ocean where you can’t breathe because you aren’t a whale. Or maybe whales can’t even breathe down there? Or it could have been the parts of the galaxies that even my teachers didn’t know how to describe. Dark matter and the other side of a black hole. That mystery felt like a betrayal. So I picked up pieces and furrowed my eyebrows and said,

I can’t become this thing because you were supposed to be this thing. And your destiny was stolen, so you are haunting me and stealing mine. You are in every place before I discover it, telling me how slow I was to find it. You know why I fear confusion, and you hide yourself behind the victory of my self-destruction.” Self-interruption.

Years and years of overabundant mystery and blame have pooled in my consciousness. Words pulled farther and farther away from my humanness, became less relevant and more tightly wound. I have become more afraid to write. To let the words escape. To dip my fingers into depths and craft stories and violences from the blood. I’m faced with a dilemma. A challenge to remember deeply, to slip beneath the surface and sink into that soft, sweet electrified oil. Will the light reach me there? Will I know how to find my way back? Should I return?

Copyright Jessica Austin 2017

My Father’s Shoes

Father’s Shoes

My father has boots with a steel toe.
Under the stained skin
strains daily in elements
of dire snow and searing heat.
I rub my thumb over the rough patches
knock a knuckle
coerce the hollow clunk
to echo to my ears.

I would not lift my face from these books to slog through
the storms on those days.

He looks so tired.
The lines near his nose and eyes
appear like magic
like cracks in a sidewalk on a
rainy day
where I had never seen them before.

My father has thick gloves, tough overalls
the kind that wage war against the clothes dryer,
the buckle loops shriek in circles
metallic cacophony in the basement.

The noise didn’t bother me.
Even reading books all day.

Daddy works on days we don’t leave the house.
I don’t want him to be cold.
I enchant his boots.
That hard, unbreakable shell.
Cast my own spell
to give him a little warmth.
I know he wears the special socks
thick woven like a sweater.
I pull them up to my elbows sometimes.
But I want the boots to do this;
Give him a little warmth
for that menacing cold, winter.