Tirage Monthly: Issue Three
Emily Brandt • Christopher Dollard • Jessica Plante • Mihir Vatsa • Emily Anne
A median is a neutral ground
depending on who settled the city
in which you fight for your right
to blind pleasure, sunlight pricking your corneas
and jostling your optic nerve into believing
in hallucinogenic freedom. The mirror
says you’re doing a good enough job
which means your face will never tell you
how poorly your liver is functioning,
but isn’t that the party, isn’t that
the thrill? As a kid I stood on the edges
of cliffs and felt invincible
mortality, my eyes tricking me
into hoping a jump equals flight
but my cognition functioning enough
to feel the inexorability of gravity,
the endlessly intermittent if.
If daydreaming of flight was the forerunner
to measuring tiny powders with precision scales,
micrograms, not milligrams, then to be punched
in the face by a rainbow is perhaps
the most beautiful pain ever inflicted
on the self. But the body speaks otherwise,
speaks in burning noses and churning stomachs,
speaks in bruxism and palpitation,
speaks in auditory black holes in which
the sound of your voice repeats into nothingness,
a darkening smear on the highway, the car
imploding into a tree. But if we knew
that our sinus cavities are actually highly tuned
instruments of pressure, measuring
the cosmic importance of each breath
regardless if it’s composed entirely of smoke,
then we might realize that we’re only one step
away from those who die with needles in their arms,
and isn’t that the game, the rub?
The difference is a microscope or a telescope,
so this is your chance to look
at the Rings of Saturn in real time
or to peek underneath your own cellular structure
and watch your mitochondria, turbines
only one micrometer in diameter
that somehow play a small role in your orgasms
and in your sensation of terror.
We’ve used the past out of this old house,
though the past is its only possession.
A blue tarp services the roof with its foreign tongue
clicking in ripples. There is so much
in need of constant repair. The house shudders
when I open the door, come home to you and the infinite
cast-off and broken items: couches, books,
our windows that brighten in evening’s dark.
We walk on the tongue and groove
wood floors that reject the varnish. Porches
and lintels sag. The panes need to be washed.
When the first snow falls the world feels
like a violin slowly being dismantled. Putting
our bodies together seems nostalgic, a way
to release the demands of the slow gesture of living.
Inside, we are bones waiting to be found.
I come from a long line of women who collapse
into self, who know of potato peels and black shoes.
The eldest daughter born into distance, frailty,
and the shape made by a thumb and forefinger before the pinch.
I believe in the vaulted ceiling of nothingness and a bedroom
full of woe that circles back on itself, where worn
sheets and battery acid feed carnivorous memories.
One summer I used a ladder to escape. I battled
the jaws of that house, climbed through the skin
of a window and descended into night air painted
by the smells of chlorine and beer.
I come from random acts of isolation and carnival
tunes, from a woman who wrung chickens’
necks and told her granddaughter Zimno, Cold
placing hot bricks in bed before she climbed in.
I come from grocery bags filled with pignuts, broken
locks, and gypsy moths chewing a way through earth
as determined as any to get across, get done, get reborn.
I come from hands held high in ecstasy and a mother
obsessed with the white lengths of cloth that roll
from heaven, from winter, from God. Tell me what she
said about the glacier stuck in her eye. I will not
bury myself there. I will not hammer the edge of infinity
to extend it another inch. It is everywhere and I am a bit of nothing
lodged in matter. I come from nothing and to nothing I want to return.
WHICH MARY ARE YOU WEARING?
I used to know them all:
Lourdes, Medjugorje, Guadalupe,
and all of the mysteries and all of the stations,
all of it.
If I had a book, I know it would come
back quickly, us lining
up like pigeons
on a wire to kiss Christ’s feet,
the priest wiping each mouth
from the brass, and I’d think,
Don’t watch me, and wipe
my lips with my palms,
then cover my face like my mother
taught me. She used to cry in there,
then go home, put whole cloves
of garlic in the soup so they get soft as cake
in your mouth.
I plant my cloves
in November and the bulbs
are grown by June, blessed art thou,
gleaming white under the dirt,
the Lord is with thee,
gleaming white under the dirt.
HOW TO DIE IN THE WOODS
Can you relax in this house with dried evergreen boughs
pushing through the windows and scratching your skin?
It’s critical to bring the outside world in and your appliances
on camping trips—remember that kerosene starts beautiful fires!
The only way left to be radical in America
is to camp for decades until you are ready to die
and then to build your own funeral pyre
surrounded by stones and light it well.
You are the genius of the ash heap and everyone
else in the woods, all of the scavengers, will mourn.
POEM FOR A FUTURE BREAK-UP
There are wings printed on the side of your neck.
They don’t flap, nor help a bird fly.
You say it’s a sign only you understand.
Last summer, there was fish in the lake.
Today, we’re at a fall without water.
What’s increased is the distance that doesn’t show.
What’s stayed is an attempt at indifference.
I am thinking of the day the sky wasn’t blue.
The night the wind blew so hard the trees went bare.
I am thinking of you before you looked back.
The day we talked. The day we went out.
The day after that. And the day after that.
I’m thinking of the time spent in the library.
Connaught Place. The Northern Ridge.
Before empty texts and hesitant eyes.
Nobody in Papua has all their teeth, not past age 20 or so. Anybody with the money will get them pulled cleanly out; everyone else is left with stumps the color of coffee, or almond-shaped gaps edged in brown where two teeth used to meet. I floss like a madman when I’m over there, out of sheer terror. $15 at the market will get you a kilo of betel nuts and accouterments, plus a few handfuls of Wismilak cigarettes. (Say it out loud, wismilak. Cigarettes make an everyday talisman, hopefully dispelling evil today before bringing it down upon you later.) Betel nuts and the lime they’re chewed with might give you mouth cancer, if your lucky cigarettes don’t first, or they might kill parasites. They do give you a buzz like a cup of coffee, and fill your mouth with a bright red liquid, half spit and half juice, which stains your lips and tongue and whatever teeth the lime hasn’t eaten away yet. It’s like ermanent
lipstick, no need to reapply. Shake some lime from an empty Mountain Dew bottle, smear a little on a back molar – don’t let it touch your cheek! –bite down on the nut, and kiss your enamel goodbye. It’s bitter, yes, but so is espresso, and the high’s about the same. At home in America I can pour myself a glass of red after a trying day, knock back a few mojitos at happy hour on a Friday. In Papua, respectable people don’t drink, be they Muslim of Christian, ergo the moonshine’s crap, and the beer for tourists is worse. Farther west in the country, Java, Sumatra, and Tanah Toraja are all growing coffee that sells for $30/lb at Starbucks, special reserve roast, but that’s all for export; the coffee’s worse than the moonshine. And drug trafficking will land you in front of a
firing squad. So the only escape, when the mosquitoes are swarming, the power’s out, and it’s 90 degrees in the shade, is to chew. Keep going all day, like some people I interviewed, and you may as well have had the mojitos with a Red Bull chaser. The streets are all covered with what looks like spattered blood, from men spitting their betel juice as they ride by on their motors, painting the town red. I lived out there for six months, documenting an endangered local language, and I never stopped being startled by the scarlet streaks crisscrossing the blacktop.
My escape, after that first stint in the field, was Thailand. I met a man in Chiang Mai, an old Australian, retired minister, on vacation with his wife. ‘Life is cheap in Asia,’ he said. ‘And when you’re in Asia, your life is cheap.’ We were on a van tour of Doi Inthanon, visiting his-and-hers Buddhist stupas built for the king and queen on their 60th birthdays (long live the king!). Stupas began as burial mounds, three thousand years ago; now they hold the ashes of monks, their facades covered in gold leaf, filled with the faithful praying for reincarnation. Inside sits a huge jade Buddha, smiling beatifically, promising nothing. Heading home we stopped at a market run by local hill tribes. They used to grow opium; now the government pays them to grow vegetables instead, a more wholesome living. I bought some green tea, my drug of choice – cuts though the mental fog of a steamy June day. Luckily
customs didn’t notice.
What teeth the lime leaves, the cigarettes will take, but just from the men. I’ve only once seen a woman smoke, and never met a man who didn’t. In Java they smoke kretek, the tobacco cut with cloves. Indonesia of course being where cloves originated, with the Spice Islands over in Maluku Province. The kretek smell mouthwateringly good, like the pfeffernüsse my grandfather makes at Chrismas, spiced with those same cloves that the Dutch depopulated whole islands to get at, back when they grew nowhere else on earth. It was for these that Columbus tried to circumnavigate the globe: cloves and nutmeg and black pepper, thought to cure the plague and therefore worth their weight in gold. In Papua we’re closer to Maluku but there’s no kretek, just straight-up Garams and
Intros, 50 cents a pack. (Garam, ‘salt’, the quintessential preservative of the tropical world. Smoke and salt keep the mold off your food when there’s no electricity for a fridge. Garam in Hindi means ‘spicy’; chili peppers have the same effect. There’s a dissertation topic to be had in the cigarette names here.) Every day I breathe second-hand smoke from my landlady’s husband’s after-dinner Intro, smoke from the truck idling on the front lawn half an hour before driving off, smoke from the piles of garbage being burned by the side of the road. The smell of burning plastic brings me right back to Indonesia, riding a motorcycle taxi up the hill home. Five minutes down the road you reach the surrounding jungle, with a sign declaring it paru-paru kota, the lungs of the city. When the trash has smoldered out and the truck’s not home, the air smells unimaginably fresh.
Before Indonesia I went to Phnom Penh, where I ate tarantulas. Three of them, deep fried, with lemon-pepper dipping sauce. Later I heard you’re supposed to take the fangs off before you eat them, but I didn’t know that at the time. The guy who told me was appalled, said he hoped I had an iron stomach. I didn’t notice any problems. The tarantulas were delicious. You start with the legs – they’re thinner, crunchy, no need to think about what’s inside. The body is harder, since there is something inside, a sort of grainy paste like the dry rub left stuck on an unsauced rack of ribs just off the smoker. When you eat a predator whole, you eat its prey as well. I go mostly vegetarian in Papua; I’ve seen the sides of beef sitting out on a tarp in the market and the fish hanging by the side
of the road, and the tempeh’s just far more appealing. But now and again the chance comes up to eat off the top of the food chain in a way that isn’t possible in the US, where the closest we get to carnivores on the menu are free-range bug-eating chickens. In Java it was cobras; my teacher knew a guy and so two of us went with him to try it. They fish the snake out of the box with a stick and then hold it out for your approval, then chop off its head with a cleaver. We’ve all heard of the proverbial chicken running around with its head cut off; in this case it’s the head that continues to snap a good five minutes after the decapitation. What a way to go – bitten by a severed cobra head, undone by the undead. Three people, three snakes, three snapping heads making the garbage pail
dance on the floor, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the spectacle. Before we ate the meat, stir-fried with ginger and soy, we took shots of the blood and bile, supposed to make you virile and protect against illness. It just made me queasy. Two days after the tarantulas I got massive food poisoning from a sandwich I bought off a street vendor for a dollar near Angkor Wat and couldn’t leave the hotel bathroom all day. It’s not the venomous ones that’ll get you, it’s the pork.
Each day in Papua I rode a motorcycle taxi, an ojek, out to my language teacher’s house and then home again after the lesson. The ride was 7,000 rupiah each way, about 75 cents, but sometimes the driver would try to tell me 8,000, or refuse to give change for a ten. One afternoon on the road back the traffic slowed, and up ahead I saw a policeman in the street directing traffic, one lane at a time, around a man lying on the pavement. His motor was in the grass by a tree, its front wheel twisted off. He must have taken the curve too fast and spun out. There was no blood, just too-red spatters of betel. The next day I bought a helmet at the grocery store. It wouldn’t have passed inspection in the States, not a chance, but it’s worth twelve bucks.
Siem Reap is in the north of Cambodia, former ancient imperial capitol, home of Angkor Wat and lethal patè sandwiches. After the antibiotics had wiped out whatever invaders that baguette had planted in my gut and the sandwich was out of my system, I walked downtown and found one of those spas where you put your feet in a tank of water and swarms of tiny fish nibble off all the old skin. They wanted $3 for unlimited time, the best deal I’ve seen yet - I think my sitting there was good advertising. An afternoon downpour hit and I ended up sitting there for close on two hours, with the fish quietly eating at my toes. A little boy, maybe eleven years old, came up and sold me a painting of the Buddha’s-head temple, Bayon, for $8. His leg was missing, courtesy of a land mine, and he said he needed the money for schoolbooks. The Khmer Rouge were defeated 35 years ago and the last
remnants dissolved 20 years after that, but nobody’s yet picked up all their mines. Watch your step.
My last month in Papua, just after Thanksgiving, I came down with a fever, and when you get a fever in Papua you get your blood tested at the corner apotek. Quick prick to the finger and 15 minutes later they delivered the news: plasmodium vivax. Yup, you’ve got malaria. I’d been taking prophylaxis, six-dollar-a-pop Malarone pills, several times the cost of Larium but without the possible psychotic breaks. One pill each night before bed, religiously, but the resistant strain I’d heard about anecdotally had ignored that and taken up residence in my red blood cells and liver. The doctor took my blood pressure, explained the treatment in rapid-fire Indonesian (which given my fever, nausea, and mild state of panic I absorbed very little of), and prescribed two sets of pills. $12 for
the whole thing. When I got home and told my landlady, she offered me dinner and invited me to the neighbors’ for a wake. (Diabetic kidney failure, I think it was.) I went to sleep instead, let the pills poison the parasites currently tearing through my blood and revive in the morning. Or I tried, anyway, forced down some rice and veggies just to puke it back up later. That’s how you avoid malaria in Papua – if you makan nasi, eat plenty of rice, you won’t get sick. Bitter gourd helps too if you can stomach it. Most people catch it roughly annually, and the toll throughout the country is nearly 400 people. 400 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning in the US each year, another 400 each from salmonella, drowning in a car, and complications from psoriasis. It’s vivax
mostly, in this part of the world, no fun at all but not half as bad as falciparum, which is prevalent in sub-Saharan regions. I felt like crap for a week, then got better, then two weeks later relapsed. The buggers were hiding in my liver. My mother nearly had an aneurysm and texted every hour; my landlady just smiled and offered me more rice. I read all of Harry Potter and watched stupid rom coms and slept when I could, the abject terror of the nausea keeping me up at night and sheer grinding boredom knocking me out by day. The a/c made the fever bearable, except when the power would fail, usually around 2am, and I’d press myself against the cold tile floor and wake up shivering to vomit again. The bad nights alternated with good, in tune with the plasmodium’s 48-hour breeding cycle. Baby vivax, shitty night. And in the midst of it I daydreamed about prosciutto sandwiches and pesto spaghetti and soup dumplings, all the things that weren’t the fried tempeh and rice I’d been eating for months. It’s twisted. That’s how I roll.
Before I flew home I went to Borneo to see orangutans and go diving. The week before I got there a young boy was killed by a jellyfish at the beach. His family was on vacation from Japan; I met a couple who saw it happen. They stayed with his younger brother on the beach while someone drove him and his parents to the hospital. They said he rallied halfway there after someone gave him some coconut milk, but it was temporary. The younger brother cried the whole time. A month after I left rebels from the Philippines came down by boat and attacked Malaysian police in northeast Sabah over a land dispute. Back in 1878 somebody mistranslated the land treaty: the British North Borneo Company got ‘grant and cede’; the Sulu version said ‘lease’. Now the Philippino heirs to the Sulu sultanate want their leased land back, and went out to get it. 61 people shot, mortars, fighter jets,
ambushes, and military standoffs, 79 arrested, thousands deported, because 130 years ago some British clerk translated a word wrong. It comes back to bite you. Walking around Kuching I saw a tourist stumble on some uneven sidewalk; he yelled about how they should mark it with yellow paint. In the US we put up flashing danger signs so we won’t get sued; out there you watch your goddamn step. The diving off of Sabah was spectacular, teeming: nudibranchs like something Dali would hallucinate, fire coral that left a welt on my knee, camouflaged scorpionfish with venomous spines, whole schools of jackfish chased by whole schools of sharks. If you see a white-tipped shark sitting on the bottom, you can get down to its level and swim up to it slowly, making sure it
can see you so it isn’t startled. They’ll let you get awfully close. Bull sharks are more aggressive; don’t try that with them. I didn’t get to see a hammerhead, but I did see a jellyfish. It was exquisite.