you are in the diode archives fall 2009



Fifteen Balls of Feathers

Leaving most of the world unturned this early morning,
       I found whispered volumes in my lungs and in my ears.

What I fear most: madness, non-existence.

A hissing magnitude comes and un-houses me, only in the hours
                     when I am not who I am at all.

For what seems like fifteen minutes I stare at the word “nests.”
          It has too many S’s. It’s S heavy. It’s not a place for a bird.

          All the things I’ve gathered seem so unlikely now, these shoes
          and this packet of seeds with no soil to live in, no drops of good sky.

My mother’s psychic says, everyone essentially wants
the same thing as everyone else, a sense of belonging, a coming home.

I wanted to be a hummingbird.
    It made sense to long for rapid wings and the ability to hover always—

                      to be Huitzilopochtli taming my snakes.

Sometimes though, the thought exhausts me and
                  I want to be a slow horse, a tennis shoe.

Two years ago I listened to the rain on the radiator
                                           sizzle and ping into obscurity.
And I sat up in the no-account streetlight light and said,
                     No one has done anything to me.
And the drops kept coming like offerings in the obedient now.
                     That’s true. You have done all this to yourself.
           My covers were not constrictors, nor my walls.
My elaborate constructions
                     were built of stencils and explosive devices.
And in that minute I had made you all up.

Not only the lovers whose sickly pink lilies
                               I had wished into sunflowers,
           but also the whiptail lizards and the live oaks
that I suspended in my spine to keep me standing,

           even the first fist-bent indiscretion, even the few people I trust, gone
to a ghostly cofferdam of my own mind.

And shit, I thought.

If madness has come to make me a make-believer,
                                                        then make-believe me out.

But why would I want to be so dead-set,
                                           so hell-bent on the actual?

Why must you exist, so I can exist?

At seventeen in Darmstadt my love was a jester on the rails,
                      big blond in the bar car he grabbed me laughing and said,

No one will ever know me. His eyes like the blinking
                                                     red of a junction box signal.

Outside, the fields of white asparagus made my stomach wilt.
                      I was a black forest.

He was reading backward on the couchette
           while the world went by and I was
counting the faces of sunflowers. 1,753,285 yellow fools
thinking they’re going to go on forever.

What numbers can you count to? How high can you go?

Infinity was a difficult concept.
                                 It’s harder now.

In the Twilight Zone movie where the goblin tears the plane apart,
                     rips the wires out with his goblin hands, only one man
can see him.  Poor mad John Lithgow sweating

           in the pale orange glow of fantastic fear.

I like that one; the plane never goes down
           and everything’s creamy and eighties cool.

Flying to my home’s coast last month, I imagined that goblin
                     gymnastic-ing the leading edge of the plane’s wing.

Turbulence and a prayer caught coming up,
           I wanted so many things.

I took the window shade down, swallowed
                     my useless story of normal life and made a list
                     of things we should save our prayers for:

                                the earth
                                the end of war
                                and more, and more.

We landed. Wished to the ground by our turbojet engines and
                                navigating lights of redemption, of flight.

When we passed the thin rolled-paper between our lips
           by the Wixhausen train station, we thought how funny
           the word goods was. How it seemed like something out of
           old movies—Peter Lorre saying, Did you get the goods?

The train roared by and sometimes we felt like we were young.
                      Mostly we were high and felt as fast
                      and strong as that train.

Standing on the switch point, then jumping tie to tie,
           over the fishplate bolts, the dating nail, the spikes—
           life was going on too long already.

I can see her now with her hair piled up over a flannel shirt,
                      stumbling over German words and
                      drinking ouzo at the Greek restaurant.

           She’s not as dumb as she looks
           though she’s falling headfirst into
           the eternal misunderstanding
                      that trains don’t stop.

The very first time I really loved sex
           was the very first time I was happy to be a girl.

And also, found out there were two hearts in a human body.

           I stared down at my smooth stomach, its separate pounding
                       crawling out my bellybutton like a bulldozer.
           I thought perhaps I was a cow,
                       but with multiple hearts instead of stomachs.

                       (What a pleasure to have a dual dwelling
                                 of mysterious punctuated pulses!)

This sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed in the anatomy
                       of a fifteen year old, or rather it should be captured.

           Laying on a cream-colored bedspread overlooking
           the plaza, I felt I had swallowed a live bird whole.

           It did not give me wings, it laid me flat out for weeks.

           I couldn’t talk on the phone without shivers,
           and when I smiled, I dripped bird’s blood from my gums.

We are not speaking of love,
                      I birthed myself into an animal being.

The last person my friend slept with before she died
was some gorgeous stranger in Las Vegas.

We laughed about it for days
           until we didn’t and her invisible bird broke away.

           My heart’s just fine,
                      gravity is there though
                      keeping me on the lure of lowdown.

           My invisible birds are still intact,
                      I can open myself up and show you,
                      they have muscled deep
                                 into an actual nest of suspended song.

On the river Rhine, we watched fireworks and held tight
                      with our own airy explosives.

I was ready to be old.

The man on the riverboat told me to take it easy.
           His broad shoulders navigating the current.
His tongue seemed too large for his mouth,
           his teeth small like a fish’s teeth.

I was too young for the captain’s quarters,
                      but I demanded a woman’s walk,
                      a plank for the best of me.

Over the ledge I lobbed my good luck coin
           and quick, like light in a hurry,
it slipped beneath the waves.

That was fifteen years ago.
                      I’m still waiting for the river to stop right here—

                      me, standing on the watery extension of time.

The Aztecs believed that Huitzilopochtli’s
                      father was a ball of feathers.

This is true: a ball of feathers flew out of the sky and made his mother,
           Coatlicue, pregnant.

He went on to become a sun god. A fierce war god. Obsidian knife-fighter.
                      His siblings, the moon and the stars.

Once upon a time, a ball of feathers….

           Perhaps that is how all love comes,
           unexpected and on a blast of transmogrified air.

What we define as human tenderness troubles
                      each of us differently.

Legends wriggle up and we go on offering ourselves to the
                      day’s ordinary rituals.

Here is my sacrifice: my hummingbird landing in a stranger’s palm.

My mother gutted birds on the kitchen table
                                 and hung them up
                      with black nails in her studio.

Found in Limantour’s narrow spit of sand,
                      or on the upended railroad ties used for garden fences,
                      left there as gift from our white cat Smoke,

           tiny winged things pinned to pieces
           on the wall. Feathers for a long study of flight.

What lifts us up?

She painted what flies around us, captured and still dazzled
                      in the glittered air they lived so long in—

           they were crosses on the door, beasty angels of the jet stream.

           (More real than angels.)

If we define ourselves by what we study, our sordid obsessions,
           how do we hang ourselves up?

           There is no god in this bird; this bird is a god.
           Once upon a time, a ball of feathers . . .

One day after being in the hospital for eight days,
           my stepmom and I sat by the tall grass under the butterfly tree.
We had broken her out successfully from tubes and torment.
                      I was drinking gin at noon.

Going to the hospital is like going to the airport: everyone does it.
                      It’s best to make yourself flint and stir up the scary air.

           The nurse thought I was in college and I thought, No, I’m younger.
I’m not sorry that I don’t believe in god that way.
                                 I’m sorry about a lot of things, but not that.

One legend says that hummingbirds were sent up
           to find what was beyond the blue sky.

           (Can you imagine? Such a small thing going so far?)

           Turned out there was nothing beyond the blue sky.
           Which made the sky bluer and more holy than it had been before.

Past the lavender bushes and the big new buds of peonies,
                      an orange-tailed sun-god came to welcome her home.
                      Buzzing wings—within its trill there is suspension.

You know what I mean.

To lay one’s hand in another’s without fear
                      is a seemingly simple act. 

The ways we affirm our own existence—focus on the bright noise
           of traffic, the blaring music of your neighbor’s radio,
           the notes under the door,
           the, Do you know what I mean?

I have been lying awake listening to the street sounds,
           it pleases me. The stumbling humming humans
making their way in the dark.

I must know that I have not dreamt you,
                                            that most stories are at least half true.

In one story the birds taught a woman to weave,
                      in another they saved the whole world with faith.

I said to my mother after we came back from the doctor’s office,
                      that perhaps now I was finally turning into a bird.

We sat in the car, in the drugstore parking lot
                      and took our blood pressure over and over again
until we were laughing so hard the car shook.

Here’s the pulse. Let’s keep it forever.

At the base of a bird’s feather there is something called an afterfeather.
           The part that looks more like human hair in its wiry bristle.

           It sounds like afterthought or afterlife. It’s the part right after the calamus and the inferior umbilicus that goes into the bird’s body.

           I want one. What happens after-feather? After.

           After we have accomplished the tasks assigned to us,
                                            and eventually burst out of our names.

Don’t worry, I don’t believe that hummingbirds are in love with me,
                      no gods are ever in love with us.

The story goes that Huitzilopochtli cut off the head of his sister,
                      then tossed her to the sky to become the moon,
                      his other siblings tossed to become the stars.

(Because there must be a great vacancy and a great way to fill it.)

My stepmom is home now and she calls
                      to find out how I am.

I tell her I’m sorry, and she says, This is just the way my life is going to be.
           At the deli, the woman is so nice to me for no reason that I start to cry.

There are times when I suppose we’re supposed to rail against our lot,
                      other times, the moon and sun are siblings.

By the banks of the river, sitting on the fat white stones
                      beneath the hemlocks,

I watch her undress and slip into the current.
                      She looks young. My father is quiet and overhead
                      the sun makes a point to push us closer.

                      I have been memorizing things lately.           

This is not a unique story—
            what we have in our hands is an unsolvable thing.

It’s the passage that perplexes us,
                      this full weight that must take us down.

She knows we were watching her,
                      she likes to know we are there as she goes under.

In every story the hummingbird is able to pass between both worlds,
                      it’s the messenger, the winged balancer.

The migration of so many miles beyond our earthly reach
           and still they come to us.

Carving out this pocket of air we are allotted,
                      these small susurrations of wings from the other world, the afterworld,
           can keep me up at night, but pleasantly.

I know what you’re thinking:

Sometimes it’s the rain and the radiator,
sometimes it’s the sun god.

Mostly I think of the story where the hummingbird taught
                      a woman from the Tarascan tribe (my tribe) to weave.

                      How she saved the hummingbird through the drought,
                      how she saved the rainwater and sweetened it,
                      how, in turn, the bird taught her to weave
                      how, in turn, that weaving saved her life.  


Ada Limón’s first book, lucky wreck, was the winner of the Autumn House Poetry Prize, and her second book, This Big Fake World, was the winner of the Pearl Poetry Prize. She has received the Chicago Literary Award and fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her work has appeared in the Iowa Review, Subtropics, Barrow Street, The New Yorker, and others. She is the Creative Director, Advertising for Travel + Leisure. Her third book of poems, Sharks in the Rivers, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2010.