Raman took his first photograph at the age of eight. Out of an oblong window in northern Kathmandu looking out on land that had turned to marsh in the monsoon rains, peopled with frogs and the young of mosquitoes. From the top left corner of the frame protruded the jagged edge of a tin roof and in the bottom right, a fat frog, resplendent green, sat on a solitary red brick rising from the waters like an island. In between, there were sharp blades of grass and the surface of the standing water, black with fine grainy mosquitoes.
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Not far from where I live is a hill that was cut into by the moving water of a creek. Eroded this way, all that’s left of it is a broken wall of earth that contains old roots and pebbles woven together and exposed. Seen from a distance, it is only a rise of raw earth. But up close it is something wonderful, a small cliff dwelling that looks almost as intricate and well-made as those the Anasazi left behind when they vanished mysteriously centuries ago. This hill is a place that could be the starry skies of night turned inward into the thousand round holes where solitary bees have lived and died. It is a hill of tunneling rooms. At the mouths of some of the excavations, half-circles of clay beetle out like awnings shading a doorway. It is earth that was turned to clay in the mouths of the bees and spit out as they mined deeper into their dwelling places.
This place where the bees reside is at an angle safe from rain. It faces the southern sun. It is a warm and intelligent architecture of memory, learned by whatever memory lives in the blood. Many of the holes still contain the gold husks of dead bees, their faces dry and gone, their flat eyes gazing out from death’s land toward the other uninhabited half of the hill that is across the creek from these catacombs.
We’ve gathered at the railway.
Our nerve endings have faded, the gamut of our sensations become just two poles, yes or no: Can you feel that?
No. Not much anymore, said while testing a point against the pillow of thumb, of palm, against corded wrists. Glass to skin. Needle to skin. The way flesh puckers before it’s punctured. But nothing coursing beneath it: a riverbed of fissured earth.
We’re waiting on the tracks that skirt Bangkok. The rhythm on the rails is a heartbeat and it pummels through us. We lay on the ground to better catch the pounding, the low moan of a horn. We stand with backs stretched, shudder pleasantly like a man urinating. We hum train songs, skip on the crossties, stack gravel into mausoleums for diminutive kings. We are listless, parched, and waiting for the arrival, finally, of a man who comes tripping across the dawn expanse. Distant roosters rouse the moment. A nursery rhyme ripples through us:
Make way! Give way! How many birds can we feed today?
for my mother
when you could still smell the green on me
back when your looking old was new
we ran to the dark churchyard
and under God’s empty bell.
The dimmed silver held us in its huddle.
Its walls refused
the lawn’s stichic hieroglyphics.
It was colder than moon.
Together we pushed its great weight up
Its round rim could only mouth mother
to the night.
A lark then.
An absent cloud.
The bell with its tonsil out.
The three of us unable to make a sound.
This poem appeared in Indiana Review 31.1, Summer 2009.
Emily Corwin (Poetry Editor): I have always loved the attention to music and the fresh imagery in Stacy Gnall’s work, particularly in “Trespass.” This poem embodies Gnall’s magic, the spell-like quality of lines such as “It was colder than moon/…Its round rim could only mouth mother to the night.” There is such tenderness in this poem, tenderness beneath the dark churchyard and God’s empty bell—a closeness with the mother, for whom the poem is dedicated, the mother who trespasses in the churchyard, who raises the bell with her daughter.
Stacy Gnall is the author of Heart First into the Forest (Alice James Books, 2011). She holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California and is also a graduate of the University of Alabama’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Sarah Lawrence College. Her most recent poems are either published or forthcoming from Colorado Review, New American Writing, Crazyhorse, and Another Chicago Magazine.
A Tale of Two Cities
The word of my city is that word from of old.
— Walt Whitman, “Mannahatta”
As a child I fell under the spell of two great cities. Until November of 1960, when we left Cuba for good, Havana was my home. Never gray except in winter when a norther blew through it, it was almost always happy and clear, the antithesis of Dickens’ soulless London or Victor Hugo’s sordid Paris. Havana in those days might have had its terrors and sorrows, but it was, above all, a city of activity and hope. It was, besides, the place that first instilled in me an interest in human beings and sparked a curiosity for the physical world—the sun, the sea, the bay—of which it was so much a part. Read more…