Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards 2013, Regional Silver Key
How can I explain the role of writing in my life? Writing is like what reading is to Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird: natural, unconscious, without translation. Breathing. Words just spill out, even when I don’t have time or inclination. I’ll pause during calculus homework, imagining a poem about limits at infinity. I’ll be in a serious conversation, and a foggy light bulb of stories will sputter in my thoughts. I’ll dive for a pen. Spear it into a piece of napkin. And dig.
Writing isn’t just an extra bodily function … it’s my mind’s way of explaining the world. I’ll be staring at raindrops on my sweater, thinking, “A bright sea of raindrops. No, beads of raindrops. Not bright, either, because lemons and clown’s noses are bright.” When my synesthesia kicks in, I’ll realize that the letters need the right colors and harmonies. “These drops are dainty D Major, austerely elegant… silver. Silver beads of raindrops.” Then, maybe I’ll write a poem about it, maybe I’ll try publishing it, maybe I won’t. The important thing is that I’ve put my thoughts into words that fit, that know. That’s all I need.
Each of my works is an organic part of me, and has been so finely restructured that it’s hard to just choose a few for portfolios. When I had to select a few works for this portfolio, it finally came down to motif. I chose a motif that was both personally meaningful thick in my writing canon. I looked through all of my works, and saw—
Death. In almost half of my poetry and stories, someone was facing the boundary between the known and the mysterious infinite. Grief was growing verdant. This motif didn’t grow redundant, because death is examined from so many angles, like a single entity examined through an assortment of lenses. Moreover, I have been well acquainted with death. I’ve lost one grandmother to a car accident, another to suicide, and have comforted my friends through dozens of deaths. I had to get those phone call, sit through funerals, wonder where God was. I write to release my bulging thoughts.
I want that someone to read through my portfolio and see death from the standpoint of the griever, from the outsider, from the philosopher, from the avenger, from a suicidal teenager’s bitter joy, from the perspective of hope. Through these lenses, I want that someone to ultimately experience the real weight of death, grief, and wonder. I want an entire spectrum of emotions to firework while he sits and digs through words. I want him to turn my meanings over and over again in the laboratory of mind. As Stephen King would say— what I really want is your heart. I want the idea of death to grind the deepest nerves of your soul apart like it does in mine.
So take your seat in the Grim Theater. I’m giving you one subject, a kaleidoscope of emotions, and eight lenses. Go dig.
Manolo, He Loves Fires
Manolo. They say he loves fires. Call him at the slightest sign of a blaze, and he’ll be there, squeaking and clumping around in his rubbery yellow suit. He sings “Seize the Day” as he wields the thick python of a hose (“I see my vision BUUURRRN, I feel my MEM’ries fade with TIIIME”), the deep-sea tones swelling above roaring smoke and cracking wood. You see the living flames run their fingers over a house, Manolo’s huge form, and his broad, black face shining with sweat. You hear the terrible growls and snaps of fire eating up walls, pianos, books, bedsheets, soccer trophies, photo albums, childhood toys, sweetheart’s letters, family heirlooms— and in the midst of it all, Manolo’s fruity bass. (“SEIZE the DAYYY or DIE re-GRETT-ing the TIME you LOST, it’s em-PTYY, so cold, without you here”)
Manolo is a crazy man. But we let him stay in the neighborhood because we need a firefighter. Who wouldn’t think that he was crazy, singing at the gaping mouth of howling Hell?
Still, some people don’t think he’s completely crazy. Not his entire life, at least. Mr. Riviera says that Manolo lost his wife five years ago. Never spent time with her. Always out drinking. Manolo thought his wife was pretty and good, but never thought that he would see her pretty, good face staring dead into his headlights the night she was killed in a fire. He could barely recognize her through the blistered burns; it was that bad. (“So WHAT IF I NEVER HOOOOLD YOU, YE-AH-AH-AH, or KISS your lips a-GAIN, WO-AH-AH-AH”) Them darn old gas stoves. They go haywire and light things up, but this here neighborhood’s too poor to afford anything else.
I passed him as he was damping down a fire one day. (“Will YOU, take a journey to-NIGHHHT, follow me PAST the walls of DEAATH?”) His shining black face flicked on, grinning, as he waved at me. “I got that fire fast,” he says. “I got that fire good.” He’s smiling, but it was what we call a sad smile— lemonade spiked with alcohol. I patted his yellow-shrouded arm. I wanted to say something— something to help the snarling, tangled mess of trauma, regret, and his poor, childlike penance— but I couldn’t. “You did a good job, Manolo,” I said, and left.
Synesthesia: A Condition in Which One Type of Stimulation Evokes The Sensation of Another
Lavender. If I had to choose one word to describe Her, that would be it. She liked to infuse Her tea with drops of lavender, urging me to drink the alien concoction (“It’s not Hamlet poison, Robert”.) Her clothing staple was a lavender wrap, as melancholy and weightless as a piece of celestial sadness dropped out of the sky.
After We got married, the scent of Our bed sheets and tablecloths always had a purple hint of elusive lavender. And She had the most incredible eyes. Lavender eyes. Light violet irises streaked with amethyst, belonging to a faery or a sea elf.
And Her demeanor… Her walk… voice… humor… were lavender. Almost cheerful, yet tinged with gravity, a translucent heliotrope. Her speech was lavender— serene elegance lowering everyone else, whether he be the bar buffoon or a Princeton-bred lawyer, to plebian. She bore some invisible lavender mist— some inconsolable elation, some heartsore wonder that both enchanted and almost frightened those around Her.
But the train accident smashed that ethereal being like books crushing a butterfly.
I was not there. I had to get the phone call. I had to see Her lie in a grave like a dried lavender stalk, Her somber charisma still tangible. I sat outside the funeral chapel hours after the service ended, trying to watch lavenders grow over her grave.
I remarried. I will admit to it. Sometimes, the hole in your life gapes to such a titan magnitude that you will do anything to close the screaming fissure. Like pressing a Band-Aid over a blistering burn. I remarried, and we loved each other.
But she wasn’t lavender.
Sometimes, I will walk past a candle shop or the gardening department, and sniff a scent or glimpse a color. Then they rush back at me. The memories. Lavender memories. Memories sweet to the point of pain, gushing from the crevice I had stuffed them in after the Death. I can feel the grip of smoothbeautifulLy folded arms and hear the sound of Her nocturne voice rambling summer’s green trance,
a stranded star, and life)imaginable mysteries.
the magnificent honesty of space
I don’t think It is infidelity. It is purely beautiful and sad at the same time. Lavender.
The black spot of an ant
The black ink spot of an ant crawled
over the horizon of my homework,
and I attempted murder within
the eggshell walls of stationary,
folding pages to his doom.
What must have gone through his mind—
or anyone’s mind—
as his papercosm came crumpling down upon him:
I played God
to the unfortunate businessman
in a black suit—
and his entire history,
from waxen egg to a worker with duties
and a family
(he had, after all,
just gone an increment too far
while searching for
a forbidden grain of sucrose)
well, all of that— suddenly
into a halt
when the parchment walls of his existence
came avalanching in
and I cut the thread
of blind Atropos,
and the judgment call
of two sheets of graph paper
in the cruel, cynical pressure of delicacies.
The flailing car keys
are jingling glitter suspended midair
before they make clattering then crunching contact
with my glass-cold fingers. I stare at her.
Slippery fear shoots through my nerves.
She clucks her tongue:
— “You can’t drive?”—
I finger that statement for a moment, thinking about how the day Daddy planned to buy me a driver’s ed book was the day Tom called from the ER and we rushed to see him higher than the Empire State and I think of how I’ve been trying to hide that plot twist, that secret of a brother and slender blades and bright syringes, that secret of a mother gone INSAnE from burying a twelve year old baby, behind my back like how you would hide a birthday cake before a surprise party, except that this secret isn’t beautiful and sweet as icing; it is something I sometimes just want to ride far, far away from—
“No,” I say. “I
Alchemy of Dust to Dust