Excerpts from Letters For & Against Sara
Sara says, it’s human nature to stand in the middle of things
For four years, I lived among sand dunes, slid through
white particles that parted like Jello, like snow,
like the ball cages in the playground at McDonalds.
I clothed myself in anonymous, so many forms of isolation,
disappeared into snake trails, valleys of erosion
deeper than I was tall. I met Sara at the fairgrounds
constructed overnight between the Organ Mountains.
We told each other everything & maybe less
than nothing. We are our families, Sara used to say,
that’s why we leave. For days we refused sleep or surrender—
we rode the trans-Siberian train, St. Petersburg
to Moscow to Ulaanbaatar to Beijing.
Sara says, you can leave someone without stepping away
Somewhere in the middle—100 hours—the sound
of the train strips you clean like a whetstone. We scrape
arm to arm as we pass in corridors & bunks.
At home, we go out of our way
not to touch, but here our bodies learn to lie,
to not cringe against strangers’ skin.
I touch an orange & begin rasping it into rinds,
swirls that bounce & dangle without break or end.
My lover at home is like that, seemingly whole.
Even as I cut away, I cut so carefully his skin never splits,
never drips out his heart, that resolved pit.
The fortune teller & her husband share our carriage.
Silent, he rubs lotion into her arthritic hands,
concentric movements that grow larger
& larger until her palms are cupped in his.
She glares at us as if we plan to steal him;
Sara whispers, do you think he wants to be taken?
Didn’t we want to be taken? We’re pushing
into some unknown—but what remains,
the body’s defense as dust rises & sinks into denim
crevices, is a humid memory of a lover lifting
my hips to the kitchen counter, tea stains & broken
china cups, cups that still break under his want.
Sara says, staying still equals staying safe
On the platform of Vladivostok, an old woman selling
potatoes pats my arm, the arm with the T-shaped scar, the virgin
arm, the one I’ve never given away. She keeps the change,
reads easy mark. She doesn’t feel guilty
knowing me better than I know myself—she knows
the girl sweating through a tank top & jeans awed
by Siberia & vodka, fears all she doesn’t know
& how it will not change her. Don’t follow in my footsteps.
Be sweet, my grandmother once said, be the good girl.
But the girl on this train shares spit & hits.
I don’t know—maybe staying still equals staying safe.
But even though the train rarely brakes, my feet push & stride
against the ceiling, the window, the unknown landscape.
Armed men board the train at the Chinese border
take our passports—the train shivers & shakes like a second skin—
a ritual changing of the wheels. The wheels of Russia,
of Mongolia won’t take you into China.
You can’t change countries unless you change yourself, Sara says.
Become a blank slate. At home, yellow squash canned in mason jars
sit gold-rimmed & pressurized. My favorite to eat & yet—
sealed for years. I understand to loosen, to let the lid
completely off is to forget, to pull the band-aid wings apart.
I don’t want to be blank, wide-eyed & ready to be filled
do I? Filled by what? The sky or an old fashioned morphine drip?
I’d rather fill myself with whatever disguises, whatever saves.
The tram takes us closer to the Great Wall—
a stone zipper across once virgin lands,
hips that can’t always hold our longing.
Construction unleashes us. & makes us feel small.
A cable wire lifts us into the air; we press
ourselves to the window to prove the nothing
around us is nothing to fear. We saw Cinderella
at the Bolshoi in Moscow. The narrator watched
from a pockmarked, golden moon. His first step
onto this earth—never center stage—
what was it? Not love or awe, but loss
that he couldn’t stand above & see it all.
Sara says, we’re moving towards a god’s-eye view.
We keep climbing stone stairs—my body wants
to surrender to biology, to my unstable
joints & plates. We pose for pictures, sweaty
& so small with the wall braiding behind us.
What I’ll remember the most: I exist
because of pain. We’ve cracked the lens, let in
the moment’s light. My mother used to read me
The Princess & the Pea. I know it wasn’t the prince
she looked for, but the pea. That discontent,
wide-eyed insomnia, & lower back pain defined her.
The White Cloud Temple is halcyon,
monks vow silence, to live on the inside.
We can’t hush, though we say nothing—
home is in our mouths. We throw coins
at a bronze gong taller than us;
it refracts sound like a body
half its size, a dinner bell. For an instant,
I’m afraid we are only half of what we think we are.
Along the gong’s meridian is a fist-sized
aperture, & if we cast a coin through it,
legend says we can own luck.
But our hands are wounded, our wrists
wildly dropping & raising without direction,
too eager & not eager enough.
Sara says, vases are meant to hold beauty
I picture myself as a vase, but we tire of being vases.
In the bloody brick square, kids fly kites
with streamers like liabilities. & for a moment
I see not pollution, not the men behind the guns,
but the guns themselves & the field
where I first learned to shoot a rifle. The recoil keeps you
from forgetting what you’ve done or understanding it.
The field is greener than anything
has the right to be. My hands steady, stock flat against
my shoulder like a loved one’s cheek, like a child I carry
but haven’t birthed yet, the one I deny even as
I cradle her & say, hush now, squeeze the trigger gently.
The trigger & the dead & the never born are beauty.
The streamers want to wrap around trees, but the trees
only exist in my mind. A little boy’s fingers
are in front of me now, quilted with string & wanting.
Kara Dorris is a PhD candidate in literature and poetry at the University of North Texas. Her poetry has appeared in The Tusculum Review, Harpur Palate, Wicked Alice, Prick of the Spindle, Parcel, Cutbank, The Tulane Review, Crazyhorse and Skidrow Penthouse among others literary journals, as well as the anthologyBeauty is a Verb (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). Dancing Girl Press published her chapbook, Elective Affinities, in 2011. Her second chapbook, Night Ride Home, was published by Finishing Line Press (2012). Dorris is also the editor of Lingerpost, an online poetry journal (www.lingerpost.org).