Mary-Kim Arnold's self-portrait poems are explorations in the complexities of identity, motherhood, & legacy. I admire the way(s) in which this trinity of poems allows for contradictions as well as past, present & future to exist contemporaneously. I also appreciate the tenderness in this work, especially that which the speaker affords herself (though possibly unaware) in (re)creating these self-portraits. There is a quiet magic that weaves itself through Arnold's images & lines, a magic that troubles convenient narratives & makes room for one to announce/affirm oneself without pretense.
-Andrea Blancas Beltran (Read Andrea on Fog Machine here)
Self-Portrait as Semiramis
Had I been raised by doves
wouldn’t I have learned
to hunt in packs
Had I been raised by gods
wouldn’t I too
In the movies the orphan
is the killer
not loved enough
But wasn’t I
dove into the sea
for the sin of loving
a mortal man
I love a mortal man too
At night I coax him
with my mouth
we erect high brick walls
Had my mother lived
to see me rise from this boundless
would she recognize me
as I have grown large
and my arms have become
the long arms of the sea
for the shore
Self-Portrait in Mid-Life
Double-edged sword of opportunity pearls
cast along asphalt
Follow the trail where it leads and find yourself
coiled back inside yourself
Never got that far after all never
fell that far from the tree
One morning I woke and found myself
lost in a wooded copse
No that story has already been told
as a poor match girl I sold matches
walking against the wind and snow in a thin dress
and cloth slippers they found me
frozen dead in a snow bank
no that is not it Danced myself
to death in accursed shoes bit the poisoned
fruit no pricked my finger with the needle
no no let down my long and golden hair
am I not the tree am I not the branches and all –
Self-Portrait as Taxidermist
I take the train down to the old warehouse where we sit at tables draped
with blue plastic like my daughter’s birthday party that year
she only wanted the sea.
At each place, scalpel and rubber gloves set down
and a lifeless bird defrosting –
cold and damp to the touch.
“Begin here,” the woman says and presses the tip
of the scalpel into the flesh and slices down the bird’s length
Short swift strokes and the skin comes away.
I want to tell you about the small cold body
I held that morning –
to describe the smell
of that room. Metal rinsed with bleach.
My daughter takes a small sharp blade
and nicks the skin of her thigh high enough
so that it will not show
beneath the line of her skirts –
four short strokes into the flesh. Blood blooms
and she blots it. The books I read offer little comfort –
not abuse, not violence.
The word negligence
brings me up short.
Where am I? Where have I been? Where
have I ever been? I wonder what would have been different
had my mother lived long enough –
Would we have spent afternoons wandering yard sales
and drinking tea? Soaked up enough
of her shapeless hours? Offered enough solace
to fill a person up?
To make her feel enough –
to see her own life as opening, opening –
I make a form from cotton wool and wrap it tightly with string.
It takes time to build up layers –
cotton, then string, then cotton until it resembles the body
of the bird.
I wrap the skin around
this lifeless form. Fill out the missing parts with clay.
I have always wished the word taxidermy
was more precise –
not the arrangement of skins, not the moving
of skins, but something that captured more
of its violence –
slicing open the animal and gutting it
scraping the flesh away
hiding a false bloodless thing inside it where a real heart
had once pounded fast and hot –
And yet at this table, blade in my hand, I too am bloodless –
controlled. Beneath my fingers I feel the slippage
of skin across its form. I pin it down.
“See, it’s coming back to life,” the woman says. She’s holding
the mounted bird in one hand
drying it with the other. I watch as the feathers fluff up.
I pin the wings to a board so they will hold their shape as they dry.
I’ve spread them open, as if alive, in mid-flight –
When she is done, she leaves the wrappers from cotton gauze and bandages
in her trashcan.
I find a discarded blade beneath her bed. What I don’t know anymore
about mothers and daughters could fill volumes –
I know the scars will heal. But first they will harden –
crusting over to protect all the tenderness beneath.
Mary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2017). A multidisciplinary artist, her work has appeared in a number of literary and art journals, including Tin House, The Georgia Review, Day One, and Hyperallergic. She was born in Seoul, Korea and was raised in New York. She serves on the Advisory Committee for The Rumpus, where she was Essays Editor from 2013-2015. She lives in Rhode Island. http://www.mkimarnold.com/