Your Body Is a System of Caves

Three poems from THE BLUE MIMES by Sara Daniele Rivera

Your Body Is a System of Caves


Does anything really 
begin. The house, clinking
window frame in the last 
of canyon wind. Does 
anything begin. 


The day a room becomes a field. 
The day a field fills with water. 
The day you fall through yourself— 

this is how you say it— and how to respond to responses— 

I’m sorry you capsized inside your body.
That must’ve been terrible— 


Your left hand starts 
swelling nightly. The body 
now filled with unfamiliar and inflammatory substance.

You scratch until 
skin scabs at three 
lined-up points. 

Orion’s belt. Pinpoint self. 
You’re comforted by the symmetry 
of your smallest wounds, how 

you can keep scratching them open 
and have a little composition 
to keep you company. 

This is only the surface of 
the skin. Under moon, 

the season’s first monsoon 
sequences the sky. Flash of rose. 
Then begin the drenchings:

	pain salvage sink caveat absence–
they open and plunge into the depths of your body, 
that system of caves. 


It was so fast for you. How 
did you catch your breath— 

one after another you lost the people you loved as if they occupied 
a single vessel and entered 
the destructive radius of a storm. 

Now nothing holds its water. 
Nor its salt. Nor such heart. 
Nothing has weight but everything 
is an aspect of an unmovable weight. 


There are parts of the ocean no natural 
sunlight penetrates. In the basin 

of grief you receive a dream where you try to distract the dead with inane conversation, holding them but not long enough for them to realize they aren’t meant to be anymore.

In the basin of grief these dreams 
are the hanging light of an anglerfish. 

Behind the contained, luminous target: 
		A waking trap, and teeth. 


You gather the memory-shatterings, the regret 
you caught wandering your interior, the flakes 
of scab that fill your selfsame 

shipwrecked body. There are days you are the only 
person who remembers there was ever ocean 

in this desert, where the dampening
of fossils under rain becomes the only reminder 
that everything lost was once alive.

Gray crests over a hill. Clouds in 
thinning sheets, mountains black. 

You become a field. Then
the air above the field. 
Integration of wound and dark. 

And one stone dislodges from 
its burial sands.

Sonnet to Sleep Paralysis

            after John Keats 
It began for us, hushed, that year. You and I insisted 
on seeing each other then sat slack with the unsayable. 
Retreat to separate apartments, mirror our way across 
rooms, night birds singing as the world folded itself 
and stained us like two halves of a Rorschach. When 
we woke we were not butterflies, not people. Only  
the center of a cleaving. Mine was an old woman in 
the corner: Bisabuela, I was sure. Would she leave me 
alone, please, out of love? Knitting dread, yours against 
your chest, a saddled demon barreling black. This is the 
language our minds create when we hold everything 
back. Identical vaults. You need each other, the 
phantom says. Que no se les olvide, says Bisabuela 
through the transparency of her head.


	Entonces, desde la torre más alta de la ausencia 
	su canto resonó en la opacidad de lo ocultado 
	en la extensión silenciosa
	llena de oquedades movedizas como las palabras que escribo. 

	— Alejandra Pizarnik, “Poema para el padre” 

You were born with song in your mouth, a mastery of birds. Inevitable migratory life. Arrive at the day you told me stories of your migration and the terrible thing is I already forget, the fabric stretched and broken. A luxury high rise across from the Habana Libre. Contracts with Lufthansa airlines. Your father at the national bank with Che, your father’s miniature Minolta camera, your father, you.

We found letters between the two of you, written when you were brackets on either side of water. Elaborate puns woven into language. The father organizes the escape, cannot tell his son the details. The son, when he becomes a father, can only relay half-details while sitting in an art gallery with his daughter. 

Your father. You. My father. 

The gallery sells a spherical ceramic jar and a bird-shaped pipe holder and cans of beer. I forget the details. I remember I remember and I don’t. Only the jar because we took it home, only the bird because we chose to leave it behind. I remember thinking the gallery was a beginning, that in the parting between branches you would start to speak until everything spilled out, a whole history unbraided. We would be whole. 

If I rip open the bird, what happens. We recognize it’s a pipe holder. We do nothing, elegantly. I hold the day when I cannot hold the detail. I am past and present tense when they resist clear delineation, there and here, sells and sold. I’m walking you back to the car you parked illegally. I rip the ticket off the windshield before you notice. The need for something to stay so perfect a twelve-dollar intrusion isn’t allowed. Beginnings we don’t know are denouement.


We make imaginary plans for Havana. Dream of meeting Leonardo Padura on a terrace somewhere. At home you point out the architecture of Havana schools in a Padura TV adaptation and show me walkthrough videos of the city on Youtube. Mauve balconies, juts of houses into the street, then someone turns a corner you remember. You pause, the image blurs. You say, this is where I walked with my dad.


Pipe tobacco, one of your smells. In my dreams I kiss your aftershave cheek and am I still the child who worried about your smoking after anti-smoking day at school or am I the adult who cradled the plastic bin of your pipe collection after you died and ran a thumb over the concavity of ash that still held something of you? 

I know that you are you and sometimes you aren’t. Sometimes you are the father, the son, the migrant, the archetype. I am walking a thin line of smoke. Parts of you so within me that I feel them radiating in my chest. Parts of you so far from me that I can only conceptualize them as a half-understood, half-literary history.


Daily isolations. You didn’t always understand our need to be not-alone. Family would go out for dinner, you’d head back early to be with the dog. How I had to drag you to that gallery. How talk of Cuba felt far because it was hard enough to get you to walk past the school grounds across the street. To remove you from your sphere of context. Retreat, retreat to where there is quiet and books and the story of a house.


My friend from Havana says all Cubans have this quality, como un sass, un humor, tu sabes. I ask if I have it. He laughs. He, at least, thinks I’m enough. 

My understanding of an entire country came from a single person: you were Cuba to me. Watching the show, you’d say, that’s it exactly, that’s how everyone talks in Havana. That rhythm constituted a new language, like puns on typewritten paper. 

I am you, sometimes you are you. This is all I know of collective identity.


First daughter, blue cap, impatient to exist. You were astonished by her smallness, held her in two hands the way you would hold and funnel birdseed. Curved detail of your head in hers. 

Second daughter, I was almost born in the car. You could not have kept calm for that. When anything rose in you, terror, anger, panic, you would arrive at the same pitch, yelling at nurses, at the front desk, your tight command of language unraveling, those branches parting. 

These are the partings that lead to spillage. An ink-dark fountain breaks, its water non-potable, something can’t remain in the brain, can’t remain in the mouth. Claws its way up the throat. The baby bird eats what emerges. 

Third daughter shared your bird obsession. The two of you would stand outside in sunlight dappled by lilacs, pushing suet blocks behind little green rejas.


You would yell, we would leave. Distortion of tears. You would yell, we’d yell back, escalation until the space between us became electrical fire. You yelled. We were quiet.


But always we returned to each other, our collie between us in the backyard or laying his head on our feet in the kitchen. Arguments as unintended journeys: you’d travel into yourself, into your hurts, and in a vein of quiet you traveled back out. When you did, we were there to accept whatever book you placed in our hands.


You and I once translated a poem together. You were proud of an invention: yawning pits for extensión silenciosa. It referred to grief carved out, an emptiness left behind by a father who died too soon. You said the poem reminded you of your dad. One day it would remind me of you.

The father in the poem could never sing the song he was meant to, a song too symphonic for the containment of a life. Your father. You. 

The song arrived to us braided from figures of speech. In the leftover story-pits, song. The song doesn’t fit inside of a life but fits in the skull of a sparrow, sitting on a shelf in the gallery on our perfect day. A breakable thing, lacking its body, is still capable of sound. The slightness of air, threading through the gaps. 

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