Watching a Picture

Susan Briante


I was leaving a class at the university. I was taking myself to eat alone at a bad Italian restaurant. There were no windows. There were no seats. I was going to sit underground.


Habit pins us to awful routines: little bugs squirming. When I remembered I could leave, I walked out and through buildings without knowing my destination. I found a market. I bought some fruit. I went back to my dorm.


Someone from the mail room told me packages for my daughter were going to be sent back, undelivered, until they saw my last name, assumed I must be her father, and sent them to me. Even in my dreams I am enraged at the patriarchy. My daughter opened small blue foil packages of miniature cloud. One said "cumulus." My cousin was in my room. Or my cousin and I shared a room. She had white cardboard boxes of what I thought were Italian pastries from home. Even in my dreams I am inspired by food. But the boxes held dense, processed imitations.


I left, got in my car, started driving out of the city, looking for that familiar highway that would take me where I wanted to go. But I got confused at an interchange, realized I might have to pay a toll. I kept driving on this strange road anyway, passing a sign that read "Mile 0."



The alarm goes off, but I am the only one to hear it. Still mostly dark, even here, this close to the bottom of the night, at the edge of the country (false edge). I turn on the radio, listen to today's disasters. "Most mornings I would be more or less insane" writes Muriel Rukeyser. Farid wants to sleep more. Gianna doesn't move. From the back room, I hear Patty and Ariane, Farid's cousins from Paris, awake because their bodies feel the day before ours. Patty showers. I make coffee but the milk carton is empty. Do we need more? Back in bed, I pour myself over Farid. Buenos días. Bon jour. Gianna's now up. Ariane and her pantomime across languages with the Christmas presents we let them open yesterday. I pour bowls of Cheerios, make more coffee. Nothing gets done before the second cup, Patty says. I pull towels from the linen closet. Pour water. Send Farid to get milk.


Gianna listens to the Deathly Hallows audiobook like she's done almost every day for months now since we finished reading it, since her grandfather died. Sometimes she mouths the words along with the characters. I offer other audio books, but she refuses, tells me the voices are like her friends. Friends in language? In grief? Heat moving through the ductwork of our old house sounds like ghosts, more ghosts in my family than ever before. Less family? It feels that way. Blood thins. Or "Your blood has thinned" is what my grandmother used to say when one could no longer suffer the cold. But in my family suffering was a virtue.



--Here's the pita bread.

--Peter Pan?

--Aquí tengo pan dulce

--Dicen "pan arabe" en español


We pass cheese and salami, pita bread and panettone from the front to the back seat. We drive past the Catholic Charities and Islamic Center, out to the edge of our city, onto the interstate, into the desert and the anthropocene, making the anthropocene with this car and something more in three languages across three continents of inheritance, but I don't want to get too sentimental.


Before we left the house, Gianna sat beside me on my office couch to say: I miss Grandpa. And then pointing up, she said: I know he's here, but what I miss is talking to him. I nodded and told her sometimes I imagine what he would say. I know, she replied, but we can't hear him.


I don't believe in heaven, don't talk about it to her. When she asked me years ago what happens after we die, I showed her a leaf, pointed to a tree. Like the leaf falls and decays and turns in the soil to feed a flower. I fumbled around some notion of change and cycle: all dirt, all ash, all star. But how can particle and dust compete with angels.


Some ideas speed past our intentions: a story about the wizard boy that turns into a tale of grief, the song her French cousin sings in the back seat (Feliz navidad, feliz navidad), boxcars in rust and green interrupted by the oil tanker truck that slurs our reflection.



Podemos ir al cemetario, Farid says.

Ah, sí por favor, says Patty.


It's been years since we've visited the mausoleum where the ashes of Farid's mother and aunt rest behind marble stone.


I wonder if Gianna would want to go? Like leaves, I want to tell her as we past fallow fields, then a flash of irrigated green in the desert. Closer to Tucson we saw fields of Pima cotton. If you fix your eyes, blur your vision, they might look like winter branches dusted with snow.


        Long stretches of green

        when the mountains give way

        stacks of hay


Yellow flowers on the edge of Interstate 8. Sun on legs through the windshield. Sun through sun glasses and the reflection of my eyes. Wrinkles reach toward my hairline. Shadows extend toward the place we left.


Two days from now I will complete another year on earth or earth will complete another rotation around the sun with me on it. And where was I before? Gianna asked me once. And where am I now?


Purple flowers on the edge of a highway near California. Bicycles hang from the back of an RV with American flags flapping the breeze. Why do those flags bother me? I think first. Then the question reforms itself: When didn't it? And why hasn't it always?


A flock of plastic bags gather on the median: if you blur your eyes, they might look like doves. The children speak in gesture. A crow stands on a fence post like an afterthought. The windmills still.

80 more miles on this highway before we can get off.



As we pass Desert Park, the sun slips like a hand down the back of the mountains. The song I don't want to hear says "We ain't never getting older" over and over. How gold the summit! A half-constructed house on the hill in silhouette. What wakes in the mountains? What wakes hungry? In the backseat, Gianna and Ariane are bored to the point of sleep at 4055 feet above sea level. All the singers we love are dead. Yet they still sing for us. We wonder if we see ocean. But when we notice it throws no reflection, we decide it's fog. The horizon smears into sky as if drawn with pastels.


Christmas lights hang from the roofs of mobile homes off the highway near El Cajon. The moon rises in Cancer and the kids get restless. I give them candy canes. They ask for audio books. The sky seethes over the used car lot. The moon looks further away. Hung between cloud.


Now we turn north, something I have tried to avoid for most of my life. Ribbons of headlights and tail lights in red and white: "This is the night / before Christmas," CD Wright once wrote "couples are fighting in cars/ on every major highway in the country." Many of the poets we love are dead. Yet they still speak to us. It's a long road. I write in the dark. The moon keeps pace. I see the night's first star as we pass the exit for Camp Pendleton.



Old moon, snow moon, oak moon, long night moon, full cold moon.


No one speaks by the time we reach the rental house. I'm done with you, Farid tells our daughter.


And she's not getting out of the car until she does. Patty says the house smells of cigarettes. And I just want to put my bags in the back bedroom where later I know I will find this time to write this.


"I want a literature that is not made of literature," Bhanu Kapil writes.


While Patty and Farid go out for food, the girls sit on the living room carpet. Exchanging single words and gestures: house, park, look. A doll is dressed and undressed. Gianna needs a rubber band to make a leash for the doll's dog. They bowl with Styrofoam cups and a tin foil ball. They work on a puzzle, fall into silence watching a picture come together.


I try to find places for everything we brought with us: clothes, presents, food. I think of the border patrol check points we passed on the interstate, of how Farid says growing up on LA highways it was only a matter of time before the sick crash of metal and concrete, the flash of blue and red in the rearview. After my accident, my shoulders curled inward like an autumn leaf, until a physical therapist placed her hands on my shoulders and unfurled me.

How does one escape time? Not on an LA highway.


Tomorrow and every day after for the next few months, light will stretch its fingers a little further into morning, hold a little tighter onto dusk. But for now, I sit in the darkness at the edge of the bed, talk to my father. Outside my windows, the trees send their bare-branched indictments.






* On December 18, 2018 to mark the 40th anniversary of Bernadette Mayer's seminal book Midwinter Day, the poet Becca Klaver asked women poets across the country to record their experiences in a shared (but unpublished) document organized in six sections as is Mayer's book. This was my contribution to that project.

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Author Bio: Susan Briante is the author of three books of poetry: Pioneers in the Study of Motion, Utopia Minus, and The Market Wonders, all from Ahsahta Press. She is a professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona. Defacing the Monument, a series of essays on immigration, archives, aesthetics and the state, will be published by Noemi Press in December 2019.