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midas

I have just dicovered the secret
of King Midas

who each morning, awoke to his throne
and slept at night with his crown
because it helped him think

and as he watched an alloyed world outside his window
full of leprosy and deceit,
far beyond the reaches of his own mortal grasp
he felt as powerless as a sparrow
as all arrows pointed toward him alone
to solve the riddle,
cut the knot
and distill the secret
of philosopher’s stone

so he honed his third eye
and let in the sun,
closed his chambers
to everyone—
forbidding even shadows
to enter his royal presence

until the light broke through
into his closed eyes
and danced from his fingers
in magic rays,
spilling out into everything he touched,
and he offered the coins
of his soul
to the needy who gathered and took

but it was so much, so much
he didn’t know how to stop it–
when he cried, he spilled sundrops
and when he bled, he gilded
the surface of the world,

paving the streets
like the hallways of heaven,
bestowing new luck
on the karmically impaired,
raining abundance
on the just and unjust
until the ordinary
in all its color
became obsolete
until gold itself was the disease,
and even love
was impossible for the hero
who sold his soul
for a magic touch—

I understand you now, Midas—
it wasn’t greed that moved you,
but this kingly burden
that follows you in waking and sleeping,
and this cloak you wear of silence,
that carries the weight of the world.

You longed for the kiss of life
that would change all tears to coins
and make all sorrows golden—
but when you turned to kiss your child,
her body froze to stone.

© Sarah Noack 2008

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Water

when the rain fell that day,
the streets were streaked
with oil slicks
splaying in amoeba-trail fractals
and running into gutters
like let rainbow blood

and the sky collected its moisture
from its many private reserves—

you shared with me the riddle
your ancestors passed down in secret—
if I solved it, you told me,
I would understand
everything—
it will sound too easy,
but wait, you warned me—
soon I’ll realize
that life itself
is happening
solely for this mystery

so I observed the clouds first—
since that’s where water came from,
but they told me to look to the ocean.
The ocean refused to answer,
crossing its arms against the rocks
as it whispered its longing for rivers.
And the rivers spoke
of the bodies of creatures,
who opened their mouths and said nothing.

How little I could learn
after all my questioning
of this thing that fills the bellows of the world
and ushers the sprawl of life—
weaving through streets under hidden sewers,
freezing in the blue-green Arctic
and feeding grains and flowers,
falling from mountains in cascades
and trickling through phosphor-lit caves,
resting dormant in underground wells
and fading like wadis in the Sahel—
you asked me the secret of water,
and I thought long and hard
about plumbing,
thirst
and nature,
and in the end,
arrived only at silence

and then the rain fell that day—
a sudden downpour
tickling my tongue,
drowning the streets in a sudden answer
of yes
grace
and cleanliness,
aligning with my heartbeat
and starting everything anew—

there is nothing that cannot be cleansed
and nothing holy but this:
the spirit of flux,
the bending touch of forgiveness
trickling in through all of us,
a universal source of data
connecting all our veins
like the secret spread of a delta

flowing helplessly and constantly
into a single ocean
no matter what we do to stop it.

You cannot separate
good from evil—
or water from time and spirit.
Filth is an experiment
doomed to fail
as long as the rivers
hear it.

© Sarah Noack 2008

helium

I thought I could just let you go,
but now I know
how the wind itself remembers
this silver thread
connecting you
to me

eternally—

you never needed shelter
and I never detained you
in your flight to the stars,
yet here you are—
following me like the tethered moon
across the pale blue morning.

you are pure helium,
floating and drifting
along the glittering edge
of akasha,
playing in treetops of my highest canopy
where rare birds nest,
whose feet evolved
in spiderweb delicacy
from lack of contact
with the earth—

you are the guardian
of my breath,
home of my laughter,
resting-place of my secrets—

and because of this,
you will always follow me:

I who grasp the thread,

because you ask this of me.

Have you mistaken me for the star
you were programmed to seek?

Each time I release you,
you keep returning
with stories of heaven
for which you show no awe—

forsaking its splendors
for the earthly warmth of my hand.

© Sarah Noack 2008

City of Dreams

I live in the parallel universe of a city that exists, it seems, in a dimension all its own… beyond the definition of “urban,” beyond “American,” beyond state or ethnicity or income or gender.

Nothing here is what it seems, and anything is possible. On baking hot days like today, I can almost hear the ether singing a sort of Ayers-Rock creation hymn from deep inside the fabricated monoliths and underground passageways, secret caves trickling with taboos of toxicity that leave their scent: strange perfumes of grease trap, anus and exclamation points of perfumes, all weaving into an ambrosial urban pheromone helix in the stagnant puddles above the ground. Somehow, the smell of cities, this one in particular, never bothers me. I feel the swamplike mysteries of life forming, as it secretly does, in the womb of collective thoughts and fears.

It is hot on Canal Street today, hotter than Egypt, and I am walking across the desert through the pyramids and tattered Sphinxes who gaze at me with truncated pupils as I fix my courier bag on my back. The pavement glitters. The drillers drill. Crowds congest the narrow sidewalk, making their way around construction shelters and baby strollers. All around me, vendors hawk the same just-off-the-boat wares in the same noisy storefront boxes: bootleg CD’s; knockoffs of sunglasses, watches, perfume. Ribbon-candy colored studded belts. Michael Jackson shirts. Tiny turtles the size of silver dollars, and real-looking windup puppies with canned barks. A man yells, “Do you like Movado! DG! Vuitton!” in a Caribbean accent. One storefront is boarded up due to police activity, which surprises me. Canal Street, to me, is as off the map of business law enforcement, as Antarctica.

Every place I pass, another memory. This is what is unique about walking. There is no distance between subject and object. Canal Street, Chinatown, Little Italy. A hundred memories under my feet, theirs and mine.

My own: a lover from a place in West Africa where you could hear water run and balafons all day long. He played them, perfect, indistinct from the flow of water over rocks. His skin was the blue of a ripe eggplant and his smile was the tropical crescent moon, huge and supine in his night sky face, dilated with the joy of singing. His seriousness was ancestral in magnitude, but he was so small, so soft, his face untouched by life. I was weak for his smile and smoke-stained voice, and introduced him to his first lychees before his concert at Lincoln Center while he looked at leather sandals I found ugly, yet endearingly African. He liked the lychees. He bought me pink sunglasses from this storefront…

Pearl Paint. 18 years old, I was first sent here by the artist with whom I lived with as an intern. I was young and knew very little about anything outside of my fertile, self-contained mind. I didn’t even know the store had more than one floor, and was sent back to retrace the steps of my botched errand. There was so much I didn’t know then. Later as a student at Pratt, I would dread climbing the infamous five floors to reach the graphics department. The city, in my youth, overwhelmed and titillated me. Everything was so big. I had no filters. I didn’t feel good enough for this place; everywhere I went, I felt judgement and loudness. I felt old then, up against this city. I had to prove myself, and was constantly feeling shouted down. For some reason, at almost 40, it now makes me feel young again to be here. Have I grown stronger? Or it weaker? Is civilization itself crumbling under me, making way for the birthdays of vines?

I don’t know.

I walk on.

Street food. Scallion pancakes, two for a dollar. Fried rice sticks and tofu, one dollar. The seasons of fresh Asian produce. Loquats are the most elusive of all, as they come only for a few weeks in spring. Mangosteens… whenever they come, and expensively. Lychees and rambutans in late summer. Fresh durians, which I don’t like, and jackfruit, which I do but can’t carry whole without a car. (A falling one almost killed me once in Puerto Rico). Just as I think poignantly of longans, I see a longan pit, smooth and brown as a tiny horse chestnut, on the ground by my foot. Like a dog tracking prey, I know the coveted fruits must be close by. My eyes are everywhere on my surroundings, but I am always aware, seeking with all my senses.

There is no fruit that compels me like the longan. Its powdery brown clusters resemble balls of dirt on sticks. But inside: the carob-honeyed, musky tumescence of an angel clitoris, its translucent-pearled moonstone flesh grooved with folds like a brain. Undoubtedly, this fruit is intelligent. What must it be thinking, the longan? I’ve often wondered as I peeled off its papery shell and popped the pearl of fruit into my mouth. Like all brilliant, sensitive nerds, the longan conceals its fragrance from the world. It is too painfully pure, like the cloud-fed scent of orchids. And yet it’s so unflinchingly erotic, like a Georgia O’Keefe flower money shot. I find it impossible to bite it immediately; it’s so soft against my tongue that to do so seems a violence.

If it is possible to be romantically infatuated with a fruit, I am. I love it. It disturbs and seduces me. And I have found the object of my affections, parceled out in newspaper squares on a folding table by Christie Street. Paper bag in hand, I walk on, my mouth full of moonflesh. I don’t often betray a smile while walking down the streets in this city. But right now, I am.

Tribeca. Chambers Street. More memories. I have traversed through universes with the soles of my feet today, from Union Square to Ground Zero. I am working at the Whole Foods in Tribeca today. Eight years after 9/11, the store is still the dustiest in NYC. I bring my box of nontoxic bamboo cleansing wipes, and get to work on the layer of white powder on the lipstick displays. Fallout from a fallen star. The WTC PATH train is still encased in its temporary skeletal sheath as construction continues into the next decade. Areas are shielded to the public. The Cortland Street BMT subway stop is still closed. I wonder if the rats have learned of this place, and formed secret societies here.

This city transcends not only borders and nations, but space and time. When I walk through its streets, I experience all my life—past, present, future—at once in my mind. Memories overlap and become real. I think about going back to Africa, about needing new shoes, about returning to the Brooklyn Museum. I am in a trancelike state as I navigate this city’s crowds and sidewalks, adding my footprints to the patina of human life that accumulates on its concrete veins.

But do I even really need to travel, except to see friends far away? I have everything right here. Today I have been to Italy. To China. To Mexico. To the peace and quiet of empty lots and green places. I have seen sights far more interesting than any circus: a man and his Bichon Frise with matching pink and lemon yellow fauxhawks. The Union Square greenmarket with its swirling miasma of green tents: the Bacon Hypnosis guy, the fairy rights T-shirt lady, the depressing paintings lady, the little elfin mutton-chopped man who scoops rocks of aromatic maple sugar candy from glass jars into my waiting palm.

And that was just today.

I have descended from this world, into my little parallel universe via a tunnel carefully constructed under a deep river. I emerge on the other side. I live in the place where people live to be close to the city, within reach and yet outside of it. Everything is smaller and cheaper here, and more obscure. New Yorkers rarely travel across the river. When I lived in New York, Jersey seemed as vague and mysterious to me as the inside of my colon. In a way, it feels like a shadow world, reflecting the desires of the Promised Land on the other side. I think this is what I like about it. There is a striving, a clouded envy-humility I can feel here and like. I understand it. And I feel peaceful here. I can see the city here. It is beautiful, from the cliff where I like to stand at the end of each day, looking out.

I have distance here in my alternate universe. I have space. On the streets here, children play more loudly, unafraid of traffic. The houses are beautiful here too, sometimes. Immigrants sill set up their stands, longans are still sold, although they are harder to come upon. Small jitney buses drive by me, run by people who don’t speak English. They remind me poignantly of the “bush taxis” in Africa I used to like. I have learned where they all go and how to take them. Everything in this alternate universe is forged in the fire of wanting and hoping. These are easy to do in this parallel universe. It is no accident we are closer to the heat of refineries here.

From the cliff’s lookout point, I see the city blinking like a thousand eyes before me.

Only from this vantage point can I see such a sight.

archaeos

for Laszlo Attila Toth—my childhood best friend, hero, creative muse, and the first person to love and understand my dark places. RIP Laci. You are cherished and remembered forever.

if you read between the lines
that striate my iris,

you’ll find a hidden reservoir of blue
with a name written on the other side
in invisible ink—

a poem written so long ago
and with such a young and heavy hand
that pen trespassed paper and broke into sky,

until I cried because no page could contain
the words that could describe him—

a many-volumed encyclopedia was required
just to codify each moment in his presence:
innocent Minoan friezes of memory:
a lost cult of beauty
that in its fragility,
was forgotten in the utility of Rome

and whenever I remember birds,
I think of him
and each petaled, faded detail
I somehow buried
because I felt unworthy
of such tenderness

and the way he stayed so high
but always returned to my finger
to tell me of the strangeness of heaven

and in dreams, I chase a whisper
through stone cloisters and attics,
and despite dust swirls indicating a recent presence,
all exits are locked
and the fire escape too
and there is no way to reclaim this mystery of wings,
no way to enter this room
that somehow I thought I could always come home to—

and how I’ve looked and looked for his pale blue smile
until the homesickness makes me dry heave
but the power’s gone out
and I’ve lost the map
and he’s gone and swallowed the skeleton key.

Sometimes I wonder if I light a match,
if the night will release him to me
like a sphinx moth
with a report from the other side,
but then I remember this glass separating us,
invisibly
but so palpably—

there’s no comfort in archaeology,
in this unearthing and sorting of relics:
stripped of their contexts,
tagged and body-bagged
with reports on pathology and cause,
shipped to safe havens of conservation
with relevant fragments on public display

but even technology won’t save them
from this monsoon
that keeps me under lock and key—

and there’s no solace at all
in these rains that fall endlessly,
awakening pastel trees of memory
when each flower only serves to adorn the dead.

© Sarah Noack 2010

Calypso

salt and sugar
sugar and salt
the captain’s asleep
and the fevered crew
sleeps below deck

sugar and sugar
salt and salt
I am swimming too far
from the shore today

but somehow you’ve found me,
cradling me
with infinite starfish arms
in a yellow room
beneath this blue infinity
where even islands hide

salt and sugar
sugar and salt
I hold my breath
in nacrous layers of dreaming

and waking into dreaming and dreaming
into the white constancy of you:
my brow marked like sealing wax
from the signets of your shirt-buttons
as you grow new arms to support the weight
of all this dreaming me.

Soul swimmer,
you scaled my dream cliffs
and held your breath underwater
to bring me these oysters you’ve collected
in your pail—
calcified secrets of ocean candy

surprising me from sleep
with the sweet liquid shimmer
of oyster-flesh—
slipping pearls through my parched lips
as I fall back into dreaming
with the taste on my tongue
of poetry
from a luminescent benthos
so deep
language cannot penetrate—

sugar, sugar and salt
I’ve sunk my tired feet
in the smooth sand of your heartbeat.
I soak in this silence
of warmth and you
and the intimate sunlight
as it climbs to its height
before dipping into twilight
caressing this instant
before it slips, too fragile
to survive the daylight of waking—
just hold me close:
close as water to skin
close as the seafloor is far
beneath these rocking waves,
farther than the edge of stars
waiting to awaken
under our blinding veil of daylight—

don’t let me wake—
here in this fever, I have access
to all the secret rooms
with their mirrors and melting clocks
of persistent memory
where you find me,
always

in this sea of mad Escherian
potential, possessing no dimension
or sense, doorways in the sky open and
displaced barn owls prowl above seafoam;
coy angels flit—
who keep their distance
who never loved like this
who were never blanched silver
with such innocence
or they would have chosen
voluntarily
to fly so close to the sun
that their wings would have melted
in waxen impotence

I understand now
the love of the barnacle
for its whale
and I understand also
the fathomless floor of the whale-cry
as I wake into dreams upon dreams,
each one more false and motherless than the next
and yet there is this you
somewhere
in only one liminal tidepool
at one cruel pink eclipse
I keep setting my watch to,
but the sun itself is confused
between day and night
and my second hand has stopped
in its tracks
as you slip away again as I wake,
dancing the silver thread
of forgetfulness

I feel you fading,
but I will be waiting
right here for you
in this secret place
where fever takes the soul.

A part of us stays here
always when we drift back to shore.
When I awaken,
I’ll touch my forehead
where your shirt-buttons rested.
Follow my sounding
into the surf and grottoes
where I wander, lost
but tethered safely to the tide-rush
of your heart—
awaiting your presence
within the sweet death
only dreaming permits.

© Sarah Noack 2007

Original version of shorter piece published in Road Tales, ESCAPE magazine June 1999 (see cover file in folder)

As I’m watching an ancient X-files episode in the Lamashegu hotel courtyard in Tamale, northern Ghana, a rock sails past my head.

This has been going on for three weeks now. In a bizarrely punctual evening ritual, every night at 8:00 PM sharp when the X-files begin airing, large rocks are thrown from somewhere behind the roof. This goes on sporadically during during the show until 9:00, and no one can ever find the culprit. The hotel staff has been a little evasive about the matter; most likely they don’t want to draw too much attention to it and scare away potential guests. And all in all, it’s a good hotel. For four dollars US a night I have a small veranda to call my own, under the shade of a large almendra tree. And the terrorism is oddly predictable; it’s easy to stay out of the courtyard for an hour every night.

Ibrahim, the hotel’s proprietor, looks out from the kitchen with a dishtowel over his shoulder and sees the rock, which has added to the collection of dents in the cement floor. “I am going talk to the chief.” he resolves, storming out of the compound. Ibrahim rarely “storms”; he spends his days quietly scrubbing other people’s dirty laundry, manually flushing broken toilets, and praising Allah. In Tamale, an arid, sleepy, largely Muslim city where I’m studying batik with a local artisan, contacting the police is not a possibility one considers immediately. Tamale is a place where ten-year-olds fast during Ramadan, where you’re considered selfish if you don’t invite beggars in for dinner and put aside five percent of your money for the poor, which by our standards would encompass most of the town’s population. So in Tamale, things like throwing large rocks into hotel courtyards don’t happen too often. And when they do, one consults the local chief.

The chief comes by, dressed in a traditional Dagomba indigo tunic and cap, sporting eyeglasses and a beard – for some reason I still haven’t figured out, Tamale is the only place in Ghana I visited where men sported either. That particular combination – billowing shirt, beard, andretro-chic black spectacles – seems to be a sort of unspoken chief’s uniform in Dagomba country. With his deadpan demeanor and rakishly embroidered white leather boots, he’s a monolith of cool. So when Ibrahim return to the courtyard with the chief peering in his chiefly way up at the tin roof where these rocks had emanated, I expect something important to happen. After scratching his beard for a few minutes and adjusting his glasses, he turns back to Ibrahim and says,
“This is not good.”
I could have said that.

The X-files drone on, an ironic commentary on our current enigma. Muldor has fallen for a woman who turns out to be a vampire. Ibrahim’s 14-year-old brother Alhassan is engrossed and giggling, oblivious to the dangers of getting his head bashed in. “The woman, the this one, she likes the blood,” he informs me gleefully, pointing at the screen. Alhassan speaks hardly any English and uses every possible opportunity to demonstrate it, speaking in laborious, cryptic monologues studded with compound articles – especially when he sees me writing. But he’s a nice kid. He shares his boiled yams with me. I don’t want to see him hurt.
“Alhassan, they throw tonight,” I say, motioning to the tin roof. “You must go inside.”
Alhassan smiles confidently. “The chief,” he points, as if everything will get fixed now. “Now I will pray.” he decides, but not before approaching my doorstep and, as he does every evening, painstakingly arranging my sandals so they line up. “They are not correct,” he informs me solemnly. Alhassan, anything but fastidious by nature, has an almost obsessive-compulsive fascination with arranging my shoes. My dirt-encrusted sandals are always playfully kicked into the air as soon as I enter my veranda. It’s considered rude in Ghana to wear shoes inside anyone’s house, so I use their removal as an excuse to throw something. I secretly resent having my inner chaos ordered by a pesky, occasionally lovable boy with no sense of personal boundaries. However, whenever I consider updating him about our cultural differences, I decide against it. Between the vastness of that divide, my status as guest in his land, his limited English and my limited Dagbani, it would be an exercise in futility. Besides, whenever Alhassan is just on the verge of making me scream – listening for hours to rap songs with elephant mating calls, the daily shoe arranging, swatting flies by my head while I’m writing – he’ll always do something overwhelmingly kind. Like sharing his few yams with me when I’m sick, going into town to get me medicine – or the fact that whenever I try to tip him, he buys me fish. What could I do?

Ibrahim, concluding his conversation with the chief, decides it’s time to join his brother in the evening prayer. The rock thrower, probably intimidated by the chief’s presence or maybe just by the fact it’s 9:00 PM, has not thrown any rocks for a few minutes. Maybe he too, full of praise for Allah at his successful destruction of our courtyard, has gone to pray. We still haven’t caught them, but the chief has vowed to make an intimidating announcement tomorrow on the radio.
The courtyard empty, I climb to the roof terrace, watched by two iridescent blue morning doves. Lying by the water tank there, I listen to the crickets. They aren’t soothing and mood-making like the ones back home; their wings screech tormentedly like fax machines in the night.

I never sleep well here. The days are hot, monotonous, and almost postapocalyptic with their pink haze, like an Islamic version of Mars. Only at night do I really feel energized. I toss and turn under the hum of the ceiling fan, unwanted now in the Harmattan night cool. The Ramadan prayer calls wake me before dawn, a surreal pocket of longing in the stillness. When the rooster crows, Alhassan and Ibrahim return from morning prayers. Energized by their morning Lipton, they begin their train of Dagomba wake-up greetings.
“Desbaa!” I waved. Good morning!
“Nnaa!…numasim?” Fine, how is the morning cold?
“Nnaa!”
Ibrahim goes into the kitchen to resume sleep, while Alhassan enters my veranda and fixes my shoes. I can’t help but notice how he looks at me when he does this; it’s become almost accusatory. Why is he so compulsive? Softened by the pre-dawn reflection, I decide to get to the bottom of this.

“Alhassan,” I ask, pointing to my sandals, “Why is it that every morning and every night, you must make these correct?”
He looks puzzled. “It is not correct,” he says, looking at me as if he’s stating the obvious.
“I know, Alhassan,” I say. “I know they are not correct. But, it doesn’t matter to me. They’re not bothering anyone here.”
Alhassan looks pensive, then urgent. “Maybe,” he says, “maybe you no understand.”
He struggles for words. “The this mans,” he says, “they come look at room. Then go away. Why?”
After a rhetorical pause, he shrugs. “Shoes not correct,” he concluded.
“What do you mean, Alhahssan? My shoes?” I ask, confused.
“He think bad place,” he explains, “then go away. Then,”– he points to the tin roof – “They throw. Bad things. You see, shoes not correct.”
What is he talking about? “Alhassan, boliballa? What do you mean?”
He sighs. “Shoes.” he states curtly. “Shoes like the this one.” He points to his pants pocket, turns it inside out. “This one hold money. You turn not correct, money go away. They see you in market and go away, no buy.” He points to the roof. “Then the other one throw the rock. Shoes not correct, very bad. Good thing run out of house, bad thing come.”

Something clicks. I’m suddenly recalling a museum in Kumasi, where I’d seen an exhibit about sandals. The sandals worn by Asante kings were considered sacred, and much attention was paid to their care, because they were believed to house his soul. Perhaps this was somehow connected to what he was trying to tell me; now that I think about it, Alhassan paid far more care to his own ancient rubber flip-flops than to other aspects of his wardrobe – rinsing them every night with water, bringing them indoors, chiding me if I walked barefoot through the courtyard. Alhassan was trying to tell me that my careless treatment of footwear was bringing bad luck – not just to myself, but to the hotel. I can’t deny that we’re currently experiencing the cartoon-anvil variety of “bad luck”, and I don’t need a scientific explanation: in Africa, anything is possible.

“Alhassan, why did you not say anything to me?” I ask him. “I had no idea I was doing this bad thing.”
He shrugged. “I do not know.” he says evasively, looking downward. I didn’t want to hound him further; he’d obviously been showing respect by not calling attention to my ignorance. I’m embarrassed – not at having mistreated my sandals, but at second-guessing this kid.
“Alhassan,” I assure him, “I am so sorry about this. Garafa. From now on I will always put my shoes correct myself. OK?”
“Toh,” he concedes placidly. “Now I go sleep again.”

It’s 6:00 AM; the sun is rising, heating the air. Alhassan has forgotten to turn off the radio, and the Dagomba and Gonja news broadcasts have given way to the English one, which I listen to idly as the day billows into its hot air balloon of eventlessness. The local happenings – a marriage of a local chief, a birth of twins to another, pass through my ears until one announcement grabs my attention.

“A young vandal was apprehended early this morning on the the new Cadbury Ghana Headquarters rooftop in Lamashegu district by local police following last night’s call to action. She had gone mad after being sacked from her job at a local hotel three months ago for pilfering. Found barefoot in tattered clothes after a long pursuit in the night, she confessed to weeks of destroying hotel property with her rock-throwing antics. She has been sentenced to seven years of labour in Tamale’s public works department. This of course is a horrid portrait of how our youth are becoming preoccupied with the cares of the modern world and neglecting their duties to Allah, from which we should all take grave heed.”

The announcements go off, giving way to the impeccably timed second morning prayer interruption. Small childrens’ ardent, staticky voices fill the air, belting out praise to the previously neglected Allah. I look over to the kitchen, where Alhassan and Ibrahim are fast asleep on their straw mat, unmindful of the growing shapes of sunlight, worn flip-flops neatly tucked into a corner. What were those two doing last night? I need to wake out of my stupor and take a bucket bath. I’ll walk into town today and buy them a special gift, something they can’t piously trade in to buy me fish. As I head up to the water tank, I’m thinking about the cool new leather sandals they’ll be wearing tonight.

© Sarah Noack 1999

no more nano

Is it just me, or is everything just getting too damn small?

Today I accidentally washed my iPod Shuffle in the laundry (it was attached to my gym shirt), and then knocked a 2GB memory strip into the AC floor vent as I was trying to back up my hard drive. Argh! Even though I’m kind of a nano-human at 5’1″, I’ve decided I’ve had it with small.

I’ve had it with digging into my purse to find cell phones that mimic the contours of a credit card. I’ve had it with keychains overflowing with assorted electronic thingies. I’ve had it with thingies that clip onto your ears or clothes like inconspicuous parasitic insects, sucking assorted waves and bytes out of thin air. And I’ve definitely had it with shoving my entire life on little thingies the size of boogers.

I’m claustrophobic. I used to have freak attacks in elevators when I was a kid. I hated the last two months of pregnancy because I felt so squished and crowded out. So when I think about my tax returns and design files bumping up against ultrasounds of Jeni, complex applications, and MP3’s of Madonna and Meatloaf, I feel deeply anxious for them. I wonder how such a motley crew (sorry, back to the M artists…) of data can possibly stand being squished nuts-against-butts onto something that could fall into a floor crack.

I understand that big isn’t what I want either. I am really happy that computers don’t take up a whole room anymore. I thank God for laptops, and do not want to revisit my stepfather’s old cell phone from 1991, which was about the size of a small gerbil cage. But at least, back in those days, everything had a special place and device. It wasn’t all just DATA that fit on one do-it-all thingamajig. There was uniqueness in the world.

Somehow, it just feels wrong to have my friend’s cherished songs live alongside my demo invoices and font “read-me’s.” Shouldn’t they have a special place where they can bask in their specialness? A place that is easily found, easy to notice, an album I can hold in my hand, smell, touch and lovingly re-read the liner notes while doing absolutely nothing else but relaxing? And what about poems and love letters I’ve collected over the years? Shouldn’t they be stashed away in a silk-lined box under my bed… the kind that has a real key, not an encrypted password? And what about all these pictures of Jeni? I can’t think of the last time I printed them out and glued them in an album. They’re all just backed up on more and more little sticks of data, data, data… little 0’s and 1’s I can’t even see, like some kind of exotic digital alpha-bits cereal all jumbled into a heap that somehow points to beauty in its various forms. Looking at all this data… I half believe the idea that life could begin from a pile of gases exploding out of nothingness. Everything feels so random. It’s up to me to make sense of all this data, all these bits and bytes of my life, heart and soul stored onto various inconsequential lumps of plastic the size of tiddlywinks.

I wonder sometimes if those little flyers the religious fanatics used to throw on my doorstep—you know, “The End Days are Near… Don’t Accept the Number of the Beast on your Hand,” are coming true. Maybe we really will start getting barcodes and data chips embedded into our skin, because there is no more “nano” left to go without going within our very cells. It creeps me out. I don’t want nano. I want “manageable, function-specific macro.” I want a device that plays music and a device that watches movies. I want to be disciplined to do one thing at a time, to enjoy each thing for what it is, to not start mixing up all these bits and bytes inside my brain. I want to experience the integrity of a moment, a song, a picture as something solitary and unique—not a “file type” among many others, all squashed up into the same crowded bedroom like transients in an Amsterdam youth hostel.

What’s particularly interesting is that the more “nano” electronic devices get, the more “macro” we get… our meals, our bodies, our cars, TV’s, businesses. It’s kind of disgusting. I feel like the two are directly proportionate. Do we really need to eat 20 ounces of steak? (I don’t need to eat any, but theoretically). Do people really need to drive Hummers if they aren’t in active military service? Do three national banks and one coffee place need to own the entire share of these markets? Do we need to drive everywhere? Here in my town, the county planners didn’t even bother to build sidewalks in the main commercial areas. It’s ironic how, to me, moving to a city, my life will be, in so many ways, less “macro,” and more “microcosmically conscious.” I will be without a car, I will be able to compost and buy fresh fruits more easily, I will have sidewalks to walk on and resources for living soulfully. I won’t have to go to big chains for everything like I do here. Cities are becoming the place where it’s possible to live an organically empowered life.

One of these days, we’re going to be so disproportionate in our mini/maxi tendencies that we’re going to lose all our ipod shuffle extra-minis and memory microchips in the folds of our burgeoning sedentary flesh, while consuming whale-sized burgers in front of TV’s that take up entire rooms. We’re going to have such big needs for space, despite all the downsizing we seem to be doing, that we’re going to have to send half the human race into outer space just to survive.

I have only one thing to say about this:

Nano-Nano!

© Sarah Noack 2008

osmanthus (poem)

How could I forget a kiss?
I know it’s strange to forget this
when I think of how you entered my life
like a monsoon: a sudden pressure drop
and rainbow macaws streaked across flat gray sky
like the mist auras on spigots
long after it stopped raining —
on that summer day when you picked me
with your nimble white fingers
like sea glass on a beach
that day the subway stopped
due to a sudden accident
when someone tripped on the train tracks
and died instantly of a heart attack. 

The day we met, you sealed me up
in the blue envelope of your mind
but you were always a clutterbug,
easily distracted by new vegetation
in the damp forests of your imagination
so you quickly forgot
how I startled you that day,
and you lost the letter somewhere
in the scattered paintings on your floor
and I turned down the volume
on my infatuation, 
mailed it to some unknown destination,
distracting myself with poetry
and religion

but I didn’t mind;
I loved your ride,
how you let me be your man
then tricked me into submission —
free-falling through flashing lights, slot machines
and popcorn forgetfulness
through white sunblind surf, 
dizzy spray-splashed camera angles
and wicked trysts —
into your warm lap
where we sipped tea
from cobalt tetsubins:
breathing peachlike osmanthus
androgynous petals falling over us,
perfuming us with purity
and remembrance
of all we could have easily taken,
but gracefully left to imagination
after a taste of cotton candy
as sublime as clouds
that somehow we let drift away
as I ran from you to God

I was a monk, you a virgin:
loose-leaf aesthetes,
aescetics loving in reverence:
you were my bodyguard,
neighbor, friend, 
fashion diva hairstylist
lending me shirts and music,
leaving notes at my doorstep,
surprising me with the depth
of your uninitiated heart
as we danced in the dark,
chaste, Uranian, touching only wings.
We loved with the tender blinking of stars—
separate and lucid, 
sharing protection and sanctity,
moving in white delicacy,
hands touching in the dark.

How could I forget a kiss? 
How could I lose something so precious,
a memory like this, a moment
of breached friendship 
when you offered yourself to me,
a thousand falling petals —
all regrets and trembling secrets, 
but I turned down your fragrance,
haunting and ambiguous,
renouncing body and possessions,
running headfirst into a winter
I thought would save my soul —
choosing the walls of an ashram
over the love of a boy

and in a flash I remembered,
like the shock of lightning and death
that brought me to you,
like that accident which brought me in
from the rain into the warmth
of your electric blue
how I had you, lost you
and always wonder
why I left you on that platform:
and what train has carried you away,
who read the letter I lost,
who embraced those arms I turned away —

whose knowing fingers plucked you from the pebbles
like a sea-glass treasure, the way you’d carried me lovingly
from the crowd that day—and I sometimes wonder
who’s ripped that blue envelope
and found the mysteries of monsoon
and blue topaz that live in your eyes.

I wonder who’s enjoying you today, white seafoam angel—
who’s sitting on your lap now sipping your warmth:
a sanctuary of osmanthus,
brewing in an earthen cup.

©2007 Sarah Noack

chalk circle

inspired by “The Importance of Gourd Crafting” by Rumi and Sobonfu Somé’s “The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient African Teachings in the Way of Relationships”

Take ash in your hand
and draw a chalk circle around us—

sanctify this space

and define our position

within the laws of nature—
for there are contracts

we will break

and new ones
we will create

within this small circumference.



There is no disgrace

in surrendering

to passion
as long as you remember
to plan it:

with a steady conscience,
cast your libations
to quench the thirsty dead

and honor the thousand invisibles:

you must always remember
the thousand demons that sneak
into the unseen midst

between eyes and electric brain,

knotted knuckle-fists

and through the gaps
between
your thousand wandering kisses
erupting in violets
over skin’s borderless terrain,

blooming from a thousand open pores—

the ripple-wraiths
from a thousand mouths
whispering
innuendos of birth and death,
the scarlet moons of nails
engraving secret hieroglyphs

which tell a thousand tales—

and the audience of a thousand faces

watching from behind the veil,
the hushed rustle of wrapping paper
in the darkened room.

A thousand fingers,
a thousand dancing tongues

a thousand throats
chant precambrian songs—

a thousand teeth,

a thousand ghosts

stalk entombed in shadows—

the dogs of doom 

devour raw meat

and howl lullabies

to the clamoring unborn

waiting restlessly at the gate
in thousandfold hordes

where pollen-water trickles,

tracing sacred scars
of love and war
in underground shale,

rivers of blood

in benign water-guise
and the pale ghost of milk
summoned from invisible daughters

awaiting the code:
flip the switch,
turn the handle

shoulder the cross
and begin the process—
another life,

another death;

sticky-sweet fingers

trick the unwary
into messy descent
further into flesh and stone,

saliva and bone—



a thousand nests,

a thousand birds:

the flocks of wings scatter,

disturbed by the call of
a thousand invisible cocks disrupting
the henhouse,

broken egg-mess and shells cut our feet
as we ride through watermarks
of a thousand scattered incarnations,

disheveled barefoot and clutching 

jewels and earthworms
in the crawlspace between our sternums—
humming incantations
of a thousand buzzing insects,
a thousand exploding
chrysanthemums
fill the sky with peacock light
as our clothes lay lifeless like pinecones

on the forest floor
like the thousand bodies we’ll expend
as we choose the holy death

of falling
over the empty space

of flight—
I choose this.

I choose this.
I sing in forked tongues,

sucked into gravity’s orbit—

deliberately weightless;



I am wary enough

to bring a lantern
and a magic egg of onyx

to protect myself
from the thousand enchantments
drilling inside our wanting eyes—
the lifted limb,

the starlit womb

this treacle madness 

moving in fickle permanance,

yuga upon kalpa, a thousand dramas

leaving forever notes scribbled
in the margins of the universe—
enmeshing us within
a thousand pulsing vulvas,
a thousand revolving breaths,

a thousand eyes to see inside
this locked box of flesh,
a thousand cobras

sprouting from each limb

and encircling us like hydras—
dark diamond heads

penetrating 

a thousand unseen orifices,

breaking the seals 

with greedy finesse—

a thousand spiders

consuming us with the orchid-sweet venom

of need—

a thousand spent black holes

of vacuum universes,

extinguished cigarettes,

hopes unmet,

a thousand waves
of destruction and death—
this ultimate sacrifice

this sacrament extracts—
be ready for it.

Meet it with teeth
and a horn-clash.

____________

The body is ruthless:

inside of us
lies a humming nucleus

containing unseen colors—

kaleidoscope landscapes

of murder and betrayal,

cause of all causes,

the howl of winter hunger
and the scent of danger—
this solemn luxury of excess

consumes us
like a virus,

knowing no ending,
sucking us in.
Is this what you call sin,

the thin flickering horizon

between pleasure and terror?
I embrace it.
From here everything begins.



____________

Are we the ornaments
of experience?
I refuse to believe

in the cool logic of denial,
of black and white rooms
where the good and bad congregate,
obedient to their chosen masters.
I refuse to die
a blank slate—

empty as the bald pate
of a monk who’s given his body
to charity, 

offering the wrapped gift of his chastity

as a stopgap between heaven and earth.
I surrendered my wings
at the tollbooth

and pay my monthly dues in blood;

why should I forsake its purpose?
I am the religion of being

and creating, devouring,

unfolding into bliss—
I smash my fist
into a thousand holy books
that call me witch
for choosing the hymn

of hunger. 

I demand this:

before telling me my limits,

dare to look into the eyes

of my child
and tell me I am not mother

of her universe.

____________

Take ash in your hand
and draw a chalk circle around us.

We are criminals
in the court of cosmic justice.
Don’t offer me solace,
only kisses. 

Make us this church 

so we may worship
in peace. 

Protect us from the envy 

of piousness. 



Take my hand

and look straight in my eyes.

Don’t be afraid 
if you see through me
to the other side. I am meant for this.
I invite all the darkness
our opening brings. 

Whatever we do here is safe 

and secret. 

Fuck me in the senseless harmony of stars;

hold on tight like a jockey to the comet-head of my longing

and streak it across the cosmos.

I am the power of a thousand things.

© Sarah Noack 2007

Passiflora

for Tori Amos (whose guise my guardian angel assumed in a dream)

in a place safe from battle
she awoke me from my deathbed
gently in a dream
of mauve and velvet
and the starry crowns

of violet-green passiflora

exploding from a fire escape,

attracting sparrows—
the only indicator

of surrealism

and half-asleep and blinking
I waited at her wooden table
as a teapot whistled—
and as she rode through the doorframe
like a birthday candle flame
in a dress made of peacock feathers,

I just listened



and she said:

love yourself—
I mean really love yourself

as in a verb, an act of,
not some abstract notion—
as in a knowing
that your cells 
love the blood oceans
they swim in,

singing psalms
to their only heart.



She said:


cultivate radiance—

I mean the kind

that bursts from your eye sockets
like comic book stars
and drips from your pores
like the nectar of lilacs
that calls the irridescence

of hummingbird wings,

like the mystical amber buzz 

of honey—



she said—


be a sister to yourself
be a mother to yourself

be a lover to yourself
be an infant to yourself
be everything to yourself

and elevate yourself

as so human,

as the goddess you are



because no matter what
there’s never enough time
for a woman to heal herself,
to make love to herself
to know herself

to go inside herself,
and no matter what,
the world won’t give you that—



so you have to take your heart
and hold it tight
inside the callouses 

of your palms,

and let it loose 

with the blood jewels

that slip unchecked
from your depths,

let it drag from your limbs
like magnetic rattles

trailing glory
in your wake

as you fold towels,
trip over roller skates

and drive long hours
in industrious solitude

to make it all pay—

choosing daily between 

body and soul,
poems and life—



she said:



no matter how you struggle,

no matter how

the world pulls you under

its bunioned toes
you will have no part in ugly—
for you are
beauty itself—
you rise like the wet pale nymph,
colors awakening
into flight—
you rise 

like the timid pink sun

like the flickering neon rainbow
like the stretch of twilight shadows,
like dangerous thunderheads
like stubborn dandelions
that grow and grow
overtaking trim lawns

no matter how

you mow them—

she said:



you will win this, miss

but not by the user’s manual,

nor any tidy book of rules
and certainly not 
by closing your heart

to its semisweet core



for it is ecstasy only
that supports the orchid
on its frail foundation

of clouds and dreams

and should you dare
invite a draft
into this hothouse
you call death 

to your side—



she said:



wake up from the night

and take this ripe fruit 
of you
into your balled fist

into the hunger in your teeth
into the wide pockets of your dress

into every secret orifice
with a vigilant avarice
and spit out the pits,

don’t let anyone steal this
succulence—
no matter how busy you are,
how poor,

how your child cries

and the world needs more 

and more of you—

you are ripe,

you are whole
down to the strange sewers

of your soul. 

You give best
only when you hold on.
If you don’t know this,

then you’re just a hole, awaiting

a cement mixer to fill you—

and you have had enough 

of sidewalks.



She said:



You are love, love—

poetry in motion,
and all those pick-up clichés
from 1950’s songs
where the boy gets the girl,

only you are the girl

and already know it—



You are all the love you seek.
You are
the mystical musk of the ox,
the delicacy of rainbow
and the fragrance of orchid.

You are not a hole

but a volcano,

taking in and making
and breaking new pathways—
you are the flight of the butterfly,

the hummingbird’s irridescence

and the mythos of honey,
the secret life of bats

and the bitter melt of chocolate.

You are all things nectar

and beautiful,

you are darkness

and light
and you have no right

to deny us this,

woman—
all your sun and shadow.

She said,


Love yourself

(as in love yourself)

so that we all may love you,

lady:

bearer of light,

keeper of night,

guilty of the sin
of purity.


Spread yourself like grape vines

over these prison walls,

over each edifice
that reins in the flame

of spirit

and usurps your wine

for religion—

wash the just and unjust

with the rain of your senses,

and curl pigs and lepers

and infant angels
into the womb of your arms—

and 

with delicate skin,


press all the world’s wickedness
like pourcelain clay


into the sacred kiln
of your heart.





© Sarah N 2007

little girl

for Jeni

After a day like today
of wrestling with your curls,
washing paint from your shirt
and dirt from your hair

After a day like today:
a two-bath day of noise,
tears and no, muffin crumbs,
a nap truncated by the runs—

is the perfect day
to remember you just so:
standing on a hearth,
belting “My Funny Valentine”

in toddler lisp
as a party crowd smiled
in hushed bliss

or the way you dance
like your body is wind,
and smile like your face
is a broken urn
spilling sunlight

little miracle
of braids and curls
and storms and tantrums:
little girl—

the way you pick
at cake like an epicure,
commenting on each crumb
and ripple;
or search for the moon
behind a cloud

or sob at the thought
of hurting a cow,
or at your face in the mirror,
“I look like a mask!”
black-markered
after an experiment
in self-adornment—

the way you sigh
and enfold each bear
in its own tiny womb;
“Shhh, they’re tired,”
and sleep with no blanket
at the foot of the bed

or croon
Charlotte Gainsbourg
in the back seat of the car,
“I’m dead,
and I’m perfectly content,”
in the cheeriest
of copped French accents—

little worry,
little love
I cannot always find
the place in me
that speaks to you
as the soul you are—

that understands all
you bring
that knows you are wealth,
you are starlight

little teacher, you are patient
and I am old.
We chose each other:
let’s stay this way.

On a day like today,
let me hold you
and smell your dusty hair,
remembering the day
you came into this world:

small as a star,
fragile as pink dawn—
universes breathing
from the orb of your open lips.

© Sarah Noack 2007

Butch Love

When I was in high school, I spent a semester in France.

Now I know that sounds glamourous. But this wasn’t Paris or Provence or Bretagne… this was a really BORING part of France. A cultural backwater. The butthole of the southern Alps. My schooling was particularly boring. I went to lycee in a big box-like structure with such thin walls that I was sure the howling wind would someday blow it down. Kids had not yet learned the modern conveniences of life, such as showers, toilet paper or liquid soap. Or for that matter, private bathroom stalls where little boys didn’t wander in and bug us. It was a rough life. No one wanted to hang out with a weird American hippy-geek chick who wore purple Indian batik dresses and had a mouthful of braces. For a long time, I just kept myself entertained during my many study halls, by docking up in the library and reading subversive poetry by Gide and Rimbaud.

That was, until I entered the custody of Corrine Girod, a self-professed hippy-hating ska/punk chick who just happened to make an exception for me.

Corrine was definitely the girl my mother would have warned me about, if she were there to warn me about anything. However, she was not, so I was free to feel cautiously fascinated by this wild thing who first bonded with me by rasping, “Hey American girl, write me some American swears on my jeans!” What I noticed first was her smile: huge, fearless, leonine. And her voice. She smoked, but it wasn’t just that. It was the rough voice of a teenage boy in that tenuous moment before he changed into a man. I was immediately drawn into her spell.

Corrine was tough, but she was gorgeous in a haunting, Grace Jones sort of way. Boys secretly wanted her, but were terrified of her. She stood tall and erect as a column, and, looking back, I realize now that some of her beauty came from her mysteriously ambiguous ethnicity. At the time, I never noticed this. I just noticed her skin the color of beaten gold, her icy pale-green eyes with huge lashes, her wide pale lips and dark hair that, under her ever-present black knit cap, was always buzz-cut with a stiff flip of bangs. She always dressed like a boy, and trailed a fascinating aroma of leather, denim, tobacco and pheromones. She never wore makeup or jewelry except for a thick silver ring on her thumb, and when she walked, her stride conveyed a complete confidence and ownership of her body that I rarely see in women.

Corrine started talking to me after class, and soon my study halls started to get a lot more interesting. We used to sneak out to cafés, drink beer, and go to the candy store where she’d nurture me with gifts of gummy worms and chocolates. Part of me was always fascinated by her, and part of me a little afraid, even though there was nothing to be afraid of… she was always sweet to me. We’d feed the pigeons, walk hand in hand (as lots of friends do in France) and talk about life. I didn’t agree with all of her opinions about everything, but I thought she was beautiful, I knew that scorn came more readily to her than affection, and I was flattered that she was so protective and tender toward me. Corrine always encouraged me to challenge authority and stand up for myself, but was always more than happy to do it for me in a pinch—and I was more than happy to let her. Whenever the inevitable annoying male “drageur” would come my way, she would fend them off with such a deft flip the tongue (and sometimes finger, if necessary) that I felt swept away by her chivalry. “Don’t worry,” she’d say, putting her arm around my shoulder, “If these guys bother you, just let me handle it.”

Corrine lived by her wits. She made teachers cry, entertained herself with clever practical jokes, and openly challenged everyone in a way I never dared to do. But she had a soft side. She hated bullies. She yelled at people who hurt animals for fun. She would get murderously outraged about child abuse, and although she could use coarse racial slurs as insults, she was the one to always stick up for the half-Arab girl whom everyone teased because she believed her dad was someday coming back to her from Paris. Corrine used to let that little girl hang out with us all the time at recess, told off the kids who tormented her, and comforted her when she cried. “Cette pauvre gosse,” she’d storm after the kid left. “The world is full of heartless cunts!”

Corrine didn’t reveal this side of herself with everyone; it was a closely guarded secret. I heard it when she talked about her baby brother who was living in Marseilles, whom she missed terribly. I heard it when she talked about her family, whom she loved very much. They sounded like a free-spirited, loving family who was totally out of place here… her parents were divorced, but “toujours amis”, and they gave her a lot of freedom. When Corrine talked to me, she always said, “I don’t know why, but I like you a lot. You’re so sweet. You’re different than the other people around here. Are all Americans like you?”, which made me laugh, because I hardly considered myself a typical American in any way.

When I returned home after my exchange, I never forgot her. She was probably the one person whom I most connected with, the one gold thread that wove incoherent strands of foreignness together into a warm fabric of meaning. Even though even at that age I was already becoming aware of liking girls, it was a subtle and uncomfortable awareness, like the feeling of a wedgie you can’t remove in public without attracting snickers.

I went back to France year later with my high school class, striking out on my own the last part of the trip. On the day I was about to go back to the airport, I felt the nagging urge to go back to the café Corrine and I had spent so many truant afternoons. Maybe, while stopping in this town to visit my host family once more, I thought I might find her there. And maybe on that same day, she was thinking the same thing.

Looking back, I still think it was a miracle, but there she was. She had on the same worn bomber jacket and the same black skullcap. We hugged so hard she swept me into the air and swirled me around. She was completely surprised to see me; she didn’t even know I was in France, as I had lost her address (and regretted it terribly). We walked all day as we used to, talking at fever-pitch, visiting our old haunts and joking about her latest antics. We talked about politics, punk rock and art, exchanging dirty jokes as we always did. I had to catch a plane that night, which we tried not to think about as we caught up with old times. Our day had been pure bliss, an amazing surprise. We weren’t able to spend more time together, but I spent the last hour in Corrine’s arms on a park bench, with her holding me tenderly and telling me that she’d thought about me a lot after I’d left, and had always missed me. We talked about what could have been, but knew it was impossible… we lived on different continents, we had no money of our own. We both cried when I got on the bus to leave that town for the last time. We kissed, but it was very innocent and discreet; I think even she was conscious of being stared at. It wasn’t the kind of kiss we wanted, but it had to be enough. If it was more, I would have missed my plane and been stuck in the middle of this town forever. I went home, and got caught up with my life. We wrote each other a few times, but it was never the same reading her letters. She was a majestic person, the kind you had to see face to face, not read in sexually frustrated, inky scrawls on graph paper. And I never saw her again.

I was thinking about Corrine the other day as I do from time to time. Corrine was not the first, but maybe the first reciprocated, of many crushes on beautifully androgynous women. These crushes… on teachers, classmates, celebrities, co-workers… have shaped my identity as a woman, strengthened me, helped me find my power. It’s by no means an exclusive sort of attraction. I’ve liked many different kinds of people, on just about all hues of the gender spectrum. But, to be honest, I have a really huge thing for women who dare to walk the edge of what society calls “female.” Women who look aggressively, unapologetically QUEER. Women you’d NEVER see on a “girls4girls” site.

This isn’t something I can ever just throw away. It is a part of myself that I don’t deny, even at the times it’s been dormant, or I’ve been male-partnered. It is something I think is deep, and a treasure to me… something which teaches me constantly about the nature of gender, about myself, about the journey of the human soul.

What is butchness?

Well, for one: it’s a term of convenience which I’m exploiting right now. Ironically, I’m not crazy about the word “butch” and I know my delightfully androgynous sweetheart does not identify as such. It’s a generalized term here. It gets its point across. I can’t think of another word with quite the monosyllabic, subverted-stigma clout as “butch.” It has history, it’s controversial, it’s not flattering or politically correct. I am using this term specifically to show that while I also love the more subtle androgynous aspects in women—feyness, cute boyishness, a gayish flamboyance or the ascetic innocence of a monk, I don’t stop there. Give me the B-word in all caps. All those extreme stereotypes. The diesel dyke, the rebel punk, the crowd-parting “militant queer,” the nascent transman, the stone butch. I’m there. I don’t think there is any gender in the world that is more ridiculed and maligned than “butch” women… very effeminate men get the affection of women and some gay men, at least, while butch women are just seen as ugly, aggressive freaks. And I don’t believe women should feel apologetic for looking or acting the way we believe men are “supposed to.” It’s just another way of being, that’s all. And I happen to find it hot.

The things that most fascinated me about Corrine were the subtle juxtapositions, the incongruities. The feel of her scalp after she shaved her head (she always let me touch it). The way her long lashes and pale green eyes stood out against her stoic jawline. Her salty leather and denim scent… like boys, but not quite; there was a heady edge of girl in it. Could I picture her as a boy? Maybe. Sort of. But why? I didn’t want a substitute boy. I loved her woman’s body, her woman’s eyes, her woman’s heart. I loved the fear I felt when we’d change at gym, knowing that I’d be unable to avoid sneaking glimpses of her statuesque, gilded nakedness that made my breath catch in my throat. No matter how many times I saw her this way, each time it delighted and scared the shit out of me anew. The adrenaline rush was confusing. It wasn’t simply a matter of not wanting to stare, or feeling confused about my sexuality. It was simply the confusion of seeing breasts, these soft, vulnerable things that make milk for the young of our species, on such a badass being. But it was a delicious sort of confusion. It felt strange, but intriguing. And it was also simply the shock of seeing something so exquisite and forbidden, it felt surreal. Sometimes, years later, I wondered if our changing together was a dream. Did I dream up, also, the time that another girl giggled that I was Corrine’s lover because I was staring, and I, mortified, went into the bathroom to finish changing? Or, as often happens with me, was there more between us that I made myself forget? My mind is painfully efficient at erasing difficult memories, sometimes.

For me, butch is not an affectation as some believe, but an internal reality. One that is hard to define, but I recognize it when I feel it near me. It’s not just a tough attitude, which a femmey woman can adopt to protect herself. Nor a show of cheap, control-freak pseudo-masculinity, which I personally find creepy. If I want a man, I’ll find one, thank you very much. Nor will I let anyone with a bossy attitude get inside my heart. To me, butch is all about chivalry. It’s about courtly love, courage, honor. It’s about power, but also giving and surrendering to the higher power of a woman’s love. And while I’ll never say that a man is incapable of all these lofty qualities, somehow they just feel different to me—more intimate, coming from another woman. Women, including “butch” women, can access a deep, primordial source of power that’s very different from, and more intense in many ways than a man’s power. I always loved Ripley in Aliens, for example. She is so powerful, such a warrior. But she has this intense maternal instinct, this tenderness with the child. Her anger at the aliens is strengthened by her love for little Newt. She neglects no details in her care for the child: the first thing she asks the terrified child, is the name of her doll. This combination to me is so intoxicating. Yet she can also look monstrous aliens in the eye and yell, “YOU BITCH!” as she slaughters them, and take down a corrupt government project all by herself. But it’s not just about power… femmes and straight women can be very powerful as well.

It’s more than that. Butch is a woman who rides the horse of her anima with impeccable grace and courage, even if her hands sometimes tremble on the reins.

Butch women remind me that women contain every human trait imaginable, that all archetypes of females exist, from warrior to queen to submissive wife and everything in between. They remind me that women stem from the double X chromosome… the original, not the variant, of material energy. The Bhagavad Gita states that all matter is actually feminine in nature (prakrti, or “enjoyed”… also a part of God, of course) while God (as person) is the only REAL, TRUE masculine force in the universe (isvara… or “enjoyer/controller”). So in reality, masculine appearance of an entity is only an illusion, a heightened state of maya or delusion about one’s actual cosmic position. In the material world, the female state of incarnateness is closer to its primordial spiritual state than that of the male.

The “butch” (for lack of a more encompassing word) woman to me is like that moment when X decided to branch out and become Y. To be different, to explore Otherness. To break free of the matrix and begin the long and lonely journey of the soul. In a woman who is born butch, who carries that with her, I see the complex, faltering beauty and aloneness of that moment. And it moves me. I honor, celebrate and adore the women with the audacity to keep their sanity in a society that tells them at every turn, that their power is ugly and threatening. I honor all the many subtle manifestations of gender, and have a soft spot in my heart for this particular wavelength.

© Sarah Noack 2009

Watching Lizards

for A

The day we watched lizards
behind glass,
we lost track of time
and incited the ire
of an angry husband
who suspected
ulterior motives;
it was then I knew
how little he knew you.

Collapsed in a heap,
they sought the warmth
of a glass bulb
on their collective mass,
unblinking, unflinching,
quietly growing tails;
eating without appetite
when the occasion arose

fascinated, we pressed
against the pane,
you and I,
like children, we talked
to each and every one
and discussed the physics
of reptilian union,
entranced
by their discernment —
which came so naturally
to you

but sometimes
we’d feed our senses
with flavors of light:
simple and noble,
turnip cakes and parchas
tastes of jungles and rivers
where maybe we’d once
been sisters
and we’d close our eyes
and shamelessly delight

We came so far
from the day we first met
when you frightened me
with your style and grace,
and your child’s face
but I didn’t mistake you,
not for a moment,
when your voice crackled
like someone burned;
when your black eyes betrayed
the secrets of lizards
living under pyramids,
the mysteries of scarabs,
the bending of music
under benthic depths

You were pink and lavender
and smaller than snowflakes,
drawing cheers
from teenage boys
but I loved you for your mind:
wingbeats of angels
flitting amid the graves
and darkest orchid imaginings,
stories of primordial hibiscus
pregnant with grandchildren,
their crimson wells
attracting workers
to serve the Queen,

and wasplike secrets
of what you enjoyed
and how you’d been stolen
so many times,
used until you broke inside
yet you never fell down:
a tail regrown,
a soul reborn
in the same life,
bright salamander
entering the fire
and emerging whole —
dignity radiant in your gait,
metal glinting behind your laugh.

If he just looked in your eyes
for a moment
he would see what I saw,
and know why
you lingered so long that day,
why the lizards pleased us so
and he would cherish
and honor you
like the paradoxical moon

but all I could do was take the bus
on a cold morning
after sleeping in the world
by your side,
and know that you will be hurt again
as he sharpens his edge
on the grindstone he made your heart,
thinking you belonged to him:
but I always knew
you belong only to music,
to the angels of shadow and light.

One day you were gone,
and I never forgot you—
not until you turned over the rocks
and found me again,
telling me everything
how you escaped
without even a cup,
living in borrowed places
like you’d once lent to me,
so what could I do?

I gathered everything I had
and offered you more.
And I will offer again, anytime you ask:
familiar,
sister,
playmate,
queen.

I know you are well
and in your own sphere.
I have learned your rhythms
and you remain in mine,
crossing and uncrossing paths
even in the face of silence.
I don’t need confirmation
of your affections,
or a phone call
to know my location
in your heart.

Yet I admit,
I’m missing you:
I await a day
we’ll watch lizards again—
enjoying mysteries of forked tongues
and the stone stillness of their repose;
I miss your turnip cakes
and the call and response
of your daily narrative—
the pride of being needed.
I miss the backstage pass
into the sanctum of your senses
where we met and connected,
relieved,
washing our souls
in the colors of our company.

©Sarah Noack 2007

The Gift

(To the one who gifted me)

A discreet sort of madness 

burns
in the raw opal of my iris,
a blue flame that sets me apart—
ecstatic, relentless,
intriguing and sly,
quick as a comet—
but this didn’t come from the sky
or from some stardust I swallowed
that forever poisoned me
with its brilliance

so I have to give credit
where credit is due:

you,
oh you—
the reason for me,
I can’t escape
geneaology

and the more I turn away
the more your shadow stays;
the more I age, the more the lines
on my face assume their place
in the maps that trace
your own

You may not know
all the monsters inside you
which I have given tender names to
and fed on tiny violets, cowdung
and my own bones

You may never know
how you ignited me,
jump-started the pilot light
in the oven of my mind—
unnatural fire, restless hunger
bright blue flame in the dark
that no one quite understood
but you,

oh you, you—
conceiver of me,
I can’t run from the shade
of my family tree

I’m not asking for sympathy
or an apology or another promise
to not burn as fires tend to, or any noble epiphany
of love, but simply this:
a handshake of soldiers
perched beside an abyss

who narrowly avoided toppling
into a hell I’ve learned isn’t as perverse
as we’ve been warned of—
but we can’t retrieve what’s lost in war
and I can’t return
to the battlefield
anymore
with you,

—oh you,
you,
revealer of me
dark mirror of
my symmetry—

satyr, genie,
escape artist,
you can’t escape anymore—
you’ve trapped yourself
into the pale vial of my skin
in the quadrille-ruled pages of my mind
in blue fountain pen ink
and, like a constant splinter,
too deep in my heart to pluck out
without bleeding to death
so there’s no way out, you see, no way—
you’re stuck in here with me
whether you like it or not

oh you, you—
we’ll just have to learn this art
of touching from afar—
it comes naturally,
once you get used to it
just nod if you’ve heard this
and don’t feel sorry,
don’t toss in token coins
to pay for what was never stolen—
and don’t try to fix
what was never broken
for I am whole
and always was
because you were never
apart from me,

oh you—
you, inspirer of me
I don’t need to ask you
to set myself free

for I lack nothing, in fact:
I am white and blue
I am whole and intact
and true to my origin:
free radical, loose cannon,
a story with no moral
and no excuses,
looking into a room
of broken glass
that no one uses
but which will soon pass
for an excellent mosaic
with the proper grout

and my artisan hands
that were built from yours
will work this mess out,
with kid gloves
and a professional touch

oh you
oh you
don’t you understand
I’m beyond what you thought
I could ever comprehend:

because of you, you, you
I am me—
heiress of solar flares and hot air,
drifting far too high
in the atmosphere
like Icarus,
only I am wiser than he,
simple rascal,
poor drowning bastard
for I know
I never needed wings
to fly—

it wasn’t your fault
you didn’t realize
the wax and feather mess
would someday melt,
breaking apart
the fabric of my heart—
but you thought it was better
to maintain the appearance
of wings,

and this gift
of survival
you have given me
has taught me everything
about the sun—
and I have learned
to hold my eyes open
as the blue spots burn
a secret cuneiform
in without pain,
which the naked eye
is blind to—
oh you
oh you

fountain of my madness
shaker of my snow
twisted mirror of genius
source of my glow
I thank you for this gift—
because all good things
come with a price,
and I don’t deny yours was a bit high
but I know that there’s no sky
without a sun
and no one
can take you
from me—

even if I must fly
at a distance.

© Sarah Noack 2006

Sunday Morning

for Jeni

Sunday morning
and it’s just you and me
on this day,
unseasonably cool
and bright with the promise
of dawn and nourishment
as you stand beside me
carefully, chair tucked
backward against the counter
just as I’ve showed you—
you offer
onomonapeaic commentary
on the sizzle of pancakes
we co-create,
frozen blueberries dropping
within each pale thought-bubble
to a backdrop of jazz.

I’ve forgotten what it’s like
this you and me—
how much we need each other,
and how I have learned to cut my heart
out at the seams
to feed you.
How I have become your lioness
prowling the streets
for your prey,
how I’ve learned to ignore
the howl of missing you
echoing invisibly
in the hollow caves of my heart,
as I amble home
too tired and alone
to offer more
than fences.

But today it is Sunday,
before noon—
this morning sparkles with the promise
of all we’ve learned to live without.
First, breakfast on the porch;
then, anything—we could drive
to the glass conservatory
at the botanic gardens
only to smell each orchid,
or lick the curling tips
off cones of frozen custard.
You ask me what we’re listening to,
and I tell you: Charlie Parker,
a man they called Bird—you like this.
You beg for icy blueberries;
for a chance to stir the batter,
even though it’s already mixed—
I let you.

Tomorrow I will be your hunter again.
I may not always laugh at your antics
or share your delight
as you crouch to examine an ant parade
when I’m running late for work;
or remain patient as I brush your nest of curls.
I may bark if your wiggling legs
kick my frazzled nerves,
or snap if your laughter
breaks my brooding dialogue
with spectres of bills and death.

Someday if you read this,
you will know the secret
of all our missing places—
and that I always understood
all I didn’t give,
all my heart cried for in secret:
how I wanted to be there with you,
to laugh and examine ant-convoys
each day and everyday.
Please don’t give up.
I am there with you—
always.

Please leave behind
all you know didn’t fit
what I’d planned for you
in the well-appointed house
of my heart—
the stained kitchen table,
laundry piling up,
a deadline distracting me,
the collection call’s interruption.
I am not even close
to all I wanted to be.

But take this one thing
and hold it with all your might:
our Sundays of the senses,
of shared mischief
and discovery
where my soul can play
in the lazy dawn,
and you and I can be we again.

© Sarah Noack 2007

Storm Watch

A tree falls dead at my feet.
In its wake, black wire serpents
flail. Their sparkler tails
burn and flare—
a sort of sati
portending missed voicemails
of suicide and love:
basement
trapped
the cords snap,
cell phone towers down
and I’m blank
as the matte-slate air—

I inch my way past the extinct
traffic signal, crushing wings of leaves
and limbs of struck trees,
my car congealed
in liquid stillness
as the windshield wipers
swish and swish

Storm warning in five counties
and tornado watch delivered through static
like this overlooked death threat
delivered into my ear,
and no reception
no response

I never knew it was a twister
waiting to meet me down the bend:
it wasn’t enough to survive once today,
so the sky hoarded shadows
like a ball of found rubberbands
and tucked it in this slingshot of wind
stretching taut on the branches
that break and hurl before me:
it wasn’t enough to be stuck
on a road with no shoulder
and flashing lights of fire trucks:
can’t pull over
stuck—

it wasn’t enough to get this call
two days late,
and not knowing
if the storm has passed
or his ghost waits at my back:
only that sometimes
the rain falls so hard
the contours of road disappear
and inanimate objects attack

but all I can do
is turn off the radio
and sing of my smallness
to a God I can suddenly feel,
feeling strangely safe
as the funnel of darkness
gathers speed,
sucking up sky
and startling the world
with sudden nightfall

and neither of us would matter
nor this whole world of playthings,
so easily submerged and purged
of their messy disenchantments,
if it weren’t for the smile
of a little girl
waiting for me
like a hidden sun on the end
of a silver cord—

she is smaller than a raindrop,
but a universe to me.
On my street, the power is out;
I have no vacancies for ghosts.
A child lives in my house:
her flashlight’s ray dances on the screen.
In the aftermath of broken things,
I clutch her to me like a dream.

© Sarah Noack 2007

Lucky

I felt lucky today at the gas pump at Cumby’s
post-snowstorm,
the pickup trucks with their dragon breath
refueling, and New Order on the outside radio
as they pulled up and parked,
got cigarettes,
and the coffee from Ipanema
(available for a limited time)—

I decided the blinding sun and cracking icicles
were a sign, and invested
in the lottery:
the scratch-off cards hung
like ripe metallic fruit,
not at all forbidden
because we all deserve to get lucky—

And it doesn’t matter if I get
the horseshoe, or the wild eight
because I can see that winning number
already, pulsing and alive,
glowing in 3D from its portal of scratched silver
like I’m entitled to this
like a glittering birthright

I won’t say I didn’t win today
because I know how to read the signs,
and when I scratch it with the dime in my pocket,
I scratch it ALL—just to see how my desires look
in space and time, ink and paper
I’ve been rehearsing this number so long
and baby, I’m ready to roll

It’s a bright blue morning, and
today I’m an ambassador from insomnia,
carrying stardust in my smile
and supernovas in my sweatshirt pockets.
I carry the night’s dreams
with the steam clouding my window.
They are safe with me,
here in the light.

Today I feel lucky just to be here,
in this place of shiny and dark things
as my car fills with scents of coffee
and gasoline, and I’m still humming
Thieves Like Us as I put in the key
and as I drive off into this young day,

I know there’s a place for me
here today
because I am lucky —
I am all the winning numbers
hidden away in secret drawers
waiting for the mischief
of surprise

© Sarah K. Noack 2017

Firefly

It seems
I’ve tripped
and landed in your tree,
little firefly
who lights up my nights—
more silver than moonlight,
more pensive than starlight,
your laughter is the blanket
my sleepy ears covet—
 
mischevious you
whose voice is the dancer
who follows my dream feet
into dark womb-caverns
where echoes play—
 
you are tender and deviant,
full of cool marble secrets
I hide in my pocket
to touch as I go about my days
 
and when I tell you I love you,
I mean that I have already put aside
everything
for you
(without even really
meaning to)
 
I mean that I carry you
everywhere like a charm,
and when I say your name,
my tongue grows arms
and embraces it—
 
I mean
that sometimes just hearing your voice
is the hovering whisper
of wings on my skin,
calling angels and devils
to come out and play
 
and that that I ache when you cry
and I would taste copper
should I hear of your predators,
and wake in the night
to tear their necks with my teeth.
 
When I say I love you,
I mean that I love you so much
knowing I can only watch,
and being entirely OK with this
 
because you are the shadow
who’s followed me
all the way home,
and come to rest in my bed
as peacefully as a falling kite
who has tired of the open sky.
 
When I keep you awake
with all my sordid secrets,
there is always one I solemnly keep:
that the deepest of them all is you—
 
because in in all our ease and mischief,
I have fallen
and scraped my knee
on the beauty of your soul
 
and I have tried in vain
to stop this bleeding,
but it’s funny how I’m
never needing
more than you can give—
 
because you are perfect to me
as only friends can be
and never cause me pain—
even when my heart
overflows with your essence,
we’re still laughing with each breathless breath—
ensconced in this womb of connection.
 
Firefly,
I never tire
of your shy phosphorescence
glowing in my night jar
that rests on my pillow,
tucked in the crook of my sleeping arm.
There is only love and more love
while I am watching you
from a thousand miles away,
holding on to you like a promise—
my closed eyes spilling over
with the swirling galaxies of your dreams.
 
© Sarah Noack 2008

burden of light

(inspired by Munch’s series of paintings of of the sun, in which he actually suffered retinal damage from looking directly and continuously into the sun)

The strangest pain is too much joy—
I stagger under its weight.
Born too bright,
I crave shadow,
my face fading
in the burning light.

There is no skeleton,
only skin—
There is only pleasure,
never sin.
I levitate easily into the sun:
in dreams I float right in,
dissolving
atom by atom
in its permanent grin.

The worst pain is having known and seen

and living in the green afterglow
of the burnt-in cornea,
hearing the roar of eternity
in my blown cochlea
but when I look in my backpack,
it’s empty
and I feel suddenly so alone

and knowing I’m supposed to find it again
somewhere under a bush
and share it with you
and then when I look,
it hides, laughing, and flits behind me
Sometimes I dig something out of my pocket
and it blinds me,
a post-it note from God—

ecstasy is a switch
that, once pulled,
stays forever turned on
so, burning and electric,
I fight the urge to dance
at odd moments
and cloak myself in clouds
so I won’t be noticed—

maybe if I seek the night,
the stars will oblige
one by one, to share their light
divulging subtleties
in their constellations
without the side effects
of ultraviolet radiation

Or maybe I’ve missed the point
and didn’t realize
that all along,
the bush itself was burning
and so am I
and everything that dances
in my wake—

ecstasy is no currency
in a world of corners
if anything,
it is a weakness
so use it accordingly
and guard it preciously
but distribute it freely
and realize there are no dualities
paradox is orthodox

and syntax is the substitute
semantics are gymnastics
understanding is confining
to a prison of the past
Don’t try to make this last
Don’t try to explain,
just close your eyes
and notice the patterns
on the backs of your lids
that form a landscape
if you look long enough
an inner city
within easy commuting distance

I know I am awake
and that my eyes are superfluous
but until I learn to see through the blindness,
it’s so hard to burn alone,
living in this secret place
where joy and sorrow are one.

© Sarah Noack 2006

dirty (villanelle)

I was feeling in a villanelle state of mind as I was walking home in the rain. Villanelle states of mind are rarely good things, and this wasn’t really any exception. But villanelles are always complex, interesting poems, despite the brooding, stalker-ish obsessions that tend to bring them on.

Writing a villanelle sometimes feels like (at its easiest), about as easy as flossing the teeth on a squirming hamster. I call it the S&M poetic form. Pain! Bondage! Yes! Impose more restrictions PLEASE! Actually, you could call it snuff poetry too, because by the time you’re finished the damn thing, your original idea is always either dead from all the structural handcuffs and duct tape around it… or, magically it has come to life in a new, scarily unrecognizable, and worrisomely obsessive mood that bears little resemblance to its original, much tamer inspiration. I actually find the form very cathartic, a natural way to work through persistent, repetitive thoughts with a twist of dark humor. I super-sized this one with extra stanzas, in tricky dactylic meter… just to add to the torture.

________________

DIRTY

You think that my heart is too dirty to mention.
I told you I loved you, and love speaks in tongues.
An ounce of the cure is worth pounds of prevention.

I don’t want any more of your smug condescension
I just need the caress of your breath on my lungs
though you think that my heart is too dirty to mention,

black with its soot of stale sexual tension
that tunes my violas to ultra-high-strung,
so an ounce of this cure is worth pounds of prevention

though all that I crave is your tender attention,
I really don’t want to know how well you’re hung
(though you think that). My heart is too dirty to mention

and a breach of our schoolyard rules merits detention—
but this ship is on fire, the leak has been sprung
so an ounce of the cure’s now worth pounds of prevention

as I’m caught in the fart of mistaken intentions
while you brush yourself off like my touch is cow-dung;
you think that my heart is too dirty to mention

for your sweet secret feelings cause such apprehension
but I see in your eyes that the stinger has stung
and an ounce of the cure is worth pounds of prevention,

though it seems nothing short of divine intervention
could ever convince you my heart isn’t wrong.
You think that my heart is too dirty—to mention

this unforeseen slip to another dimension
sheds unwanted light on our songs left unsung.
You think that my heart is too dirty to mention,
but an ounce of your cure is worth pounds of prevention.

© Sarah N. 2008

loose

I’ve been wound up
so tight
for so long,
tangled in knots
and caught on my branches
like a kite on a tree—

so please allow me
this solemn luxury
of being loose:

loose like a shudder,
like a low-hanging sky
like an unchained sob
or the sound of a sigh

like Matisse’s blue
slowing down my heartbeat
like moon jellies pulsing
in the ultramarine deep

like the scent of gardenias
or the flavor of butter
like a worn-out child
in the arms of its mother

oh let me be loose
and let me be sweet
let me open the gates
and collapse on warm sheets

let me bathe away worries
let me swim away cares
let me whisper and sing
through the haze of my tears

oh let me be loose
and let me be gentle,
let me raise all my white flags
and wax sentimental

let me feel all there is,
let my fences all break—
let the dogs come and find me,
let me make my mistakes

let me give it all up
and grin like the fool
who’s realized
there is nothing amiss:

this sudden abyss
that froze my gait
is only this:
my own two arms,
open and waiting,
strong like the earth
and loose like the sun
and its many rays,
woven around me
like invisible skeins—

longing to hold me
and kiss my soul awake.

© Sarah Noack 2006

hungry soldier

I was working at the DC Green Festival one weekend, doing beverage demos. Among other adventures that befell me, I had to run all the way out to my car, which was parked quite a ways away in some lot, to get cups and brochures from my trunk when we ran out.

As I close the trunk, I pull a half-eaten vegan “turkey salad” sandwich out of my bag and start eating it. Suddenly a soldier appears at my side, in full uniform.

“Hi,” he says, “Do you know where I can get something to eat around here?”

The DC Convention Center is in a pretty desolate part of the city. There isn’t much on this street but a few parking lots, used car-parts places, and the infamous DC Eagle leather bar with its painted-over windows and blue-black S&M flag proudly flying. And somehow, I don’t think that’s quite the menu he’s looking for.

I dig in my bag and found some all-natural brownie made of raw, sprouted grains and carob. I’d bought it at the festival to eat later. I explain to him that it was kind of “earthy-crunchy” and that it’s all I have, and I’d understand if he wanted something more mainstream. I would help him find it.

“No, this is great,” he says, unwrapping it and taking a bite. “I’m so hungry, this gives me a chance to try something new.” Chewing it, he smiled. “Wow, this is really good! Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“That’s not going to fill you up,” I say. “I don’t know DC much, but I do know there are lots of eats at the Green Festival where I’m headed. It’s all vegetarian, but that’s all I know right around here.”

I wait for him to tell me thanks but no thanks, I’m looking for some real food… McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC. He’s silent for a moment.

“Can you take me there?” he asks cautiously. “I’ve always been curious about all this natural, organic stuff.” I tell him it’s paid admission, but that he’s military and should get in free in my opinion, so I’d try to sneak him in. I offer to show him around a bit.

We talked as we walked… me, genderqueer veggie liberal, and him—tall, clean-scrubbed, freckle-faced, full-on Southern boy in desert fatigues who looked like Richie Cunningham. We exchange stories. I ask him if he is home from a tour; he is not. He tells me about life in the Army, because I ask him. I tell him about tofu and organic food, because he asks me.

I manage to sneak him past the guards. He looks around at all the people in tie-dyes, dreads, “Impeach Bush” shirts. Folk music plays loudly from a stage. There are booths everywhere of peace activists, animal rights activists, queer activists, green activists.

“People are looking at me funny,” he notes, not really seeming to mind.

“That’s their problem,” I say. And it was. Just like I get paid to lie sometimes when I mystery shop, his job potentially involves killing and cooperating with what may at times be corrupt government agendas. But we all have a job to do, don’t we? We are not in a perfect world. We need the military to protect us, now. Maybe this is a myth that someday, in John Lennon’s imagine-able world, we will live in a world of peace. But until then, soldiers get hungry. And thirsty.

I saw a big display of tables full of earth-friendly sugarcane-fiber cups. A sign announced an event he I knew he wouldn’t want to miss. “Look, you’re in luck,” I pointed out. “Free organic beer tasting today!”

“Sweet!” he says, smiling. I show him where the sandwiches were and explain the different types of fillings. I am so apologetic about the lack of meat, and he doesn’t care. He’s wide-eyed, completely curious, not a trace of any voyeuristic sneer in his demeanor. He’s crossed the barbed wire fence and is visiting The Other Side, and I am his tour guide. I offer to buy him a sandwich. I don’t really have much money on me… I have to pay my babysitter, my parking, my gas. But I feel like—for all the shit he goes through every day, all the insults and dehumanizations he must undergo each day as part of his discipline—regardless of whether or not I adore the causes he is forced to defend, the least I could do is buy him a tofu sandwich.

He tells me he’s sorry that he’s keeping me from my work… he knows I have to get back to my table. I do; my absence will be noticed by now. I offer one more time to buy him a sandwich. When he declines and says he’ll just look around, I realize that maybe he just wants to hang out and drink beer first, and figure out for himself what he wants.

So I leave him, and head back to my booth. I feel delightfully wicked for sneaking him in. And I hope he tells his friends that the tree-huggers are OK sometimes after all.

© Sarah Noack 2007