Sandy Rankin

Dirty Secret


“Beauty is historical in itself in what wrests itself free.”—Walter Benjamin


The rural town where I grew up in Arkansas was almost named after Moose. His fellow farmer, or so the story goes, won the infamous coin toss. His name was Morrill. And so he matters. 

In Morrilton, the family of Moose, their 19th century bloodline, still exists. They are, in fact, our 21st century (white of course) aristocracy. Their house, or, rather the elderly matriarch’s house, near the railroad tracks, has two stories, a wrap-around porch, antebellum columns. She lives there, alone, I think, though a black maid comes once a week to clean. Ironically, Morrilton has no Morrills.  

This poem, which isn’t an ode—despite my love for the odes of Pablo Neruda—must have a moral (a silly pun that I hope you can forgive), a moral that will be shot through with history, shot through with love, shot through with beauty, twice beauty, yes: for it will primarily be about two girls in high school who never spoke to one another: Lisa Y___ and me.  

What happens to girls—born to lark-leap, to prance-dance—born in a rural town, 1961, 1962, almost named after Moose but for a fickle coin toss? A matriarch survives, but her days are numbered. Was she beautiful? Did she dance? Was she a teetotaler? Does she vote? Did she have any daughters? Does it matter? 

Lisa, I ask you now, did you ever wonder about Moose and Morrill, about matriarchs and daughters, black maids, legacies of slavery, oppression, violence, or me? Did you know my name, the quiet girl who dreamed of becoming a poet, who watched you and admired your beauty as if your beauty mattered?  

If a modern girl is a dreamer, and beautiful to boot, in Morrilton, will she know the boot in her delicate face—(perhaps) forever?  

Men, and women too, will tell her she isn’t beautiful. Dreams, they will say, over and over, in action and deed, do not exist, though, she may marry a man from Morrilton, or a nearby town, bear him children: if she will iron his clothes, teach his children manners (yes sir, no sir, I believe in God sir races shouldn’t mix sir) and morals. They think that manners and morals actually matter. 

O Strange Girl, you think you can leave this town, wherever you go? You think you may be beautiful? You think you look a little like Lisa? You think you can open the skies, blaze like a star, be loved by a man whose brilliance equals your own, who dreams and loves a world of possibilities, who wishes beautiful dreams for everyone who doesn’t matter, who likes to kiss and lick your belly: his heart, like yours, fantastic, full of wonder, red, and beautiful, and open? Revolution! Impossible.  

We will break you, girl, well before you meet him. Bruise you, laugh at you, call you whore, slut, ditzy, kitten—before he indeed imagines that he may love you. He will not know you, if by chance he meets you. This is the real world, kitten. Bruised women don’t much matter.  

If someone from Morrilton attempts to love you, when you are 16, 17, 18—such a kitten!—he will be the one who bruises your slight body. Someone must teach you a lesson. Your first (almost) love knows the significant lesson. You want to know a sliver of significance here? Listen to him, the man who knows what (almost) love and the world are all about, who knows you are but a kitten, who thinks you will submit to the big-bad-menacing-everywhere-yellow- snarling-whore-dog, if not to him.  

Kitten, stay here, in the clench of my heart. I will protect you from the dog-eat-dog world. Kitten, here is my fist, if you dare to dream beyond the walls of me. Kitten, if you love me, burn your books. Kitten? Pablo Neruda? Who the fuck is he? Kitten, no one can love you like I can. Eat my fist. Lick my everything. No, I won’t lick you. Disgusting, kitten. I wear the pants, not you. If you leave me I will die. In the future, you say you will dye your hair purple, pierce your nose, tattoo your shoulder, burn your bra? Didn’t I tell you to burn your books? What book is that? Gorilla, My Love? Bambara! You’re reading a book by a nigger? Why can’t you be like everyone else? Goddamn it! Don’t leave me, kitten. I am the one who matters. 

If a girl is a dreamer, and beautiful to boot—she won’t be allowed to know it. Even her parents will say, in word and deed, human beauty does not exist, particularly for a girl like you, born and bred in Morrilton. Momentarily in the Mind? Stamp out that flicker! All there is, is the ground in Morrilton. Outside of Morrilton, nothing but the cruelty of the fickle coin toss. In Morrilton, however cruel, at least you can see the numinous stars when they shoot across the sky. Spread your blanket here, girl. But do not think that the subsequent light in your eyes is stardust. Where did you get those bruises?  

Beautiful One, what will be your answer? Sleep-walking, a door shut, a wall, ditzy me, always dreaming. Will I ever learn my lesson? It doesn’t matter. 

When you are older, you will remember the girl in high school whom everyone acknowledged was a raving born-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks-but-lucky-she-is-such-a-beauty. Her long blonde hair. Her slender body. Her easy laugh. Captain of the cheerleaders. 1980 Prom Queen. To you, a pixie wood-nymph. She pranced. (Behind her back, they said, what you knew your friends said about you, whore, slut, ditzy. A boyfriend? You know what she is doing.) At 23, Lisa was dead. Her boyfriend killed her with an iron pipe. He laid her body on the railroad tracks with the hope that no one would find his crime. Murder certainly matters. Would they think Lisa committed a stereotypical suicide? Tchh, Tchh. No one should be that beautiful. A girl should never laugh so easy. Did she have it coming? 

O Lisa, I never spoke to you. You were too much a shooting star for the likes of me. I was secretly dreaming of Pablo Neruda, of someone somewhere like him, of shivering stars in a red open heart, of someone who would see me as I saw you. I refused to read Harlequin Romances with air-brushed men and women (so terribly white, but so were you and I) on their covers. I preferred to dream of a revolutionary Latino poet, with a marvelous belly. I dreamed of Neruda, an airy/earthy/firey/watery poet of passionate words, compassionate deeds, a real-life shivering-star magnificent belly. No more bruises on my small body.  

Lisa, did you read poetry? Did you read science fiction, fantasy, or fairytales, or romances, or horror? Did you read Jane Eyre and mistakenly call yourself plain? When you were 12, did you write on a piece of yellow paper, stick it under your pillow, “I am an ugly duckling who dreams of becoming a swan”? Did you later read Jude the Obscure and weep? But does it matter? 

Did you see it coming, the horror of the iron pipe? Did it gleam in the starlight? Did you dream an alternate world, a red open heart, minus the boot in your face—forever, minus the approaching train that could crush your delicate bones into the ground? Did you believe in God and heaven, that morals and manners were intimately connected? The year you died, though I may be doubted: 1984, year of the Orwellian boot in the face—forever. Do I misremember? Maybe it was 1988, and you were 26 or 27. Does it matter?  

1988. A piano player in a posh Laguna Beach bar (Trees, for the tree at the center of its heart), the player, my lover, or lust-er, for six months—his last name was Singer. He called me Lisa, when he was drunk, having loved a Lisa who left him to become a Hollywood star. I thought of you, Lisa, light as a feather, representation of other-world beauty. I suddenly believed the really real me looked and walked and laughed (almost) like you, beautiful woman Lisa. When I walked in the bar, he stopped whatever he was playing to sing instead the song he knew I ridiculously loved: of course, “Sad Lisa.” She “walks from wall to wall, but no one can hear her . . . . You want to be near her.” Cat Stevens, whose wild-world heart I loved almost as much as I loved the heart of Pablo Neruda.  

Cat Stevens turned his back on the business of music and stardom, on the business of glittering form without substantial content, to teach children in London the meaning of Insha’llah. Is that radical, or is it reactionary? Did he support the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie? Maybe it matters. He, now, Yusuf Islam, singing in public about East and West together, a beautiful utopian glimmer. No more purdah for the former Cat.  

Singer’s voice was liquid, and silver, and beautiful—but he never made it in music outside of Trees. Neither could he love me. Did Lisa, his Lisa, who failed in Hollywood, return to him? I doubt it. I left California, drove alone through a storm in the Mohave Desert, where it never rains, I was told. I almost died, on my way back to Arkansas, falling asleep at the wheel, shivering, withdrawing from an ugly addiction to heroin. Confessions of a Morrilton Opium Eater, isn’t that Romantic? Did an angel save me from the desert, from the flood, from the pull of sleeping forever, from Opium permanent damage? Was she or he an angel of history, maybe a poet, who looked into the tender heart of me and wept wet religious tears? Jesus wept. Nico and Gia died. Does it matter? 

2007. Have I not yet learned my lesson, burned my books, spread my blanket on the ground in Morrilton, clenched my heart like an angry-possessive fist, accepted the boot in the human face—forever? I dare to write of the possibility of an angel, beautiful and benevolent, an angel of history, a poet whose heart is red, who loves the hearts of those of us who remain in the eyes of the world immanently obscure, including Lisa, including me?  

O Wild World, what are sad shooting stars but burning iron at their vanishing core?  

Why do I write a poem for Lisa, who likely never knew my name, who likely never heard of fatwa, purdah, jihad, or insha’llah, who never heard of the angel of history, who would not blink her beautiful eyes if I had died in her place, skull bashed in, laid on the railroad tracks, a dirty secret? Someone said she was naked. Insha’llah? I think it matters. 

Why do I still dream of a red open heart with shivering stars, a man who will kiss and lick my slender but rounded belly (O vanity, I am almost light as a feather) and more, two strong hearts who will lick the world, seeing numinous stars triumph over the cruelty of the coin toss, seeing dreams in our bones, not the cruelty of the crushing blow, for everyone? Why do I dream of Lisa’s heart, throbbing in an alternate world, liquid, and silver, and beautiful, a world of love, immanent and beautiful, in this one—minus the clank of tips in a jar on top of a wealthy Singer’s piano? He had an inheritance, a Mercedes Benz, silk shirts from Paris. Why should he be someone who matters? 

Neruda, did you greet Lisa when she died, you already in poetry heaven, or some place like it, but immanently airy/earthy/fiery/watery? Did you tell her that all of your odes, all of your sonnets, every poem that you wrote, all of your words, were for her, as well as for Matilda, for me, for beautiful women with significant stardust in their eyes, but also sorrow? Did you tell Lisa that her life was not in vain, that love for Lisa always matters?  

I think of Lencola Sullivan, Miss Arkansas 1981, first black American in the top five finalists of Miss America, born in Morrilton, not long before Lisa, not long before me. She wrested beauty from history—somehow. She was beautiful. O wonder! She became the wonder of Stevie Wonder, the apple of his dazzling New York eyes. Isn’t she lovely—what his blind eyes could see, what his hands and tongue could know! Did he kiss her belly? Isn’t music the heart and soul of every marvelous poet fantastic Wonder? I believe it. Did Lencola sleep with Bill Clinton? Rumor has it. I don’t believe it. Does it matter?  

This is the real world, kitten. Power is a powerless beautiful woman’s aphrodisiac.   

This poem is for Lisa Y, murdered in Morrilton, who never met Stevie Wonder or Bill Clinton. If she had, they would have loved her, kissed her belly, or mistakenly fucked her. This poem is for the end of violence, the end of beauty pageants, of judges who mark and rank beautiful faces, beautiful bodies, the end of our romance of the sadomasochistic boot—forever. This poem is for the end that is the beginning of 21st century Lisa, the beginning of 21st century Lencola, yes, for revolution. This poem is for the beginning of 21st century shivering-star me! This poem is for Samantha, who is my daughter, who is eight, already a beautiful poet. For Elijah, who is my son, who is sixteen, tall and sweet, who loves a girl named Lexie. Alexandra, akin to my name, and I swear, she looks so much like Lisa. Welcome, O revolution! Welcome ungrateful children who reject the miserable conservative lie: this is the real world, and always will be. Because naked hearts, love for Lisa, love for a woman, should always shiver, should always matter.