KARA CANDITO is the author of Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Her work has appeared or will appear in such journals as AGNI, Blackbird, The Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Gulf Coast, Diode, and The Rumpus. She has been a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a recipient of scholarships from The Vermont Studio Center and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
“Self-Portrait with an Ice Pick,” and “La Bufera: Our Last Trip to Sicily,” were previously published in Blackbird, while “Epic Poem Concerning the Poet’sComing of Age as Attis,” and “Sleeping with Rene Magritte,” appeared in Prairie Schooner. All four poems appear in Candito’s collection Taste of Cherry, which can be purchased at Amazon. The remaining poems are new and appear exclusively at BLIP.
Self-Portrait with an Ice PickImagine the impact—wrecking ball, welcome injury or collision, like some secret screamed in a late night taxi. And while it was happening, bile rising and the blind urge of its happening— the ice pick striking the white wall of the freezer, the neon sign glowing through the window like a red undertow, a sliver of the street corner where Essex looked like Sex Street and a low winter sun vignetted the room, the wedding band left on the nightstand because betrayal was a tender industry then; siempre its one urgent slogan. There was the mind’s syncopation—fractured, freezer-burnt, mesmerized by the shards of ice that ricocheted across the floor; cuts covering the knuckles and a hole finally carved out, big enough for the bottle of vodka where Van Gogh’s wheat fields trembled. What the body wanted was its penance; scar, reminder that I could love anyone, gnash my teeth on their shoulder, then forget them in the subway car, the stale air and grime of it, metal bar still warm from a stranger’s hand and the shock, almost erotic, of being jostled by so many limbs. Follow it back to that bar where the drinks
had lovely Storyville names—Chloe, Justine, Simone; names like a girl on a swing with her hair blown back; espresso, nutmeg, chambord, grenadine; flower petals ground down to powder; names I stumbled through that year when my one job in the world was to smile in a way that meant, Say something interesting and I might stay for five minutes. I remember Alex, the Bellini-eyed waiter lighting a match, flicking his wrist like a gambler drawing fate closer. I remember walking home past empty fruit crates and the truncated frames of bikes still locked to street signs. Helicopters circling the East River, like a repeated phrase. There was no aubade, just sunlight breaking the bones behind my eyes. What the body wanted was a blank room; its own pain, untranslated, self-contained. If I can see myself there, it’s my eye in the windowpane, hazel speck reflected back against a daze of sirens.
La Bufera: Our Last Trip to SicilyI have seen, in the stained-glass windows through the flowers of the mullioned panes, a country of skeletons filter in—and a lip of blood grow muter, speechless. —Montale Surely, no one could fall out of love here, where the dhoni drop off from the pier like drowsy relay runners and the air is smeared with orange blossoms, their strong, nuptial smell, instinctive as a first language. And though I tried that night that we sat at the wobbly table in the restaurant where old arguments began to interest us again, I could not pronounce the word for napkin: tovagliolo. And though the waitress smiled with her mouth, I could tell she was annoyed by the treason of my name, Candito, which means sweet candy shell and is, like so many things, an accident of translation—my grandfather trading Candido, pure white light, for a child’s Easter treat, the pastel shell that shrouds an almond. My grandfather, who often said, Pisciaci supra i ruini prima ca diventinu muschei; Piss on the ruins before they build another temple, would have laughed even when waves pelted the olive grove that night and the lights quivered as if an uncertain country of skeletons were slipping in— the marzipan birds like empty hands, the spongy skin of the priests in the square. He would have laughed when we returned to the baglio, emboldened and drunk, to fuck on the ancient floor and pass out with spumante fizzing over the sides of our glasses and the windows flung open without wondering how bright, how final The Strait of Messina must have looked that morning in 1938 when he left for good.
In the morning, I woke mouthing the syllables, to-vag-li… trying to make them work, when I heard you from the other end of a tunnel: Take a hot shower. You’ll feel better. Then, falling through the shower door with nothing to break the fall but my skull and a soaked towel. You said it felt like film noir, finding me naked on my side with one eye clenched as if in vigorous prayer and the other, wilder eye fluttering, the lashes beating around the still center of the dilated world. What a loud noise, I thought, collapsing into that damp, black sphere in my brain, like the well in Orvieto, the one you wouldn’t follow me into, collapsing into that dream I keep having—a man standing on a chair, a noose, a loose locket hanging from his neck. He wants me to kick the chair out from under his feet. At first I refuse, but he’s grabbing my arm. I kick hard. I want to make him sorry. One of those moments that caves in under examination—your careful, clinical hands prodding my ribs for injuries. Bruises welling up, like the flush of sex, or the sudden flare of what goes unsaid. I know my mouth was filled with blood and that when I tried to speak you moaned as if you could feel it too, the tooth pierced through my bottom lip. And pain became the vantage point, the spot where I still stand watching the morning grow wilder, already half in love with the ruined picture and the body’s offer to pay for everything—a mute, bloody mouth, a snapped neck, as if damage were its own currency, as if regret were ever the right reason to return.
Epic Poem Concerning the Poet’s Coming of Age as Attis1. A Brief Introduction to the Cold, Hard Truth I like to watch the last scene of Easy Rider over and over, genuflecting before the T.V. in my parent’s room. I like to watch it until the world dissembles like air after an apology. Shots from the car window. Burst of body and fire and metal. Then, the long river that folds and folds like the house after a party. Card table and T.V. trays with wine stains on the presidents’ faces, towels left in the yard. I make my father’s belt rack spin around. Please don’t fold me, the mouth says into the mirror. 2. Schemes of Domination In school, they teach us about conquistadores, men who stepped ashore and said mine. Cortez could stare a king in the eye and lie lie lie. We learn about explorers who slept under the stars with savages and snakes. Claimed the continent, then left on their sissy ships for Spain. I would’ve stayed here. Fuck honor. I would’ve stayed here, speared grizzly bears and kept three brown women. What is brave? Summer grapes deflate into raisins. I jerk off on the school bus with my backpack across my lap. Right when I come, the bus driver glares into the rearview mirror and shouts, No pushing and shoving back there!
3. Slaughterhouse— what the gym teachers smile and say on rainy days when the field outside is washing away. I fold my arms at the penalty line then run fast as I can across the parquet while football players who call each other faggot fire rubber balls the color of scabs at my legs.
4. Beneath the Surface There Are 1000 Tiny Explosions, Son My father lifts the hood. We stare, my brother and I, at a world of wires and the lesson he gives means we’re almost men. With a twig, he points out the parts. Radiator. Carburetor. The words slam around inside our mouths and everything—the oil stains on his hands, my mother calling from the kitchen window, Lynyrd Skynyrd singing about how to be a simple man—everything comes crashing down when we say the right words. He closes the hood. Beneath it, a named world.
5. Family Romance that Ends with the Suspension of Habeas Corpus My father pushes his plate to the center of the table. My sister and mother clear while my brother slumps in his chair like Hank Williams. I sneak upstairs into my sister’s room, crouch in the closet. There are roller-skates, too many pairs of shoes, the smell of school. She walks in and slips a pink sweater over her head. She is as beautiful as Nepal, as all of my secrets. Every night, I watch her; my sister touching her tits in front of the mirror to see if they’ve grown. My ass hurts from her heels. Why do I watch her? Worship is the word my mother used once. That was before. One night, they catch me. It’s funny, really— my father beating me for wanting to fuck my sister. He cannot say, Son, I know you want to fuck your sister. After this, I look at naked magazines. But, every night before I fall asleep, I see her. My love stuck inside the body of my sister, curled like smoke from a bashful chimney. My beautiful girl waiting, wanting me. She doesn’t know yet the shape of my face in the dark..
6. Etymology For a while, I like how words open and close inside my mouth. Scabs in crook of knee, crook of elbow. They break open when I’ve forgotten about them. Brave and red, made of what we hide. Words bleeding out onto the dry, brown lawn.
7. The Twilight of Universals, or What Happens If Her Shadow Starts to Grow? Her name is Sophie and she knows a lot of fancy words for weather—cumulus, cooling trend. Her nose bleeds when the barometer falls. Squid-shaped stains, red-brown, on the pillowcase. I’d like to stay here for a year, maybe more, in her room. Her father out bowling with his ass crack and his friends, a bottle of Colt 45 rolling around in the bed of his pick-up. Her sister downstairs breastfeeding her bastard kid in the recliner. Out back, the field where she tickled the soft spot under my chin with Queen Anne’s Lace. My hand’s between her legs. How many stoplights are turning red right now across Montana? 8. Hush, Can You Hear the Cries Beating Against the Window of the Wedding? Sister, I saw you knocked up and living in a singlewide on the other side of the river. Dust devils and the sagging porch, dirty kids and cars with their parts pulled out all over the yard. Knocked up and smoking in the grey glow of talk shows. Some stranger’s singlewide on the other side of the river. Why did you run away, sister?
. 9. Escape Velocity I’m not good in school, so I make lists in my head to pass the time: seven sounds skipping stones make; eight ways to pop poison ivy blisters; what I’d like to do to her. But then I get a hard-on big as the eraser the kiss-asses clap on the steps. I don’t ask questions. I don’t believe in happy endings. My friend’s mother died of TB and now his father keeps his sister inside all day, afraid she might run away. At night, when my parent’s fight, I stay pressed to the television. The newscaster says there are hostages in Iran. What keeps us here? I asked her once in late spring, the grass still sun-warmed under our feet. Alone in my bed, I swear I can hear them breaking the horses, their high, human cries. Dark barns no one claims to own.
. 10. In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni My two cousins, convex, colorless in the blank T.V. screen, squint at my back. One carved his own initials into his arm and has to wear long sleeves all summer. You’re supposed to use a girl’s, his sister says, scowling in pink makeup, thick like a second face. One night, I throw eggs at her Trans-Am and blame the neighbors. One night, her brother ties one end of a rope around the stump of an elm. Ties the other around his neck. Runs hard until it snaps. I admire this. It moves like strong wind into my secret life. It spins the weathervane pitched in the flattened fortress of my brain. It stirs the air behind my eyes. Awake now, I roll down the hill beside the river. Gravity, it grinds my bones. Time saws off. Nothing here, but truth and hot.
Sleeping with René MagritteEvery single thing which we see conceals something else; we would dearly love to see what that which we can see is hiding from us – Magritte
Because he was not you, he seemed amazed by my nakedness. Threw back his head and cried, Ooh-la-la! when my nightgown slid to the floor. Filled with the torrid air of his admiration, my breasts began to swell and expand— a performance for the source of their awakening— until my whole body grew cartoonish, statuesque, like Baudelaire’s giantess grafted with Betty Boop, like a device in love with its own detonation, I pitched a white flag and braced myself for the pleasure appetite takes in satiation. Ooh-la-la-la! Afterwards, with his head on my American stomach and his hand
wrapped around my right tit, we’d stare into the dove- shaped mirror on the ceiling while he chanted somewhere between laughter and tears, This is not a breast. This is not a breast. I admit I loved him like that, taut and urgent, famished and re-wired by repetition, the way he looked on the new moon, pacing the yard in a housecoat with a rifle under his arm and the whites of his eyes aglow, like a deranged Pepé Le Pew searching for a shit-perfumed girl. If it’s true that everything— cloud and curtain, motor and iron railing, even the mattress in the alley with busted springs— conceals something unknown and therefore perfect, then isn’t each discovery its own undoing? As in the night you tied my wrists to the bedposts with twine— my soft-core strain—my need, you said—urgent, naïve, to tear the skin’s seal, dislodge the deep image—a bowler hat or a birdcage embedded in the vein. What you didn’t say: Disclosure is a double-bind. As in: You must love me. Still, you were mesmerized that bald second before the blood began— the raw skin—pale and organ pink, like two pearled secrets you said I could never keep. In the morning, the scabs burned like some outlaw underworld against the bone china and the Belgian waffles drowned in whipped butter. It stung in the shower when the soap dripped down my arm, stung when we stood on the roof watching the weather gather like the hem of a dress we trip over and back into ourselves..
The KingdomI dreamed the stupid pink roses my grandmother stitched to the collar of a christening gown. Was she happy? is never the right question. The baby lived and was named after a saint who set herself on fire. And the saint was an equation in which each of the variables was a woman, a pinafore fear I rounded to the highest number. Weeks before she met the skinny chestnut picker from San Giovanni, my grandmother announced her plan to enter a nunnery. God called, and she answered, dopo, più tardi. I say this because I want to suspend time, the way two tonsils hang, astonished, from the same throat. And now that her husband is dead, God calls again. My grandmother answers: si prego? God wants sambuca alla mosca and a hot cloth for His hands. God wants His collar starched until it stands against His neck like a furious erection. How is this so different from marriage? How it feels to ask a dragon for help, knowing he is terribly moved by my terrible crown of roses, that this is a fictional sorrow, like taking a vow in the dark, and despite everything, I sing and sing and sing.
Apocalypse SonámbuloIn Cusco they call me the woman who cannot tend a fire, though a smile gets me into most of the bars. Garcia Lorca is dead, I whisper to the painter of expired passports, to the dusty bottles of tequila, the soggy spliff we smoke together on the terraza. — Compadre, I come from the tawdry stills of telenovelas, from the lips of empty Inca Kola cans, from the stale ink that clings to your hands. O negating altitudes! How the past recedes like a sea-level city while we fuck in the carnival sadness of the posada behind the Plaza de las Armas; on our knees, with a dead fly clenched inside the bathroom light, while I chant gypsy ballads gypsy ballads gypsy ballads, to have orgasms. I think Discovery Channel, a cannibal star consuming its neighbor, and the words he slurs in my ear, like the passage of air over a volcanic crater. Garcia Lorca is dead, even in Cusco. Even in this smutty, treacherous dawn when the winter sun slaps the summit of Quimsachata; even in the flower plantations, where Quechua girls trim thorns from rose-stems, and their brothers pack boxes bound for Russia, Spain, America; and I am finally everywhere, as natural and remarkable as fire.
I Try to Tell Her the Wolves Can’t Be Domesticated—but she’s pregnant and it’s hunting season. Her wolves watch the television in the kitchen where a blonde woman calls torture a necessary evil and something about the sanctity of national security. I tell her to drown her wolves in the Jacuzzi or set them free in the forest. I tell her they’re a terrible novelty, like bird’s nest soup. But she just smiles, scrapes butter from a bag of microwave popcorn, and asks: Why do you keep dreaming about wolves and pregnant women? A mean wind makes the house boards shriek. This can’t be good for the baby. There are department stores, she begins— then stops, scratches one wolf’s ears— where thin, selfish women apply “Just Bitten” lipstick in backlit mirrors. And if you walk the aisles alone someone sprays you with the wrong scent. Suddenly, the skin above my zipper, suddenly skin stunned alive by a fiber optic cord. The television growls at a reasonable volume. The wolves grow wilder, and my flat-footed whimper is a failure, a reminder that I have nerve-endings, feelings, am therefore an animal. Inside my head a helicopter lands, as if Centcom has extrapolated the exact coordinates of the scar on her arm—it looks like the Eagle Nebula: This can’t be good for the baby. Hush, she answers, we’ll have many, many adventures before the huffing and the puffing. It is a question of blood, of timing.
Meghan, the Winter Before She Drowns in a Public PoolBefore anything happens there are bloodshot songs on a cassette tape. There are whole homerooms we want to shank, and skating on melting ice we often curse boys in red hooded sweatshirts, the mindless violence of their legs spread beneath the desks. There are names kissing, conspiring beneath the ice—daughter, snow day, future, slut, sweetheart. Don’t say it. Like what? Bomb scares, aerosol hairspray, ozone. She teaches me it’s impossible to breathe into a soaked towel. She lords over the refrigerator, feeds me hard squares of butter. In a season of music videos, she trashes the den screaming, Entertain us! If death is what happens to the young suddenly, without warning, the way a homeless man kissed me once— hard, on the mouth—then, why did I, afterward— wiping his sweat from my lips—swear I saw it coming?
There is an astonishing frame of cultural reference in Taste of Cherry, high & lo, but you move fast and don’t settle long. Your poems in this collection move, with multiple speakers, multiple valances, multiple place-names and cultural signifiers. Are you concerned that some might consider the work “flashy” or “without depth,” or are the surfaces irresistible, without apology? Or is the surface depth distinction itself a modernist duality you wish to call into question?
Maybe I pitch in and play where the symbolists and Modernists left off? I’m drawn to lushness and indeterminacy of voice, place, and interpretation because that’s how I experience the world, as a carnivalesque series of performances in which I, as writer, alternate between the roles of actor, subject, object, voyeur, and director. Though I admire and envy the austerity of poets like George Oppen or Liz Arnold when I try my hand at the quiet, focused lyric it’s as if I’ve been hurled into a sensory deprivation tank. I hope that my fidelity to surfaces and momentum expands the poem’s sense of interiority without relying upon a single subjectivity or affect. Maybe my aesthetic is best described as “Catholic-atheist.” As a super-lapsed Catholic, faith is a very problematic thing for me, something I approach with fear and trembling. I love the idolatry and the mystery (as in the Baudelairean forêts de symbols), but I ultimately resist those gradual processes of transcendence because they seem disingenuous to my experiences as a poet, a woman, and a human being. Am I concerned about being called flashy? Hell yes. But I hope the poems’ surfaces generate their own messy appeal, that all of the shifts, the momentum, and the bling enable rather than hinder identification.
Growing up, did your family and teachers encourage you to write? Did you experiment with prose forms, or was it always poetry for you?
I was a sickly only child, so writing made a lot of sense to me as a vehicle for escape. Real life was fraught with pain and boredom.
I don’t remember how or why I started writing poetry. No one in my family is “literary.” There were few if any classics lying around the house, though, like good New Englanders, we did own some Frost and Lowell. I’ve been writing “poems” (and I use this term loosely) since I was ten or eleven-years-old, though I only really started crafting and revising my work in college. During those years, I also wrote a lot of creative non-fiction, mostly bathos-drenched essays about growing up weird in New England.
Of the ensemble cast of speakers in Taste of Cherry, whom did you most enjoy?
The anonymous burlesque dancer from the HBO series, Carnivale. She has an economical sadness that I typically find inaccessible as a writer. I also loved the teenage boy from “Epic Poem Concerning the Poet’s Coming of Age As Attis” because he gave me this free pass to be a perverse creep in an alien body. I’ve since tried to channel him in some newer poems, but I think he feels exploited. Lately, I’ve been writing a series of poems in the voice of Federico García Lorca. It’s like wrestling with God while simultaneously recognizing the impossibility of faith in poetry.
“Epic Poem Concerning the Poet’s Coming of Age As Attis” recasts some of your early adolescent experiences from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old-boy. On one podcast I listened to, you break into giggles reading the line where the boy jacks off in the bus. What I mean to ask is, how do you understand androgyny?
I adore that speaker and “Epic Poem” is one of my favorite poems that I’ve written, which is not to say that it’s highly polished or even accomplished—it’s just fun, subversive, and honest. Okay, androgyny. From a brute, physical perspective I’m attracted to people (women and men) who complicate my ideas about gender. I’ve loved David Bowie for as long as I remember. To shamelessly paraphrase Judith Butler, I think androgyny is a way of demonstrating that even something as seemingly fundamental as gender is a surface or a performance, much in the way that the language of a poem is a performance. This isn’t to say that I believe we can perform ourselves out of material conditions—gender, race and class are, in many ways, primary categories that have a huge sway over the way we experience the world. I think of androgyny as a willful, active stylization, a way of refusing to internalize what’s expected. It’s first and foremost a performance that hinges upon imagination and invention.
Tell us about the title and book cover for Taste of Cherry.
I had a difficult time finding a title. I seriously considered Self-Portrait with an Ice Pick (which would have been a disaster!) Taste of Cherry is inspired by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 film of the same name. It’s a film about a man driving around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to help him kill himself. He meets an old man who tells him that he almost killed himself, but changed his mind when he tasted mulberries. The poems in Taste of Cherry have nothing to do with suicide, but they are urgent, about psychological and spiritual crises. Film and book are both concerned with violent ruptures .
A designer at University of Nebraska Press chose the cover image. It wasn’t at all what I’d wanted. I had my heart set on a strange, abstract image of a doll. In retrospect, I think that they were right. I’m very happy with the image, which is creepy and provocative.
Reading your work I feel a strong sense of seduction, as if your speakers invite the reader to “fall into narrative,” (often narratives of love and just as often violence, sex and death) and yet you seem just as comfortable “falling into theory.” Do you view yourself as an “academic” or as a resident in any “school of poetry?”
Great question, by which I mean a difficult one. As a poet who’s a self-professed theory-head, I don’t think academic is a dirty word. Nor do I find narrative to be an inferior poetic mode. As Joan Didion writes in the White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I’ve been called (and called myself) a lyric-narrative poet, a young feminist poet, a lyric poet with a narrative impulse, a poet of cinema and spectacle, and more. Maybe all of these are true , or maybe none of these are true. Categories stress me out these days. Maybe this relates to my obsession with androgyny. Since he can get away with more than me, I’ll defer to Catullus’s invective against two critics:
I'll bugger you and make you suck it,
Aurelius the submissive and Furius the sodomite
Who conclude, based on my verse,
Which is voluptuous, that I am too little chaste. . .