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Compassionate Palimpsests

by Shannon Joyce Prince


We have found it true that dichotomy is the best way to function. Look at the flesh. Do the lungs dream? Does the heart walk? Do the hands think? Bodies must separate.

Excision is the most precise and noblest of arts. Separating that which performs differently is cosmological logic. The sun and comets do not follow the same path. Branches and roots do not stretch in the same direction. How can any town or nation or tribe remain united when loners and outsiders and exiles and freaks walk among them?

There is a language to divergence — the most elegant of all syntaxes. Mark the mark. Mark it in riches from the bowels of the earth. Mark it in coal, the earth’s preserved tears, and deeper with flame, her sacred blood.


After it happened, things were like normal, only I could never be still. If I wasn’t telling a story or watching the moon or hemming my robe, my innards began rumbling and tears threatened to come. And what happened after the trauma was not something that made me want to cry, but it left me replete just the same and threatening to spill.

They knew better, but they still did it. And even if it could be considered a momentary lapse in judgment, such a flaw was beneath them. Or perhaps not. Maybe the territory had revealed its predators before.

I guess a dove thinks that being a dove is the most natural thing in the world until a hawk has it in its beak. Then it has to wonder if being a dove isn’t some horrible innate flaw that has left it unequipped to deal with the world. That’s what I wondered when the one I’d always trusted burned my hands to mark me — as the one stretched the fingers and poured the coals and flaming trash down. I watched, as wings which I always thought should be on the back, appeared upon my wrists. But in retrospect, I suppose they were more like fins.

After that, food turned to worms in my mouth, and starving myself kept my attention from the river of salt that threatened to reach from my toes to my throat. But when I couldn’t handle the starving, I tried to limit the eating, focusing my attention on what I could or could not digest.

And one day, from cocozelle, to tamales, to kumquats, when there was nothing in the orchards where I was that could sustain me, I adorned myself as a bride and ran into the woods. Heavy with orchids in my hair, and saris of a thousand colors with jewels and beads like scales, I fled into the mossy shafts of darkness and silk spider angular webs and amber wedding jewelry.

By then, the river rushed in my ears, but the faster I ran to beat the sound the more it rose. It drowned my eyes, and I saw the iridescent dew clothing me. I will die in my tears. I will be submerged and lost. Who has the rope of coral? Who has the raft of pearl? But among the waves of my emotions was a voice that said, graciously, “It was the one who attacked you, it was the tolerance of only one ideal that forced you away, so if you fear one, be two.”

Befriending the deepest part of my loneliness, purging the greatest part of my shame, wiping away the pain of the scalding and the trauma of ostracism that held fast to the core of my mind, the voice said, “You are not alone in your disgrace. Right now, to be sane, is to bear too much pain; and to be one, a danger. I’m here. I’m here. And we are two, for now, because the fauna won’t be enough of a balm for your spirit. But one day, one day, I promise there will be a One Day...” When the river finished, upon my head floated a sea life from beyond kelp’s pigment, but still lovely, cocked upward as if optimistic, flying towards the boughs.


I’m a green-haired witch,
so they call me freak.
I’m as natural to myself
as pistachio trees.


Don’t you think of me as banished to a forest, think of me as welcomed by oaks’ penumbras, lured by the half-solved, half-preserved quandaries of flora. Don’t think of me as a contorted Ifa sculpture, cast aside by some supercilious lover of muses, lost by an age conducive to neither faith nor steadiness. No one is an outcast when loved by trees sexed like virile octogenarians or coquettes with conures in their hair. There must have been a time when stories accommodated those whose hair was a reverie of Anacardiaceae.

Have people always been in love with only their own images, as you are? Wasn’t a human spirit ever so fine that it noted the dreams of fronds? Hmpf! Don’t you think of me as a forest sun kept out by the big kinky arms, broken down into penny-pint-sized fireflies by the power of insistent verdant monarchies. I’m a hermit — maybe, but if I am, it is only because I haven’t the patience to try to scrap with your limited available words and create from them for you a viable and comprehensible truth about my identity.


Rheumatoid arthritis
Alzheimer’s coming
Shamelessly sinful
To live where it’s sunny
Tyrannical porphyra
Renegade teal
Wedded to the devil?
You’re bearing his seal
Move no phalanges
Or evil eye on sillies
Utter spell-like syllables
You’ll give them the willies
Facilitate exclusion
And live in the woods
And if you harm no one
By default you’re good tolerable


That first time, I was perched in the boughs of a pine tree. The balls of my feet were on one branch, the front of my pelvis against another, with my back erect so that I didn’t dive head first into the loam. I put the palm of my hands against the wind, and spread my fingers wide, but no creation graced my stroke. I wondered what the air lacked, since my faith was so complete.

But why wonder when you know that saplings don’t sprout from the ocean and birds don’t hatch from geodes? I imagine I’m just as free to scatter faith over foolishness as any field hand is to drop kernels in a well. So, I made the wish. I put my palms toward my face, toward my chest, and thinking along the lines of both carbon dioxide and chi, colorful flames erupted from voids.

Brightly colored eels hover in the sky, and then, as if they were breezes, a spirit comes behind them. Oscillation comes into their bodies like lava from the center of a world, while behind them, wings unfurl and sulphorous flesh blooms. They are colored like the garb of a traveler beginning the journey. They are mellifluous and diphanous like the lovely veils of a bride — flying silks and hot shrouds. They spend their short existence focusing on your eyes, recognizing you as their origin. They move their bodies from side to side, bound by boundaries of your attention, which is reduced from regarding the entire universe into watching the brilliant hot waves.

As they wiggle, your mind is steady, as awe rings constantly through it. I create to remember... something: some sultry humid gauze, some rainbow-clothed thing. And the act of creating is like whistling: there is contentment based not on the perfect balance of will and atmosphere, but the mastery of it — once you know, you always know. Until you know, how can you explain it? Conflagrations leave metaphysical imaginings for the physical realm when aspiration meets oxygen. Can you say that? Perhaps, “It was the devil,” is easier.


Xiomara comes from beneath the earth
Malaria above it
Pariahs can be lynched for fun
And all the children love it
Boxford’s close to Topsfield
But it’s much nearer to Rowley
It will all be explained by Upham
Centuries after the crowds get rowdy
Pyromaniacs won’t stone you
Hydrophiliacs don’t use the stake
The Klan can’t drown you in camellias
So you really are quite safe
Shun a nerd
Join the in crowd
Slay Medusa
Get a gold crown
The Argonaut never sinks
But the witches always fall —
“They’ve no right to be with the righteous
For God didn’t make us all”


Just as shocked, just as shocked almost as the first person, I guess. Still muddy with a few of God’s breaths clinging to his lungs like feathers stuck in clay, staring wide-eyed at the equally infantile world. Shock thrust me backwards into the mud from the tree. I tried not to cry, though tears weren’t coming from the pain, but its location, a part of my skull that correlated to misery regardless whether I felt the injury merited it. Who knew the ground was firm under a few layers of swampiness?

I wanted to blame someone else, but being the only moving thing in a forest doesn’t leave you much leeway. What had I summoned? It was then that I saw a few extremely large fragmented chiffon petals gathering dust beside me. It had been a long time since I had seen anything approaching my size in the woods.

I crawled next to it and studied it. She looked at me blankly, with eyes like the decoys on a butterfly’s wings, like they were just there to fill up the holes in her head and had nothing to do with vision. Split into multicolored ribbons and sepals, was a one shouldered dress. Enclosed in the dress, was a young, calm woman.


Princesses should either die
Or sleep for a long while
Fairies ought either to fly
Or switch somebody’s child
Toads will become princes
and princes will be kings
And women who have green hair
aren’t the oddest of all things!


Sometimes, you remove the ground from underneath your feet just to see where you are — if underneath you there is lava, or perhaps stars. And when you fall or burn, there’s no earthquake to blame for opening up and swallowing you. Sometimes, you just have to know. Like, if you held your breath and swam into the deepest part of the ocean where the ugliest monsters are, you might have a heart attack and drown from the fear. Then in heaven, you’d wonder if it was worth it anyways, but you know, that if you hadn’t looked, your life would have been a hell just from the prodigious amount of qualms.

It’s all the same life, except for which direction you face. And looking up too far gets you knocked down while looking down gives them invitation to kick you. Looking into the forest, looks better than a village, unless fungi one day learn to snub. The kind fauna was a good place to run to. Maybe it is a good place to return.


I’ve made flames, very pretty flames. I’ve made love. I’ve wished love would make me. And sometimes I’ve wished some monster would creep through the woods and slay me. But nobody came for me. Now all reaches are inverted. It’s in the young one’s eyes that I exist. I stare at her black eyes, recognizing my center. Her claim on me is complete, but I love the possession because how else would she know how to brave the forest or her psyche without my belonging to her?

Maybe creation is not filling up a space. Maybe it’s leaving a place for things to come. I always credited the intangible — the sky, the air, my soul, but they were certainly present. Could it have been the lack of substance that brought my daughter? The open space in my hands. I never reached for more than flames with the life spans of blinks. But I caught enough to knock me from the pine and the solitude. My womb was like a cassava once, but I had suspected that every egg inside of it was a miniscule carcass.

Whatever had been menstrual blood had rotted into mercury, and silvery tears, acidic rain inundated the fermenting crevices of my waist. In fact, all of my flesh was repulsive to me, from my breasts which had never channeled milk, to my mouth which cooed to the birds of the forest and even the Brussels sprouts in my garden but hadn’t for years said another human’s name, and my ears hadn’t heard another say mine, to my mind which must be the most diseased of all, which must have died a long time ago along with my spirit. I know that unlike these animals, unlike these trees, I exist without going up, or getting bigger, or learning anything.

There are no sonnets in me, just cynicism, haughtiness that is common and plain, not so much a wealth of experience but years. Even as a legendary beast I fail, as my only claim to mystery is the arbitrary loneliness of my dwelling. This brain must have rotted and whatever copper rust is left turned my hair green, for the whole world to see.


I’m a green-haired witch,
so they call me freak,
so completely insane,
but a fertile psyche.


I may be one transfiguration of a witch. I may be one stage of a lifetime. I may be one half of a being. I may be one. I may be one. I may be one...


From a distance it’s one emerald
you separated that green
once you stepped into the forest
and saw separate trees
and since power was partition
you diverged yourself
by the time you returned
you were like someone else


Because Agapornis is a bird
vibrantly colored
loud to behold
and Chantelabra is song and light
more subtly stated
resembling hope
is the sun conure
light, song, bird
the origin
and yet
the result

And diverging
united by common insanity
becomes two
like the one
who found it necessary
to expel from itself
its collective communal self
which is the image of itself
so apparently
seeming inappropriate
and cruel to the scorned
are natural

And now that you are back
you my feisty superego
you my passive old hag
you my young one
my memory
which is also my hope
perhaps all of this fragmenting is not necessary

we are too heavy to fly
too arthritic to swim
too animal to be green
too green to conform
too many to escape en masse
too much stranger to comprehend
too much self to excise

this is witchcraft
the rune that has a verse for the oddly shaped
a stanza with a rhythm for the remarkable
holding the meter out like mercy to the outcasts
until the mind can think of the lyrics

the word is hard to say
like the immaculate truth that yet lacks its diction
but the spell has a cadence we can all act upon

Copyright © 2008 by Shannon Joyce Prince

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