Marsha de la O: "Northridge Quake"

Northridge Quake

Not the stopped trains,
not the ants streaming out to read
the invisible, not the way the city
struggled to restore coverage
so the camera could zoom
the crack from chimney to base,
not the marriage of fire and water
as the main and the line crumpled
together with a sudden understanding,
not the clock face that grinned
and went numb at 4:31, not the jolt
of his body thrashing up out of sleep
as the flesh of buildings fell
from architecture of bone, no,
the wooden chest is as close
as I ever get to what happened.
First a lunging, layers and
layers of thunder.  And yes,
the swell of a wave, water’s
surge, a girl in a wooden chest
on the rolling seas, waves
not capped or foaming, chest
drifting.  Then, the dead air
of the house when it stops
humming its secret mantras
and we’re the only ones left
with our little scalloped breaths.
I’ve broken free, I whispered
to the dead air.
Mother described that chest
                             many times,
each with a suave dangerous
stranger, pocket full of sweetmeats,
out there trolling
        in concentric curves, all the strangers
she ever spoke of.
They all have a trunk large enough
                        to wedge in a child’s body.
She predicted our colors
                  and postures
in those chests, a phrase like
                     cut to ribbons
 in the mind’s eye of our
dime store where spools of grosgrain
                with looped edges
all pulled down wildly off their spindles
        and criss-crossed,
wound about the children of the May
cramped in their trunks.
After the burning and cuttings,
we might look like motley,
like bright rags, like the stamps
of foreign lands pasted
one across the other
in a hodge-podge of destinations.
And the cigarettes would be
              welcome compared to
                    other things.
Oh, they lit us up in a way
we could understand
              as she gestured
in the air and mimed stubbing them
              out on child’s flesh.
And then what, one of us would breathe.
They lock the chests, she’d hiss,
       turning an imaginary key,
              and throw them in the LA River.
Our mother could cleave
to a tenet; our mother
could hold a faith.
For years we’d crane
our necks, press our faces
to the window glass, peering
down flood channels
where a trunk might snag
on a mudbar against a
stand of rushes.
Never enough flow
to carry them out,
but they must have wanted
to reach the sea by San Pedro
where the longest thoroughfares
end in cliffs and refineries,
and children can be lifted
and floated west.  Never returned.
She made that clear.
But eased somehow and carried,
and I wanted that too.
Is there something to the stories massing in the atmosphere and the shape of a life?  The way each shock wave lifted the barge of our marriage bed and gliding down into the trough, I knew I would have to leave him.  The video only confirmed it; rebar orphaned from its cinderblock, skeletons left standing while fallen flesh invented itself inside the disaster.  By the first night fever clouds had formed over the valley sifting musk on all our heads.  It’s ravishing, that sense that fate is upon us.
What else could it be
but the workings of desire
when, after the fire turns
the hills to ash
and the sky passes
through its whiskey colors,
the rains come, rushing
down through culverts
faster than a man can run?
St. Francis Dam only needed
a small quake—concrete is supple
like skin, it suppurates, bubbles
and bursts.  Something slips
inside you, nose down, the chest
slides a watery slope
just as though
         you are that child
and free because you finally
reach the sea.


Marsha de la O, “NorthridgeQuake” from Antidote for Night. Published by BOA Editions. Copyright © 2015 by Marsha de la O. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc..
Photo of the poet by Alexis Rhone Fancher.

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