Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web


Paper Sacrifice

                                for my mother

I. Fashion

The year they opened the Guggenheim

my father painted a portrait of me

propped in a chair, all cylinders and spheres,

so solid it looked as though my baby fists

could unscrew from my arms. This was my first

in non-objectivity. When Wright first traced

ascending spirals on onionskin, a white bowl

of horizontals, this is what he meant.

Modernism was elimination of ornament.

Built by negation, the curved surface

of the future could rise clean of the past.

Two aphorisms: 'Style is History' and 'Fashion

Knows No Pain.' On a morning just before

the turn of the century a woman got up

and put on the last bustle for the last time.

And somewhere, it must have been on some
  cold farm

where nothing ever was wasted, the last crinoline

rounded the corner of a barn.

The hoop skirts and boned bodices that fit

closer than upholstery, the shawls

woven so finely they could be drawn

through a wedding ring, the linen shirts

unpicked and turned to hide the wear,

all of them went eventually to beggars,

rags and paper. A strand of silk is stronger

than its equivalent in steel. It's sad,

the durability of fabric, the way it outlasts fashion.

It's sad what survives. But, however slow the decline,

the wasp-waist, hobble-skirt, the sway-back

each had its last time, like a last word,

a last breath. As everyone dies, instantly.

Better to wear the throwaway paper dresses

my mother shortened with scissors in the Sixties,

disposable. In the planned obsolescence

of my childhood I spent so many nights

in the attic of my grandmother's house, too hot

to sleep, not letting the sheet touch my legs.

I'd get up and open the glass jar of buttons,

the red leather wallet of needles and thread.

I'd take out my great-aunt's mourning dress,

the sleeves stuffed with tissue paper,

from its place in the cedar chest. My mother

said 'Black is always in fashion.'

To dream of scissors means separation.

They come together to divide. Think of the victims,

the bodies identified only by their clothes.

Before I put anything on, I cut out the labels.

When they shoulder my coffin they'll find it

light. When I was still a girl, I tried on my mother's

cinch-belted wedding dress, with its starched

and cantilevered skirt, and her stiletto heels. I know

they fit me exactly, so nothing will be wasted.

II. Burning as Communication

Neglected, the dead get angry, which is the reason

for these eggs and red buns, these pyramids

of oranges and Kit-Kat bars arranged in even

according to the principle of yang. Tin Hau

Temple, Shanghai Street, smells of sandalwood.

Coils of pressed incense unroll from the ceiling

like skeletal bells six feet across.

Everything has a soul. The sixty gods

along the wall take only the spirit-of-oranges,

so the temple attendants peel bodies-of-oranges

and eat. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths:

Nothing Lasts.

      I buy presents for my mother

at the sacrifice shop on Reclamation Street,

paper dresses trimmed with foil,

no metal buttons to weigh them to the ground,

shoes of neat origami, a tissue winter coat,

infinitely light. Five Hong Kong dollars

buys a two-inch stack of spirit-money, millions

in currency, a savings passbook and a charge card

from the Bank of Hell with a place on the back

for her signature. I buy ingots of silver foil,

only good to the dead, who never have enough,

no matter how much is given them by burning.

There is always a funeral in the family.

The dead are all the same.

They have a limited range of expression.

They leave their footprints in ash

on the floor. They can't say thank you.

They have sheets of gold leaf in their mouths

to cover their obligations. Even in hell

the debts accumulate. For every life given

by heaven, the earth provides a grave. The body

is ceremonial when empty, exaggerated sleeves

sewn shut at the cuff, no buttons, no pins.

The head rests on a pillow stuffed with temple ash.

The soul is led from it by a light set to drift

on the river, a moon-shaped paper lantern,

its flame doubled on the surface of the water.

      In the funeral procession

the soul is a vertical banner, or a tablet

in a paper sedan chair, carried tenderly as a

Always a child walks before it, throwing paper

on the ground to distract the hungry ghosts,

the Dead-by-Accident, whose throats are narrower

than a needle's eye, so nothing can satisfy them.

III. Reductivism

It is only when I remember you are dead

that I realize this narrow light-filled gallery

in the East 60s where we sit and eat

a lunch of crustless paté sandwiches

is Heaven. You say the prices are too high.

On the walls Matisse's cut girls come apart

in their white-atmosphere. The air is like

New York, sky made of zinc, lucid, purified,

no accident. It smells of paste and ink.

The girls are cramped to fit the page,

necks bent, legs twisted, blue gouache

severed at the wrist. Heaven is a city

cut from flat color. Heaven is a single tone

in space, its shape defined by absence.

IV. Self-Portrait as Odalisque

I am in the world because the pull of the ground

exactly balances the pull of the air.

On the thin surface of Matisse's oils,

women lean out of windows, their dresses

thrown over the backs of chairs,

rich fabrics, the details magnified

to hide the walls. This shade of blue

necessitates a jar of goldfish

or Nature morte aux oranges

just as a curve must have a straight edge

to establish it. A line alone

suggests no volume.

      There must be a man

in a suit, impassive, undisconcerted by the way

I recline, beached nymph, an experiment

in luxury. My blouse's white interior is lit

like a lamp. Veiled and Turkish, I imitate

abstraction, my eyes a modified arabesque.

A cipher. I continue the pattern of the ground

behind me. I carry myself this way because I hold

the image of perfection in my head

like a bowl of clear water. Naked,

I'd concentrate the light like a lens,

I'd burn a hole in the room. What makes this art

is control and intention, the shape of the man

thrown like a shadow from me, clothes laid on
  my flesh

with the flat of a knife. I am of no use

to the dead unless restored to the air

by burning. Look at my legs, already

spread with red silk that licks like flame.

--Karen Drayne

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |