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The Perfect Body

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0010361/00001

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Title: The Perfect Body
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

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Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UFE0010361:00001

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0010361/00001

Material Information

Title: The Perfect Body
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

Record Information

Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UFE0010361:00001


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THE PERFECT BODY By NATALIE GRAHAM A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLOR IDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2005

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Copyright 2005 by Natalie Graham

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For my mother, father, Latechia and Nate Jr.

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iv ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank the University of Florida’s Creative Writing Program for the continued support, financial and otherwise, th at has made this possible. Especially, I thank William Logan for tirelessly and sensitiv ely investing in me and my work, Debora Greger for giving me a firm grounding with her challenge and support, and Sidney Wade for rescuing me from Anthropology by telli ng me I’d written a real poem as an undergrad. Also, I would like to thank Ja nelle Rayhns, the Mahfood brothers, Elisa Allison, Keetje Kuipers, and C. Alessandra Br iano for being the indulgent and lovely friends they are and keeping my marginal san ity intact. But, most of all, I thank my singular family for loving me regardless.

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v TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...................................................................................................iv ABSTRACT....................................................................................................................... vii THE PERFECT BODY........................................................................................................1 THE TEMPTATION OF ST. ANTHONY...........................................................................2 JUDAS KISS..................................................................................................................... ....3 LAST LAMENT FOR JUDAS.............................................................................................4 CERTAIN IMMUTA BLE LAWS........................................................................................5 WHAT MIGHT NOT BREAK THROUGH........................................................................6 SONG, WITHOUT A MUSICAL NO TE FOR MY GRANDDADDY...............................7 INTERSECTION..................................................................................................................8 COASTAL ELEGY FOR A SISTER...................................................................................9 AN ARTIFICIAL BODY...................................................................................................10 DOMESTIC FIGURE.........................................................................................................11 REVOLVING DOOR.........................................................................................................12 THE EVENING OF CREATION ......................................................................................13 THE SIZE OF NIGHT........................................................................................................14 WHILE MORNING COMES ............................................................................................15 OPHELIA BY WATER......................................................................................................16 AN ELEMENT OF BLANK..............................................................................................17 SOMETHING SACRED....................................................................................................18

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vi STARS IN BROOKLYN....................................................................................................19 IN SEARCH OF A GOOD SEQUEL.................................................................................20 HELMET-MAKER.............................................................................................................21 ROAD TRAVEL IN AFRICA............................................................................................22 PHOTOGRAPHING THE QUAKE...................................................................................23 RETREAT........................................................................................................................ ...24 FAIRYTALE...................................................................................................................... 25 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH..............................................................................................26

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vii Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts THE PERFECT BODY By Natalie Graham May 2005 Chair: William Logan Major Department: English In “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughe s’s speaker wonders if he can write about Truth and says, “I guess I' m what I feel and see and hear .” This thesis, containing twenty-five poems, finds Truth increasingly permeable and often questions the safety of life’s purported harbors, namely, religion a nd family. These poems document small and often momentary truths, leaving contours of the larger darker Truth unmapped.

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1 THE PERFECT BODY Consider the impossibility of perfection. I was plucked out of black dirt half-done and dried up, hairy and misshapen as a sprouty yam. Who expects much from such beginnings? As a child, I was glutted with attention, elongated and in love with everything. I turned up, thirteen, a flawed penny in a foreign pocket, talked like a white girl, flitte d to life’s dark ledge and fell flat. Then, I climbed from hell on Satan’s blistered back. Oh, the twenties have been dreary, save the guilt and ablutions. Church is a noisy purge. Lacking proper etiquett e in His glittering body, I look for God among tire shreds and lemon grass; integral and vulgar, I am the armpit of Jesus.

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2 THE TEMPTATION OF SAINT ANTHONY Restorer of Lost Things you resisted drowning, turned from your reflection in Lisbon’s rivers, looking west, past the ca stle of St. George waiting like a pup on the doorstep of God, for the sun to set the sky on fire. In and out of love with everything, you held yourself tight from the appearance of spoilage. Seventeen, impervious and water-ready, you sailed for Coimbra. The streets of Alfama fell away, a dropped net. You skimmed cold avenues and leaned into holes in the ground, yearning to be burned at the stake or pierced by lions. You were an ark and the world was bankrupt. How we imagine you were tempted— an elephant trampling in tempera by the sea, a fish, gondola, or cloven hoof in gold leaf near a castle’s ruins, a bare breast hanging like an open eye in the dark. I wonder, Fernando, surrounded by so much silence, might the mind would whorl itself into oblivion? Might you have failed, lover of the cross, dragging yourself above the flat horizon, like a dingy gull, needed forgiveness, sinking, then rising toward heaven?

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3 JUDAS KISS “Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officials of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money.” Luke 22:3-5 Judas was a skeptic. Blood. Bread. Wine. Everything tasted heavy. The Sanhedrin scanned the feathered scriptures. Jealousy fell on Judas like sawdust, burned his eyes, lined his tongue with wood. “Don’t take yourself so seri ously,” the Sanhedrin said. Poverty lit on Judas’ shoulder, its talons grazing the crease of his armpit. Poverty licked the coil of his ear. The Sanhedrin fingered its tassels. There was no escaping hunger. Judas swallowed hard. The moon touched him with light. Night poured from his mouth.

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4 LAST LAMENT FOR JUDAS Where you are going, there is no light, or the light will be so dim that shadows will float above the ground transparent as feathers, bleeding, forever dark, into dark. Periodic shimmers will give no warmth, and though each slice of spilled light will seem to be a cracked doorway, it will fade as you approach. Will you leave me though I give to you? Love, you will fumble about in that perpetual grayness, not knowing if the wilted leaf, the shivering hand, you hold is mine, or another’s. Here is my hand beating limply. Here is my hand that falls to earth, pulled down by plain gravity.

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5 CERTAIN IMMUTABLE LAWS for David I. There is no break in nature. A coil of root lies at our feet, listening like an upturned ear. A young boy traces a stubby finger along the Old Slave Market’s wall of broken shells and trumpet vines. Castillo de San Marcos extends its shadow into the water. We quicken—having spent too much time already, having meant only to stop for lunch— up San Marco Avenue, past the Huguenot Cemetery. II. Nothing passes from one state to another . Later, the first spectacular dollops of summer erupt on the ashy windshield, and we listen to the rhythm s of the cracked pavement. We hammer home, the ’47 Fleetwood an ark for just us two. You say, Woman, I’m tired. . without passing through all intermediate states. At the edge of dawn the interstate lightens before us, and already heat rises off the mirage of grease. Farther off, grief finds us weathered. The months are long in this flat, hot state; but they pass.

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6 WHAT MIGHT NOT BREAK THROUGH The night I left you, when the neighbors woke me with an indecipherable shout and door slam, we lay tangled on a sagging air-mattress. Your computer’s red light winked. The heating unit shuddered as cold eased under the duct-taped window. Things seemed willing to settle into the midnight hush. I found myself standing, facing a young girl cross-le gged on embroidered sheets. Her brown hands, cut with pale scars, fumbled over pages in a large bla nk book, tearing each out, the pages fluttering to a cracked wooden floor. Her face lifted, as if I’d called out to her. Her eyes were opalescent, like marble, and her mouth gaped open, a black cave. As quickly she came, she vanished; and I was back watching you sleep. Cold shivered up from my feet on the blue tile, and only then did I remember the uneven floorboards of the room where I spent a summer as a child. I listened to my cousin’s story of how everyone is buried alive, how it takes the body a full year to die in the coffin, aware and unable to move. Past the blindness of that ru ral night, the warm flicker of his flashlight sifted through the dark, and the momentary image of him flashed (was it imagined?) as he leaned into me, lying propped up on one elbow, a warm hand, foreign, sliding up my thigh.

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7 SONG, WITHOUT A MUSICAL NOTE FOR MY GRANDDADDY Knee-deep in heaped okra, who needed English? The goitrous squashes sat by a rusted hoe. You watched a doe-eyed Jesus with a servile hush, then rapped the ground with your emphatic “Oh, well, Sir Lord, Amen!” Squatting over russet earth, you hoisted feed and reaped greens all week, voice bamming the yard before you’d cross it, singing about that lucky ol’ sun rolling up the blue and back. You begged no more from this meager life, than to lean forward, to earn, to eat though your past might have bled you dry. Ma said you never looked back, as if, at turning, you might vanish into shreds when you trudged headlong into both wars. In a lock-box, under yellowed conscription tickets, memories sat like a tang le of barbed wire, dark as cropped thickets. One torpid winter, 1982, the windows were iced with Florida’s first frost. I was your baby bird, your cockatoo, not knowing what would be the cost.

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8 INTERSECTION There’s a traffic jam in the front yard: red and limp azaleas, in silent litany, cluster for water. Magnolia blossoms wither, yellow. Shrieking crickets scuttle behind a battered mailbox. As summer persists, everything exaggerates. Light splits darkened corners, lines the wooden floor. Selfish and unashamed, I am jealous of your better daughter. Even in August, when I’d expect winter to hide beneath the ground, you look cold, trembling and glittering like some weak thing of God. I spoon you diminished bites. Smaller you say. Your stiff fingers, like matchsticks, scatter across the sheet. Though your body is a battleship upon which night advances, could you pity me, Mother, cornered and knicked as a doorstop?

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9 COASTAL ELEGY FOR A SISTER At the edge of water, sunli ght glazes the breaking waves— bending, splitting, but always moving shoreward. On Crescent Beach, in the anticlimax of January, I wax philosophical and watch my son bob over the Atlantic like a black buoy around which, perhaps, you might maneuver to dry land. The nineties have scuttled off and the new year is anxious to be done with averages. Janua ry arrives in a shudder, late. I dreamt of you again, atrophied and expressionless, etching CAUTION into a wet cake of sand. Years pass like living wate r; I am only twenty-three and disguised as a mother. Could I save you still, sister? Complaining of whooping cough a century too late, you were too tired to chase death off. It lit on you like a fly. Though you thought L.A. air too thick to come through the screen, the air off the highway was oppressive. When you opened every window, it st ained your lace curtains antique.

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10 AN ARTIFICIAL BODY The swarming cells are darkening your heart. Dim light pastes the antiseptic walls dreary. The sky is black, and artificial stars are really lampposts far away. You stare at me as if you might one day be there. The swarming cells are darkening. Your heart is held inside a fist that squeezes hard while nurses scatter your shirts everywhere. The sky is lit with artificial stars. Reflections shorten, dist ort, and seem marred in broken pedals of a lost wheelchair. The swarming cells are darkening your heart, and memories might fade in that same dark. You speak of crab grass growing thick this year. The sky is black and artificial stars though smeared windows streak and seem to scar the sky. I forget for a moment where we are. The swarming cells are darkening your heart, the room, the sky, the artificial stars.

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11 DOMESTIC FIGURE In the refrigerator, near wrinkled artichoke hearts, the eggplant flaunts the grotesque anatomy of spoilage. Outside, you’re on all fours, rooting around in limey soil. “This is Florida,” you said. “We must till. Expect fruit!” How industrious you are. Soon there may be nothing left of our yard but black earth picked clean. I imagine you nearer. Our cupped hands suspend a secret of useless passion. Our poisoned enterprise floods with harsh light. I suppose, in order to transcend, everything real must be made of marble and added to the list of statues. In front of a fireplace, your plate, untouched, cools by degrees.

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12 REVOLVING DOOR Who’d ever thought this would be a tragedy? Oh, honey, tragedy is inevitable. And the mother was off and talking about the Thanksgiving she sliced her finger to the bone and bled through five ivory napkins. You were happy enough to dive at him . like a hummingbird. The daughter dissected artichokes. Italy spilled across the kitchen table. A two-bit album made a mess of empires, glossy and flinging li ght like a revolving door. What domesticity they feigned that summer. Rain drilled the soil. She sang, “Love is a constant sun,” and drank eaux-du-vie from a Thermos. Her heart glowed like an electric eel. Then, a spoilage. These things happen when you shack up. Mother did not think it could have been a natural ebb; she had evidence, warned of doi ng the right thing the wrong way, wagged a carrot pitifully. Exposing wrinkled shoulders, a bare turkey swam the darkening sink water.

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13 THE EVENING OF CREATION “The man named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” Genesis 3:20 I enter, a type of Adam: one greasy sparerib touched by God, all Amazon (taller, even!), approach strident, lashing his ears like a fallen angel. Astride an altered ocean ( this is timelessness), mountainous with salt, I look for clear water. Overhead, the first black nights beat their wings, hesitant to fly. Portable, I’m meager, a dented can in God’s taxonomy of liabilities. Woe. This should be paradise. My heart stiffens like a moldy rind. More like God than ever, I’ll plant my son in the ground, fill cracked jars with water, and scrape my way across the sharpened ground. Lo and behold, as a comet curves the sooty rim of night, as one who serves, I may rest in familiar flights.

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14 THE SIZE OF NIGHT With light reflecting off the fog, there was no telling it was four a.m.— this was the last dark petal of night to fall. Noah might have despaired. The raven he’d released had not returned. The memory of its body beat in his hands like a black heart; greasy feathers shimmered iridescent between his square thumbs, a mirage. He was in the shadow of some larger body. Or he’d fallen into a well. The window framed a blank slate of sky, waters obeying certain laws of slowness. Onward to what harbor? Noah was a hollow ship rattling on waters with sharp corners, memory an ark.

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15 WHILE MORNING COMES Night pads off behind a hulking parking garage, and for a while there is nothing but the echo of dark hovering in the temporary sky. With a flourish of his spotted hand, your doctor apologizes agai n, sounding vaguely poetic, “The body is immense; veins, complicated.” He explains with military efficiency how clots cannot be sounded out or dyed with radioactive paste, how some unfamiliar route must be taken. Dawn stalls, pacing behind the drape. There must be another waiting room on the other side of this.

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16 OPHELIA BY WATER Even with the buzz and prick of summer, what thumped in her brain was not the pulse of a dark thicket, the frenetic crescendo of cicadas, but snippets of verse that sounded sacred. She turned away from noise, cooling her hem in the current, washing a hand over her face. Lit from within, she was a candle to the cerulean shadows, perched on the edge of a black tangle of climbing vines. She waited, a doll half wooden and half glass. Later, the sky would shiver under autumn’s black hood, all pinpricked iridescent, cold air floating in ghostly currents.

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17 AN ELEMENT OF BLANK Her fingers twitched, brown twigs. If these sheets were snow, she could have been entirely wooden. By the sink a strai ght razor winked, having dark visions. Night swelled while she shrank. Everyday griefs multiplied, vines in a wretched, lush garden. Death followed her around. Its hand was a hook, and that rusty hook snagged every linen hem in sight. In the frozen yard, leafless trees filed away; a spider hitched black insect legs to a broken net. Catching electric light, a slick leaf flickered like an erratic butterfly. Rain approached in a silent sky. Though she waited for night to whisper something tragic, she would not incline her head.

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18 SOMETHING SACRED She wakes at the first slant of day, dawn cracking red velvet across the sky. She’d dreamt of pools of black water, greasing the edge of the world. The sheet is bloody with ink; the pen threatens, like an uncapped syringe, to prick her. She might have slept another fifty years if this were a fairy tale. A mango, a veiny plexus in her uterus, the tumor is shaped like birth. Hospital curtains blow up like a skirt. Light opens and unfolds— a lily fluttering on white linoleum. She imagines escape by window. Later, in the chapel, her wet hair hovering like a storm cloud, she will try to become something sacred, rename herself something the doctors won’t put their mouths on.

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19 STARS IN BROOKLYN Seen a shooting star tonight and I thought of you. You were trying to break into a world, a world I never knew. Shooting Star Bob Dylan Behind the brownstone, a constellation of metal flashes a hallelujah chorus of light off a crushed fence. Wind hawks down on fresh paint in Pocket Park. As the last strips of light peel away, I find I’ve squandered the day wondering how it can still be too cold to snow. Some city on a hill this is— stone landscapes without groves. Bed-Stuy is paved with light. Monday lurches, a greasy juggernaut schlepping on its miserable way. The neighborhood’s a bruised body, a canvas of spilled paint. Satellite, when will you land?

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20 IN SEARCH OF A GOOD SEQUEL Fall days cluster like wet leaves. Before you know it, it’s morning again and you’re eyeing November through the blinds. Air, rough with winter, slips through what must be cracks. Camped in your twin bed, small as a photo booth, you’re all but exhausted with telling stories. Your elbow sticks from taut sheets wound like a sling. There’s no time to rest here, just The Odyssey spread open like a fire in the corner, and you lagging behind your work. Why sleep in, when every grainy dream is a rare photograph, rimmed with the fear that, at waking, you will be ordinary as a spoon, nicked and bent?

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21 HELMET-MAKER She stoops above the broken helmet scraps, her mess of hair falls white and wiry. She’s a withered dry carnation, rigid stem and wrinkled leaves. Once handsome skin is spoiled. Her stretching shadow splits the room and falls through yellow light that marks the moving time. Outside the dawn is rising steadily; the fog is blooming gray around the edge of day, and she remembers moments when a girl, herself, bent half out open windows— an evanescent figure of a girl with arms outstretched, she tried in vain to scoop the tangible mirage of fog inside her pockets. And mother’s fit of wheezing— theatrical, demented, and asthmatic, How ever will you live making helmets?

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22 ROAD TRAVEL IN AFRICA It settles in a tizzy, flits and shuffles gray feathers and misplaced joints. Behind Ellerman House A marabou bends twiggy legs at awkward angles. The bird settles deliberately by a family of tortoise-sized stones scattered across the Orange River, and gluts itself with strips of a bloated carcass. The safari spreads to the horizon, muted with dust. Mountain nettle, hairy stink willow, thorny bristle bush, and marabou pose for a field-guide cover. How one wing cocks a salute— the offensive spread, the matted carrion, the serrated edge of the water.

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23 PHOTOGRAPHING THE QUAKE The window I’d hoped for opens to more brick and alley. The New Delhi Fire Department issues a statement: In Anjar, clothes piled in the gutter might be bodies. Before we could reach the city, the smell of rot pushed and sagged, choking through the bus. There is no mistake. A student pulled away to retch in an alley. News of an earthquake is sudden, unlike freezing in camps. I shiver with the others without electricity; night is cavernous and capable of expanding.

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24 RETREAT As evening comes, the landscape retreats into broken knots of shadows. Sun slips into a pocket of horizon, blue hills rising in th e distance like a pile of bodies. Black flies dart with irreverent and mechanical noise. There would have been a scarcity of light while the Zulus stripped and gutted the dead soldiers, dismembered and disemboweled them to free their spirits. Isandlwana takes shape as we advance. The rubble of skulls split open becomes a squad of splintered rocks. What would be a flattened finger, skin curling away fr om the scorched bone, is a scrap of branch and cloth caught between dried twigs. The dead drift invisible and sullen.

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25 FAIRYTALE While Audrey Hepburn brandishes a drooping Technicolor bouquet of violets, sagging petals sluiced with rain, capes and coats dash around the cinematic storm and dip quickly into carriages. Outside, three men lie crumpled in a Datsun flatbed, eyes slits, bodies wedged between hot melons. A woman stoops, pulling her bandana, a Haitian flag, from her head. Her shadow, an uneven bruise in the sand, is pierced with stakes of light. Other immigrants pick tomatoes, lob the orangey bulbous hearts into half-cracked barrels bristling with splinters. There is talk of work farther north. On the abandoned set, the fairest of them all pretends to be a squashed cabbage leaf—one common as Whitman writing the American epic. In Little Haiti, there is still much to learn about spinning gold from straw.

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26 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Native to Gainesville, Florida, Natalie Graham was born September 11, 1980. She transferred to the University of Florida from Swarthmore College in 2000 to complete a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a minor in anthropology. She is currently enrolled in the University of Florida’s Creative Writing Program, pursuing a Mast er of Fine Arts degree.