Laura Ruffino

Winner of the Louise Louis / Emily F. Bourne Student Award in 2007

Water Line

There are always blankets in the closer; always
packed and folded: pots, the operations,
the souvenir of our grandfather's starched bed sheets
and the ability to make sound with our fingers.
When the floor returns I'll burrow,
between flaps of skin—
sweat pockets kept secret;
I'll lay in your shirts
until home's heat floods
seeds below our blue window:
the garden resurrects itself
in a new bed each August.
When she taught us
that our bodies could float—
fingers under cages, through skin
looking for the thing
—that thing—the float,
the air: I saw my uncle, his quarter
of a tongue in the water
of his daughter's nailed attic.
She taught me to float
and I found him tied to a bridge, pegged
onto roofing nails: bent into a triangle,
teaching his grandson the meaning of shape.

Neighbor, in hopes that you would grow
with a close heartbeat, I cut off your ears
and sewed the openings closed. I poured
a sting ray's tail-blood between your hands
so that when we parted the ocean would carry
our story of hieroglyphs in your legs.

To be acquainted
with the sponged cousin
that grows in my bedroom:
the lead grandmothers
who formed circles under
wilted fans—crusades

I was beside the bed watching her body:
scared of the time I'd taken
to notice its weakness. I wanted that body
in fragments snagging my shoelaces;
I wanted to guess the shadows
between her breasts like stepping
through the night forest and trying to know
if grey spots are moon light or stones.
My cousins turned their hair into wind chimes
when they were pregnant. They wanted to keep the children
full of music. To soothe the infants
created on the backs of eyes: the mother's
soft teeth broke colic, rebuilt a family.

It was easy to forget the dead boy
as snow washed his name
off my hands with temperature.
It was easy to forget the dead boy
as snow washed his hands
off my name with temperature.
There are thousands of hurricane kids
in your neck—I could hear them
when I pressed my mouth there
to show you the sounds
of an R—I know you've felt them,
while shaving the fine hairs of your chin;
and at the time that you slid
the razor's plastic lip beside the curve
of your ear I know you heard them—
because I asked how long you'd been shaving:
since before you were born,
you smiled.
Carnival came and you
did not have a grave
to set the cake baby beside—
to eat sugar with.
—Splayed like urchin
loud to hold; how boots sucked your legs
underwater—how I dream
about you naked in the hallway
asking for your baby—dig me under, baby,
child, I don't want to be remembered
by anyone but you
. The egrets breathing
behind your accent.
By the time I'd returned the screws hand unwound
themselves from our walls; in a wine box in weeds
below the trailer: papers, cans, roaches, widows, a hole
to the left of my father's third belt loop. I want to ask him
"is the store open?"—have you been touching things for me?
In my parish, all teenagers are slow
to English—we are faceless fogs
tethered to a Cyclops summer.
When questioned we answer
the bayou is not and we are not
and the dumpster doesn't want us,
the school does not want us,
no one opens their door.
My sister's daydream: mute,
on our smoking table
holding a cement mallet
meant for sheetrock—
The workers punched in
her paper walls, layers of white
tissue pulped onto carpet,
the men's tools covered
in mites, silverfish.
I keep an old woman under my arm,
white with tied hair and glasses—
she's been there for years;
since my father took me
to the wire-lined bridge
and pinched his thumbs to crab fins.
Now, driving home I pretend
she was never a part of me,
that I never shifted through bodies
on the dinner table.
Skin raised with sheet music
where the boy put his fat lips
to my own body—like rows of dumpsters
set down to guard my mother:
where I'd felt it most,
labor that he placed in me sipped
rope from the folding bed with crowbars
and sweat: for eight months I kept him
posed on rafters where only mice listen.


Thomas Sayers Ellis on Laura Ruffino

"Water Line" is full of real things, real things governed by their inner creative energies, the energy of art and life. Everything in it is recognizable—"workers," "an old woman," "sheet music" and the realities of these things are in no way distant. Their proximity is not the substance of the poem's prosody. No, the speaker in "Water Line" makes poetry the new, old-fashioned way: with honesty and the imagination. The poem is not hurt by unbelievable transformation or gimmick. The things that happen, its observations, are the result of passionate thinking and passionate feeling, of surrendering. Thus we accept the outcomes of this poet's witnessing. I was particularly struck by the oppositional yet equally balanced moments like, "My cousins turned their hair into wind chimes / when they were pregnant." And "It was east to forget the dead boy / as snow washed his name / off my hands with temperature."

The lines in "Water Line" stay in their lanes while pushing beyond them, approaching a behavior that is both poetic and cinematic without compromising either as each is measured with the practice of mature confession. The scenes within stanzas and the stanzas with scenes are handled well in their overlapping and thematic listening to each other. This poet is also very patient, not cheating with prose or betraying or abandoning the established schema and integrity of the scaffolding. And there are risks, real contemporary ones, and real experiences moving it toward its own way of making language and loss matter just as much as youth wrestling meaning.

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