The Mineral Kingdom

~ Lisa Erin Robertson

Just an hour outside of Las Vegas, the sky
chilled Baker through winter nights, my cheek against the Ford glass, black
and cold like that desert, nothing
between December-dead creosote and
a sky that glittered like druze, mineral
black gleam of coal
or diamonds that shone in defiance
over the city of meadows, the defilement
of the vegas, meadows and desert both ruined and loved for the ruining — that highway marked my first illicit cleaving
of loyalty: to the desert and to the mineral
palace of my grandmother, her bedroom cavern aglow with silver and gold, diamond
like a good clear liquor, ruby like
pulse through the lips, and pearl, especially
the pearl, which my father had reported
were condensed tears, minerals ascended
to heaven and cast down by
condensation, to be worn by unwitting
women who brought upon their bodies expensively tactile sorrow. To shed tears,
he warned me, might mitigate the poison; refuse to cry, though, and something
else happens, and I am
here to tell you about that. And after
the cancer had situated in his bile duct, domicile of held anger, even a desert
will wait for winter, he told me, and I
waited, even for a desert.

on being southern in California

~ Lisa Erin Robertson

And on Monday morning, barely morning, only morning enough
in one now-still house
to allow for the examination

of this singular photograph:
a child in breeches and Stetson; at his feet, a leashed terrier, and behind him, the shoddy
studio fabrication of the Cascades.
He has the eyes of my mother
and her Mormon cheekbones
and blond, blond hair
and is triumphant
at this memento mori, this one
photograph, having just pulled himself
or been pulled over
one mountain range or another
with the knowledge now that if he needed to,
he could pull down that same granite rocky spine,
down to his dominion.

Geology itself broke free, granite assumed
its birthright heavenward from the Earth’s
Precambrian crust, exceeding lowly
expectations of this one terrestrial home;
those geologic peaks of the Cascades now point
at God and suggest
an equality of heights. While around them,
snaky chaos once oozed over the horizontal world,
the weeping of vulcan
tears of molten obsidian that froze over
the earth like a last-stand
Cherokee who fell fatally with a Carolina daughter
and was turned to glass, shattered and terrestrial, and
frozen and fallen,
where they both once
willingly fell.

I turn the portrait over,
where the unsurprising date, Salt Lake City, 1849,
has been inscribed above
the white space. It is a space as white
as a temple room in that temple city, a white city, a white space that prefigures every avenue
of unclaimed destiny, the whole of the life of
this one child.

While on the third side
of that held photograph, opposite
and obstructed by the photographer’s
film-studio mountain range,
in the family of my father on the other side
of the Mason-Dixon, a woman with mourning-cloak black hair draws shut softly
the old drapery of centuries. Here is the too-full memory chest, these drapes, the Confederate tapestry
of sad weaving women, who wrote in sanguine thread with anemic hands and Cherokee-thin wrists
stories of war and brothers who
put arms around and took up arms against
brothers, and buried lovers, and second sons
of second sons, and even of being burned
as witches on two separate
continents. And this grandmother folds

the threadbare skirt around slender legs
in the corner by the chesterfield with the view
of this one ruined garden, which is exactly the same —
I mean ruined by all the same things —
as the ruined gardens every family
keeps in that red-earth state
even today, with crosses and ashes
and the accumulation of anything
that can be avenged behind blue-veined
eyelids framed by the black hair of mourning
and that falls, as the years fall, into arteries
insufficient to contain the weight
of those years. Even centuries later, in the same room
framed by curtains that now carry the detritus
of one hundred years or more, of time gone but
hair like obsidian that remains
and the same anemic thighs, a similar daughter plays,
for the almost morning, Etta James, the anthem of blue women, of being up all night, of enduring
through the hour when even the stars fall
back, of women who rain, of the dark city
of our hearts. And it is evening,
or it is afternoon, or it is July, or it is the coldest
December in a hundred years, or it is only and again Monday.