Alli Hartley-Kong is a poet, playwright and museum educator based in northern NJ. Her writing has appeared in Hyperallergic, Stylus and the Human Touch Journal. She holds a BA from the University of Maryland in English and a MAT from George Washington University in museum education.
The Sensation of What it Is to Love Somebody So Small
My grandmother withdrew into herself as she aged, shrunk.
We chalked it up to what she lost—her sisters, her husband, a nephew
here and there. Her mottled skin draped over her osteoporotic bones,
a fleshy reminder that each time we held her, there was less to grab onto.
Sometimes spiderwebs of peroxide curls clung to us as we pulled away.
When I married, she thought I would wear her dress—
the joints of the fabric stiffened with age, the crinkled lace shift yellow.
I remember tugging the gown over my head, as the delicate threats stretched
and groaned with the effort of holding me together.
I wish someone had photographed it—there was more to this moment—
the sunlight refracting into the room through a hanging panel of stained glass,
my grandmother sighing, running a twig-like finger over the starched folds.
Portrait of an Old Woman with Wedding Gown.
While just outside the frame, her granddaughter reveled in the shame of having a body.
An inevitable cycle—my grandmother regressing to the forms of her youth
and I, naked in front of her, pooling the ample flesh of my stomach into my hands,
wishing there was a way that I could unspool, cocoon her in my flesh, wrap her in me—
I wanted so badly to keep her.
Dorothea Lange wears a jaunty dotted bandana,
and her knee is a plateau for the camera’s bellows,
the innards that unfold and unfold like an accordian on and on.
Cotton strands coarsen, gritted with dust, each nerve-ending
that survived polio when Dorothea was a child arches triumphantly,
holding her upright, her body is alive with work.
It is 1934, Dorothea doesn’t yet know she is only
a decade away from a slow decline to death, she thinks
after years of hunger, this is it, new president, new deal.
Dorothea probably thinks she’s seen it all this year—
men don three-pieced suits to stand in breadlines
(happy days are here again)—and a baby
that she photographed raising weak arms like Christ,
unsatiated at his mother’s bone-dry breast, exposed
against the camera, his mother’s face unflappable.
I look at Dorothea—a photograph of the photographer—
and think what she’ll see of starvation, even those
who have rations enough, the special starvation
of an Issei grandfather with Manzanar’s dust creviced
into his face, the toddler on his shoulders raising his arms
grabbing towards an America that will reject and recycle him.
She thinks she is lucky—I can tell from the sliver of eye,
the turn of her thick lips, her entire body knotted in focus,
she thinks she is lucky to be the one holding the camera.
She doesn’t know not even she can escape such voracity,
how the 1934 desert will settle in her throat and lungs, gazes are
fleeting, one day the dust will metastasize to her stomach tubes
and she too will starve to death in the land of the plenty.
“The Victorians liked to mourn” began a book I once read
and from my perch on the fire escape
I spy on the funeral home next door,
the manager slipping plastic-wrapped
wooden caskets out the back of white vans
(nothing ordinary, but nothing extraordinary)—
his mouth and nose hidden behind a t-shirt gag
that is strung across his ears with rubber bands,
a makeshift mask for this most dignified of occasions.
The Victorians covered too—
widows wore stifling crepe veils 6 feet long
not for her privacy in grief, but because Victorians
believed her eyes could beam bad luck
upon all she gazed, so a veil was not
to protect herself but to protect others—
and how they need all the protection
they can get, April mourners who arrive
one at a time or maybe in socially-distanced pairs.
What little I see of their faces seems more stoic
than I imagine mine will be when my time comes
(as it will come for us all) & I imagine sweaty
nitrile slivers balled between their fingers and gloves,
rubber residue clinging to their bereaved nail beds
because precisely when we are not allowed to hold anyone
at all is when we all need someone to grasp onto—
From self-quarantine I wonder who it was that shone their eyes upon all of us.