A Portrait of My Mother; I Tarot You; The Boxed Ballerina
By: Lissa Batista
A Portrait of My Mother
I’ve tried to keep betta fish twice. Their beauty in the blue prisms of their scales, gulping air
from the water’s surface, no longer dependent on their gills. Territorial little fucks, they thrive alone, their tails like mermaid’s hair flicking in the wind, a femme fatale’s exit in an action movie. My mother has hair like that.
My mother is a crowntail betta, in a fishtank-- all eyes, sleeping, floating, hiding under the
My mother was born on a farm, playing inside a cow’s carcass. She describes this memory to me
in naive bliss-- cow’s blood, hot. Ribs malleable, fencing in. A cow dies, my mother goes outside. She
learns to cleave out its organs, holding the lungs in both hands. Fat with tissue. Ballooning.
For days, the betta ride slime bubbles of algae flowering from sedimentary food flakes between
My mother loved watching Carrie in the 80s because she was always the prom scene—always
covered in blood, wanting to get out of the small town.
Both times I cared for Bettas, I left them with my mother. She bought them a hammock, a
floating, plastic leaf. My mother, on her handwoven hammock in her bedroom.
My mother became American through the hands of my father. He switches her Havaiana sandals
to sneakers with socks, her legs for a bike and a bus pass, her knife for cleaning supplies, her cows for
pots and pans. FInd my mother in the kitchen or with Andy. Her hands rip open pillow sheets to stitch
back into a ghost costume for Halloween. Her hands no longer carve, they create.
I find my mother hammocks herself in a memory of carcassed cows, she’s wrapped up in
kelp-color blankets in bed, the Bettas lost their mermaid hair, she’s lost all of her knives.
When Bettas get sick, white spots appear on their body, the water intoxicates them, the sludge
makes it harder for them to swim in, their fins, paper-thin, weakening. They shed their tail, they float, gulping air from the surface. They are resilient, but they know to give up.
I Tarot You
Let’s sleep on a twin bed-- face me, hold me into
a staring contest, I don’t care who wins but I’m counting
on your toothy-open-mouth laughter, your pink uvula
hammocked between tonsils waking up, legs like vines
spiraling until afternoon, don’t brush your teeth
let’s kiss with tongues, eyes open, smother our noses,
can you guess which taste
bud loves you most?
I want to hear about the secrets you don’t tell your best friends,
trade parent issues like sweaters, cry until the pillow sponges,
pinkypromise, kiss our hand, spit in our palm, swear you won’t
tell your next wife, although I’ve pulled your tarot cards,
the Lovers Card came up twice-- the bodies open palmed,
chained engulfed in fire conversation with the devil
Let me just say who cares,
The Lovers are at peace--
they wake up without caring of bad breath, the farts under
the covers, the toe wrestling, the crease of the cotton pillow
horizon on their cheeks, the giggles during guided meditation
on breathing, facing belly up, arms like vines, open palmed.
The Boxed Ballerina
I think of the music box etched
in cedar roses stained in scarlet,
dyed in cinnamon lacquer--
a keyhole with no key
I think of the spineless ballerina,
an aimless jellyfish, acquiescing
in cursive movements, in constant
pirouettes; the efflux echoes
A Moonlight Sonata.
I think of her sleep amulet eyes
her tired tessellating arms, stuck
in an enamel corpse; perfect
of who she should be.
Stuck in an aeonian symphony
of beat Beethoven beneath her,
the pins pluck the rusted revolving
cylinder, scraping the last of music.
The cicadas in the mercury of night
stay silent with the hauntings
of the decrescendo sounds falling
like dead stars onto the horizon.
Her hair in a doughnut bun, glazed
in hairspray, her tutu is fluffed;
bubblegum hibiscus petals brushing
her thighs in pink lemonade tights.
She slows down, her arms tuck
behind her torso, her heels bleed
one more time, a d-minor,
a diminishing slur of melodic notes.
The box closes, the golden
keyhole latches to a knob only
child fingers can pry. I stay
stagnate, watching the murky
waters in the cistern below,
a bathtub for the harmonica
of sleepless cicadas in the back-
yard, stuck between their music
and my room with the lights off;
the smell of cedar.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
I have been writing since I was six years old, in those little pink diaries with voice activated locks, and in Lisa Frank spiral notebooks. It wasn’t until 8th grade where I was more intentional in writing poetry during my “emo kid” phase, releasing a lot of my teenage angst through writing in this dark red hardcover sketch book that was supposed to be for art class, but I felt more inclined in writing in them. By ninth grade, I started taking creative writing class.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
My creative writing teacher was amazing and knew how to reel us in. In one packet she added “This is Just to Say”, and “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Williams Carlos Williams and “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath with many more like Louise Gluck, Anne Sexton.
“This is Just to Say” was the introduction poem and I knew from the compression, the imagery, the feeling of guiltless guilt, this snapshot of what was and what is going to happen when this other person being apologized to figures out the plums in the icebox are gone and purposefully eaten, I wanted to make people feel the way Williams made me feel. I was so invested, the emotionality of it captured my attention and I was a goner for poetry.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
My foundation was mentioned in the previous question, but some of my favorites that come to mind, and I’ll read their work to be inspired:
Danez Smith, “Dinosaurs in the Hood”
Louise Gluck, “The Encounter” Stacey Waite, anything in Butch Geography Maggie Nelson, her prose book Bluets Ellen Bass, “Basket of Figs”
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
I am a tad erratic and consider myself Chaotic Good, so because I lack a sense of laws and regulations my writing process mimics that mindset. This is still a work in progress but here is what I’m learning about myself: my best work is written during the late morning hours between 10am-12pm. I have to meditate before sitting down in front of the computer. I have to be alone, but cats are welcomed. I am usually in a comfy seat, so I’ll bring the living room table to the couch. I’ll intentionally switch between high frequency sounds specifically for creativity and positive thinking, and sad, depressing songs. Music is so important to my process, the lyrics have to be emotionally charged in order to inspire my writing, so I lean towards sad songs, they tend to tell more emotional stories. That morning, the meditation, a dream, songs, or sounds will trigger a mood or a memory. I want to get that mood/memory down. I will open a document on my Google Drive or open a notebook, and just start freewriting for a solid ten minutes. I do not stop writing until the timer on my phone goes off. From there, I know in the freewrite I’ll have what I need. And coffee. So. Much. Coffee.
CNP: How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
I definitely let the poem decide. All my poems start off as a free write, so they begin in prose form. Some poems will stay in storytelling mode, longer lines, expository so I can fit more detail to guide the imagery, using language and senses to color the longer poems. Some poems just have more to say.
There are other poems I don’t have much to say, or the poem is painful-- poetry for me is sometimes used for healing-- but I need to get that image or moment out in specific, image-striking lines and poignant techniques that require compression and concise word play.
Sometimes, I want to challenge myself and choose a form beforehand, and use that to see what comes out. The change of pace works well for me.
CNP: Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
I have been taught by my mentors that we usually write repeatedly about three obsessions, and will have threads about objects that will appear over and over again in our work. Use that to your advantage. It’s never a bad thing that you find yourself writing about love, loss, oranges, your uncle. I feel like writers are so hard on themselves, and so critical about their work. Trust the process. Trust your obsessions. Trust those threads. I am in the process of putting my manuscript together and my own threads are pancakes, hair, and water. Lean into what makes you write, what makes you think, what makes you create. That’s what the reader cares about, and through that you will find your authenticity, your voice.
CNP: What is your editing process like?
This is also a method taught to me-- every line needs to be earned. If the line is lacking or not as strong as the rest of the poem, I know the poem still needs work. So I edit line by line, I play with line length, enjambment, word play. It’s like when the first draft is complete, I am running through them like with a fine-toothed comb. Are all the lines visually pleasing, is each line earned? Then, I want to hear how it sounds. I need to read the poem out loud at least a few times, although the lines in the poem look good and have been compressed, it may not sound good, the sound will tell me about any punctuation, grammatical errors I may have missed.
CNP: When do you know that a poem is finished?
I believe this whole time I’ve been skirting around the word intuition. Artists, including poets, have a unique way of viewing the world, and that’s what makes our art so powerful. My poetry is intuitive, it’s all about what I am feeling in that moment, that day. That mood is going to become a poem and that poem won’t be complete until each word or line reflects that intuitive emotion. The poem has to encompass the mood I intended. So intention and intuition is my key to a poem being finished. But, is any art ever finished?