The following poems refer to my life as a dancer. Martha Graham’s masterpiece,
PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, a dance in three sections, was the first piece I performed of
Graham’s in 1964 which was a revival. The work debuted in 1931 and is based on an all
female, Native American interpretation of the Crucifixion seen through the Virgin Mary’s
eyes. This was the dance that placed Martha Graham on the innovator’s map with Pablo
Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Frank Lloyd Wright.
PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, I – HYMN TO THE VIRGIN
HELLO step-heel-toe, snap-other-foot-to-ankle in Martha Graham’s Primitive Mysteries,
this solemn, ritual walk, its heel-pounding sound bracketing the entrances and exits in
this three-part masterpiece.
HELLO first section titled Hymn to the Virgin where we, the chorus, frame the Virgin
Mary in primitive, stick figure friezes. Four of us hold Her as She splays against our
string-taut bodies. Another four cradle-rock their arms to herald the Holy One within.
HELLO to each frieze that effects a collective love song.
THANK YOU Martha Graham onstage in twelve devotees following her like we follow
the Virgin, circling our Mary in countless repetitions of step, step, turn, step, step, add a
hiccup jump, accelerating to breakneck speed. Inside this rumpus Mary squats to birth the
little one, her pose mirroring da Vinci’s Pieta.
THANK YOU Mary who, in a billowing white gown, floats between an aisle of four
kneeling dancers on either side. Our hands in prayer, She exchanges blessings with each
acolyte in an arm reach soft as baby’s breath.
THANK YOU Yuriko who plays Mary. When she blesses me, the last girl, our eyes
embrace linking our souls; we are one.
GOODBYE to dancers who starve to look like a long drink of water. We’re not the
wide-hipped women on whom Martha created this dance in 1931 after she came back
from the Southwest where she traveled with composer Louis Horst, to study movement
and sound in Native American tribes on Guggenheim grants.
GOODBYE months of work to bring life to this 1964 revival, months of prayer at the
Temple of Ritual Walk to give step-heel-toe snap-other-foot-to-ankle more weight.
GOODBYE to Martha’s hatred of revivals. Quoting Negro League pitcher, Satchel
Paige, she’d declare, Never look back, they may be gaining on you.
GOODBYE to dreams where I’m performing, wake drenched in anxiety, What’s next?
GOODBYE to being drawn to the impossible; how desperate we are for the petroglyphic
style to become skin; one girl snaps her meniscus.
GOODBYE and THANK YOU for our after-performance satisfaction, a foot-stamping,
PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, II - CRUCIFIXUS
How the movement in Crucifixus purposefully imprisons our bodies.
How we ten acolytes, in two groups of three and one of four dancers, trudge shoulder to
shoulder along the floor as one grieving body.
How our elbows touch each other in a V-shape, which Martha adds because we need to
look more constrained.
How my C-curved, hunched spine is nailed to its own cross.
How I fear this is beyond what I can do.
How during one rehearsal Martha shares, Christ asphyxiated on the cross, then later
mutters, This is the cruelest dance I ever made.
How Louis Horst’s mournful oboe score underlines human suffering.
And how center stage, Mary inches forward, Her face a Noh mask, Her cupped hands
below Her eyes to catch invisible tears.
And how on either side of this tormented Mother, two dancers point to an imaginary
cross; Look, look! their pointers seem to say but Her inward gaze remains.
How Mary breaks through them, Her arms a cross piece, My son is dead.
How we ten women circle our lost Mary in a marathon of fifty-eight leaps before we and
the music stop, walk off stage in our solemn step-heel-toe, snap-other-foot to ankle while
the audience has yet to breathe.
PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, III – HOSANNA
As if we corps of twelve women could not bear it
any longer yet came back for more
as if those blood-letting hours to get the Hosannas right--
leg raised, arms splayed as the cross piece
simulating some barbaric rite to celebrate
the rise of Mary’s dead son--
as our limbs break through to announce His resurrection,
a brutal dance
wrapped in arms in a cross, jumpjump
over and over to convey
a brimming joy in the
while center stage Mary places her hand
over an acolyte’s for support through her loss.
At one point the dancer back bends
into a hungry Mary’s arms
as if She were laying to rest Her boy’s body,
a goodbye for the many last times.
We, the chorus, are the outside world
immersed in His return
while Mary transitions from pain to acceptance
in Hosanna’s last Shiva-like image.
With a dancer hidden behind the Virgin, we see
four arms rising towards heaven
to mark Her Son’s journey
and release the sorrow within.
We all breathe into this silent language of the soul
and rise out of ourselves.
three poems: by a thread / hello doctor, my old friend /love notes to self, despairing - VII by Lauren Bender
by a thread
I go where I exist, to the dim sunken corner, your leg
wedged between my two legs,
single curtain to shut out the unwanted, lyrics white
on black above the bed, and I don't think
about the creepy man from the sandwich shop who likes
how pudgy I am, and I don't think
about the lamppost that flew through your window
during the hurricane, and I only think
off and on about our sicknesses, and I don't think
about the sad words on the walls or
that night the ambulance came or how I am always
crawling into your lap in inappropriate
places. It is four thirty in the afternoon, and I am late
for living up to my last name. I have left
the house to work out its own feelings, all terrible
ones like anger and jealousy and disgust,
and could it be that a nap with you will solve
this monumental problem, thinks
the busted adolescent brain. But I am so tired,
and you are so, so tired
that when my sister asks what's fun about going over
to a friend's house just to sleep,
I default to my classic response to questions from
healthy people and stare at her
in silence, hate pooling in my eyes. The world asks
too much to demand I explain sadness too.
hello doctor, my old friend
I follow your legs up the stairs
and talk to them about my feelings;
this is always what I'm doing.
They are flawless and hairless,
and I can't stop staring.
They seem to fall out of your black skirt
announcing you – here I am, your savior,
at least the one you hired this week.
They keep interrupting my stories
with questions about why I love them.
And I tell them, I don’t know;
why does anyone love anything?
Maybe when they catch the light, they look like me,
my legs, if I was living another life,
your life, where I could be happy, no doubt,
and not fall asleep tucked in question marks.
Even though you are a presentation,
never mind seeing beneath the surface. Not now.
Playing dress-up is only the beginning
of growing up, of the transformation.
Can I imagine such a world,
where eyes find themselves at my hemline
and envy fogs away the self?
love notes to self, despairing - VII
can you keep your eyes open
you set your phone's alarm for half an hour later curl on the couch hold it in your hands pressed against your chest like a stuffed animal that sings and purrs out of nowhere and makes your ❤ pound so hard
(and you can't remember if having a ❤ was like this before if this is just what a normal ❤ feels like)
sweet❤ she has to cancel
you say no problem fine whatever I'll therapist myself? surely I've clocked enough hours to get the job done
check your phone and it (you) says calm down your life is not ruined calm down calm down calm down life is always a mess and loud and you can be such a good little self-soother when you bother to try
you slam your fist against anything not working keep hitting hard and the more you hit things the more you want to hit things things that would shatter things that would say stop you're ridiculous
and well I'm a little worried about your ❤ with this have you been trying to--
you're not listening to a word I say are you
lives in Burlington, VT. Her work has appeared in IDK Magazine, The Collapsar, Gyroscope Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Yes Poetry, and others. You can find her on twitter @benderpoet.
Heart with two diamonds glued to their teeth.
Heart in their bed, lilac blankets washed up on their legs like wave caps at
sunset watering the flowers that someone left wilted on their skin.
Heart drinking coffee, a drop of java cascading down their chin, so focused on
lines of charcoal they don’t notice. They smudge the brown into the paper.
Heart with me, they tell me about the ghosts that haunt their apartment and
the woods that make them feel alive and how they have always been afraid of
the dark. Freckles like fingerprints, they trace them like constellations, eyes
closed tight when they reach each one and they tell me how much they wish they
could kiss me. They don’t tell me why they can’t and I don’t ask. We just sit.
Empty the contents of your cannibal Heart. What do you see? A smile with
two diamonds on teeth. Heart is lovely. I want to know them in the dark but their
fear holds me back behind a gauzy veil. I think they are in another universe.
I promise not to touch them, “it makes it worse,” they say. Instead, I lay in bed
while they paint on my back, creating a galaxy. “Somewhere we could live,” they
said. We are my favorite color palette. And I can feel them wishing on my stars
with every pause their brush makes.
There’s an artist named Valeska Soares who curates books with “love” in the
title spanning over several languages such as Italian, French, Spanish, and
English. Soares researches the titles of these books and has them reprinted to
match their first edition press with the cover color corresponding to the language
they were originally printed in. These books are then displayed as a group of five
hundred over four shelves, two hundred and fifty over two shelves, or one
hundred and twenty-five on one shelf. Inside each book, the pages are blank.
I find myself in daily movement:
in that second when the streetlamps are lit
in that strange shiver before the plane takes off
in the excitement of questions yet to be answered.
I dread the will you stay with me
because I do love you
—I do I do I do--
but everything with roots dies and
I do not want to die yet.
It’s easier to write about these things in English because I cannot write about home without
writing in Spanish. Not really. What’s in a language that when using one I can deny my
homeland safely and when using another the words get stuck in my throat like hungry worms?
The word for home in Spanish is hogar. In the dictionary, there’s six definitions for hogar:
a place to live
home can also be
a place where a fire is lit
What does a paper girl do
with a bonfire?
Home: an answer
The truth about home is
that no matter where you are it never ceases to exist:
it’s not a jail or a chain
but a gravitational center to which one can always return.
When you think about the bonfire
think too about the background noise of the cafeteria at university
and of the sky after class on winter evenings
—sometimes like fresh spilled blood
sometimes like a week-old bruise
sometimes like a raw apricot.
Think about the flower shop down the street:
a splash of color so bright in the middle of the smoky asphalt streets of Madrid;
think about the pine trees you get to see every weekend
when you take the bus to go and hug him tight
—and yes, everything smells like a bonfire there
and there’s always some bird singing
and there’s always someone clapping you in the back.
Home does not exist to hold you back,
but to hold you when you need it.