Pre-Existing Condition: Three Variations

CONDITION: Maladie Orpheline 

Mom said, Write a poem about your mother's hands.
I said, So what is the neurological term for claws—we can talk like that.
She didn’t know, said Make sure you say how they are ugly,
          not dried-leaf curl, but sweet-pink nails—conch shell hands
How she hides them from gesture now that they won't extend,
          not tarantulas, maybe mangled talons, or puckered beaks
And make sure you say how once your cousin thought they were pretty.
          Yun cradled one so bleached delicate— her own were brown, but her
          teen nails would be minnie mouse skirts of white polka dots on red.
I said, I've already written a poem about your hands.
She said that was two years ago. See my hands now.

I will write you into this body yet, so that together we might know.

Don't think I never saw. I was watching sometimes.
You then, moon-eyed, door-framed, crutches splayed like new colt legs.
Or later, naked leaning pale thing, belly mound of rising bread.
Blunt puffy feet with scar trench across the arch,
small copy of the horizon line my entrance made on your stomach.
Know this— these are not the ways I know you best.

Higgeldy Piggeldy, peripheral neuropathy
At two years old it starts.
If there is a god,
he’s a mother fucker. Two.

Skidamarinkadinkadink, Charcot-Marie Type Two
Crazy Legs looked in the mirror,
          and did not think
          well at least
               I am smarter.

Called the doctor and the doctor said let’s get the rhythm of the feet

I am not a good dancer.
At thirteen suddenly two chicken eggs
wrapped to my rib bones with a leotard,
so they bobbled like buoys when we turned.
Some days knees and ankles crackle and pop for their own fire-cracker concert.
Then there are others, where body steam erases the mirrors,
Every moment of mind hangs on the angle of an ankle,
and air is just something to push away.
This is all I know of flight. You are all I know of rot.

From a next door spinster What a saint your father is to have married your mother.
And a friend— we could talk about anything—
So do your parents have sex? I mean how?

Her pain might bend that shoulder like a still-green twig,
or leak out from holy myelin sheath,
interrupt of curdled milk through too-sweet blood.
The practical is just a secret known:
Coiled hands can't articulate a tampon.

Frankly, the punctuating wheezes annoy the fuck out of me.

Never carried you outside my belly or lap,
was not the one to introduce you to corners or ceilings.

If I’d known the chance you’d move like me,
I would have stopped you before we started.

You were lucky.

Later you blindly borrowed my sweaters,
not seeing once I saw how they could shimmy,
I never wore them again.

I am losing verbs in drips:
grasp type flex hold

Books are easier than people but then
mind to mind was never our problem

We were lucky. I watched but

you streaked by
at your two-year-old cackle,
sure-footed lithe whole.

CONDITION: Cell Division

I name my tumor Horace,
the way I named my stalker Bobofat,

tired of this meta-physical lurking,
but between the two, I'd say the physical

is worse. Only because the meta
keeps coming anyway and we're back
to that sad calculus of n+1.

I've started talking to you, your stunted daughter.
Can we say it was a son?
No, we can't. I saw it.
She was a jelly blob.
I keep being quite cold, quite mean,

meaning I'm all emptied out yet bulging,
excessive with so little to spare. I tell her,

Hurry up my beauty,

Wreck yourself. Get out.
For the life of me,
I can't imagine where we go from here.

CONDITION: Winter Remission

My lyft driver picks me up from the ice-slicked Portland station parking lot. (Portland isn't
used to snow. I watched as I waited with amused worry the pedestrians who didn't seem
to know how to walk in it, like fawns learning to stand.) We start talking about the city, the
state of the world. He's been in Portland twenty-five years but the city is changing.
Actually he lives forty minutes away, easier to commute than afford these rents. Would be
sad if the city becomes another San Francisco situation; we agree it already has. He asks
me where I live, which is a question I don't have a simple answer to, so we talk about
travels. He tells me he wishes everyone would travel. I mention time in Cairo and he says
Sisi is a crazy man. Like this Donald. Really crazy. The sort of person if you met you'd...
People have forgotten. They've forgotten that it's not only about the dollar. A country, so
rich and we don't have health care. At least Obama did something. Yeah, he says, I'm
glad he did something, but for me, well it's $800 a month and my oldest daughter you
know she has a condition. (Pre-existing conditions of humanness of bodies gone wrong as
if there were a right way.) I say I don't understand how it's not a right, in a country so
rich. A country so rich and, he adds, there are so many great things. And so much
suffering everywhere. Here in Portland, last week a woman was put out of her house
because she was missing $300 rent. They evicted her. She slept downtown (under one of
the bridges I used to run by, I imagine, seeing her.) It was on the news. She froze to death.
(I didn't see her.) How could you be that landlord, turn someone out to the cold for $300?
In Minnesota, they didn't do that, turn people out in winter, right they had laws about
that, right? Yes, I say. (But now I doubt my whitewashed snowed-in memory.) (Can old
laws protect us from new weather?) We arrive. He carries my bags as we wade through
snow. I ask where he was before Portland. I'm from Yemen. I watch him watch my face
fall. I can't find a word beyond sorry that means I am so distressed by what is happening
in your country, for what my country's role in it is, for the bombs, for the dying. He
suddenly brightens again: Have you been there? No, I say. I have heard it was beautiful.
Yes! We speak of architecture and Saudi Arabia and Iran's proxy wars and the no-light in
sight. You, he says, you have traveled. You should tell people. (Tell them what, and yet.)
And you don't need television now. You can do it with social media. (What would I tell
you. Ok then.) My hosts haven't shoveled anything so we wade through to the steps and
thank each other. And so. (Okay. Okay, then.) So I am telling.


ELIZABETH SENJA SPACKMAN is a poet and playwright. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she worked with Rhodessa Jones and the Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women. After receiving a Fulbright to Rwanda, she stayed to work with artists while teaching at University of Rwanda. She now writes and lives in and between Nairobi, Kenya; Naselle, Washington; and Brooklyn, New York.