Table of Contents:
John Freeman | “Borrowed Finery”
Keetje Kuipers | “Washing My Daughter’s Clothes”
| “I didn’t know what I didn’t know”
Joseph O. Legaspi | “Longyi, a Lyric”
By John Freeman
And on those nights ice beveling the windows
Leslie and I would visit Patricia in her flat
glowing lamps and radiator heat
Philadelphia winter whipping with its usual
rages as we drank mail-order coffee
thought to smell of Paris
whiffs of chocolate and cinnamon how you think
Paris smells when you haven’t been there
my mother never went she drank the same
coffee cupped her mug like Patricia warmed
with that same Scotch-Irish blush
Vivaldi burbling in the background
like a Saint Germain bistro
an imagined city encouraging us there in real
ways on the outskirts of Philadelphia
comfort important even when it came from a box
how starkly good our lives seem to me now
planed to an ascetic purity of study
I worked then as an art model waking in
Leslie’s bed we’d walk to class
together and then I’d disrobe
my body still warm from her
in that instant it became something
outside me—for an hour I sat in the gap
between me and the form I was born into
not looking out simply resting
the best pose reading Woolf’s diaries
a wet day and I am glad of the rain
I have talked too much
what joy not to speak to simply exist
the scratching a music of concentration
the furl and crack of a new
sheet being turned even in frustration
had a beautiful sound its own weather
space heater warming behind me like a
very focused sun beam
all day afterwards I’d feel the palm of it
on my backside until the chill set in
Thirty years ago these visits I open the bare
cupboard this morning in New York radiators
hissing, windows smeared with snow
and there is but one packet of coffee, a left-over gift
from the same mail order company
still sending out coffee with classical music
dreams of Paris and all my bodies sit inside
my body some of them still asking for cinnamon
some asking for her and some no longer asking
a city so quiet it’s almost imaginary
the past an unlit street
I can follow home in the dark
Washing My Daughter’s Clothes
By Keetje Kuipers
Out the laundry room window, a swan
dips its head into lake water still
murky from last year’s snow, surfaces
silt roping its neck. Some yellow flutter—
I don’t know its name or even what
it’s called—and then a turkey, so close
I almost miss the fat, dark shadow
of its awkward passing. My mother’s
grandmother—uncomplaining, I’ve heard,
but sad—hanged herself in the one plumbed
back room of her house having made it
just as long as I have on this earth.
Something else I don’t know much about.
She waited awhile, until her girls
were grown. She didn’t leave a note. Women
in my family are like the bears I
haven’t seen yet this season. You can’t
foresee their comings or their goings.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know
By Keetje Kuipers
Rumor was she blew him after Geometry
out behind the baseball diamond, a kind of place
it confused me to learn existed. Not beautiful—
homely is maybe what you would have called
my best friend. Her parents’ house was filled
with leaves and the smell of vegetables. And I spent
more hours stretched across the rug of her attic room
than I did in my own bed. Did I ask her about him then,
our bodies parallel on the floor as we examined
the seam of her ceiling, her straw-like hair quivering
with the tic that twisted her face when nervous
or even happy, its flutter just at the edge of what
I could see without turning my head? I don’t
remember. All I know is that she never told me.
I didn’t understand shame or silence then.
Those days my luck was a short rope holding me
always too close to myself. Who cut it is another story
or the same one, depending on if you ask.
Longyi, a Lyric
By Joseph O. Legaspi
It is not a skirt.
And if it is a skirt, what of it? The Western gaze can be narrow and self-righteous.
In Burma, where it is traditionally worn, my husband and I have worn the longyi, a cylindrical cloth that snakes down to the feet, held in place around the waist by folding the fabric over without a knot. Its cousins are the Indian lungi and the Malay sarong.
I regard the longyi as masculine garment: the way it’s anchored in a bundle up front, announcing its form. Like a flower over the loin.
I love how it slims the hips, hugs them not unlike a corset, although not as binding. Rather, I find the longyi freeing, enabling breathing room. It sits below the waist, elongating the torso. Actually, it isn’t like a corset at all.
We were touring Bagan, an inland city in the western Mandalay region where over 2,200 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries from the 11th and 13th centuries dotted the plains. They remained sacred, active places of worship.
At the time of our visit in June 2015, Burma had only recently opened up to tourism. Foreigners were allowed in a handful of places. Yet tourists were catered to. To be a tourist was to be swaddled like an infant. And as an infant one made Western demands.
David selected a modest dark purple fabric. I chose a thin-lined, tiny-squared plaid with shades of the oranges and browns of leopard skin. To wear the longyi, the sellers showed us how one needed to put one’s lower arms into it, pulling the opposing sides of the sewn cylinder, gathering the fabric, then crisscrossing the two sides as if folding bed sheet fresh out of the dryer.
Throughout the Burmese day, men tied, untied, and retied their longyi. Ritual of social propriety. Dance between unraveling and the body.
I was a dunce at tying the longyi, but Burmese men were more than happy to help. At a vegetarian restaurant, Be Kind to Animals The Moon, a willing young man—who spoke English accented with a curious mix of British clip and Southern drawl—assisted me. Inside, I burst into C.P. Cavafy: “At beauty I have gazed so much/that my vision is filled with it./The body lines. Red lips. Limbs made for pleasure.” Or “this aesthete of a boy with his blood so fresh and hot.”
In the sweltering heat, men walked or sat with their longyi tucked between their legs, the extra fabric belted around their waists.
Tucking steered my thought to drag.
On my 30th birthday, I wore a borrowed wool tartan kilt, suited for the early December chill. Good friends and I feasted at Mario Batali’s restaurant in Greenwich Village. In line for the bathroom, the man in a tailored suit in front of me asked whether I was wearing anything underneath. Then, throughout the carousing, cosmopolitan night, the same question was posed repeatedly. Clearly I was not Scottish.
The kilt was kitsch to me, partly, yes, but worn with want and in celebration. I had recently come out as gay and the kilt served as an intermediary with its burly heft like pelt and cone shape that twirled into a horizontal propeller. How warm it made me feel. How free and unconventional.
I’d slipped into skirts before when I was circumcised at age twelve in the Philippines. A skirt—my mother’s, grandmother’s or my sisters’—kept the wound clean and aerated for proper healing.
On a motorbike in Bagan, my longyi funneled cool air and red dust, flamenco on wheels.
Burmese men wore the elongated fabric either slung over their lower arms like protrusion of folded skin, or as sash over their shoulders.
While my husband was touring a temple, I crept out to use the bathroom. Outside the stall, I was having difficulty re-tying my longyi. Three young men stopped to help me. Limbs swayed like branches. One stood behind me, another faced me, while the third watched. It was a chaste yet charged orgy. When I told my husband two days later, it felt as illicit as a confession.
I stood, arms raised in the air. Brown arms circled my waist, weaving. From the back, the groping and tightening at my torso. I had become his body. We comprised of three rings, haloed by a flickering current. He wound the longyi securely, plunged fabric down to my loin. Tucked in the front. Fluffed the flower.
John Freeman is the founder of the literary annual Freeman’s, and an executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf. He is also the author and editor of eleven books, including Dictionary of the Undoing; There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love (co-edited with Tracy K Smith), and Wind, Trees, a new collection of poems. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and been translated into more than twenty languages. Once a month he co-hosts the California Book Club for Alta, an online discussion of a classic of Golden State literature. He lives in New York City.
Keetje Kuipers is the author of three collections: Beautiful in the Mouth, The Keys to the Jail, and All Its Charms, which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and includes poems published in both The Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies. Keetje has been a Stegner Fellow, Bread Loaf Fellow, and the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident. She lives with her wife and children in Missoula, Montana, where she is Editor of Poetry Northwest and a board member at the National Book Critics Circle.
Joseph O. Legaspi, a Fulbright and two-time NYSCA/New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow, is the author of the collections Threshold and Imago, both from CavanKerry Press; and the chapbooks Postcards (Ghost Bird Press); Aviary, Bestiary (Organic Weapon Arts); and Subways (Thrush Press). He cofounded Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), a national organization serving generations of writers and readers of Asian American literature. He lives with his husband in Jackson Heights, Queens.