The Poetry Project

Mignon: Or, further notes on the past

Wendy Xu

For fear of being discovered as one who writes poor, who writes bad, who writes lines so sentimental and excessively familiar that she would be laughed out of the institutions and lands where she resides. Probably for the best. Death to the institutions that made me, long live the me that was made.

When I was a child I couldn’t descend from the top of the metal slide to the bottom (didn’t even need to walk could have just slid down on my butt) without keeping my mother in my line of sight. I entered the covered slide and immediately began to cry, sliding and my skin burning a little on the back of my legs until I emerged from beneath the orange plastic down below, ran to grab my mother’s leg. She’d congratulate me and pinch my mosquito bites and when we arrived back at home rub cut garlic halves on them making me feel like a soft little loved filet, little mignon, my mother’s little meat dish whose personality would not come out without some coaxing, and maybe didn’t have one to begin with, that was not simply fear of living without my mother.

Little soft meat that sits beside me at the desk, kicking legs in the air, one foot resting sometimes on the cat and it bothers her, little mignon with no personality until she found some pages to listen to her crying and the turnings of the little planet in her mind.

But other things too are the past. Are between you and it. Mothers become mothers when nobody wants them to be anything else, I thought to myself, and if it’s not true I’d never know, sitting against the window and nodding off into a dream I won’t remember.

What did I mean by the past? I meant the essential non-future that I live inside, the suspended forever that could never be the present, the alchemy of time constantly trying to leave me, when I catch up to anything I am already in my own past. It and its own evaporation, of course. I also meant specific disgraces and personal sorrows, isn’t that what you meant too? When I look at you I see that we were born on different continents, the soil that someone walked on to carry you home from the hospital was chemically different, we’re chemically different because of air, the pathogens that circulate in us like language, some toxic and some something else, definitely something else is keeping you alive than me but I can’t quite see what it is.

Writing is the most embarrassing of all embarrassments, making work out of all others. The past embarrasses the future.

In my pathogen we say qí hu nan xia, or you’re riding that tiger now and it would be dangerous to dismount, how could you, as in how could you stop now, and how COULD you, the wrongness of your having begun in the first place. You stubborn thing who writes, why write about any of it, what’s the point, why when Uncle died would you begin again inside those memories of the onion soup with pork bones, Uncle’s shoulders jutting in incompatible directions, the permanent yellow stain under his eyes. Why start. Why write. And all that came out was another poem, the beast must be ridden. How could you.

Where do you go to get a personality? Mignon is always thinking, shirks some responsibilities to hide under the covers with the cat she’d like to have someday, with books, with a gloomy sense of indecency about how she should expect to be treated by others someday. I’m a little chubby meat and I like to read. Start there. I don’t go sledding in the winter because there’s something particularly threatening about English coming down the hill at top speed.

And what would it say about me if I were happy after all, happiness at a time like this? I think. I think about the past even now, there goes that sentence and this one slipping off the deck and into the dark water, it’s oily is what it is, the past is always shiny with something sinister like the run-offs of a corporation or a cruise-boat full of pathogenic people dancing crazily, and all this goes into the water as well. Sentences are cannibals if you do them right, there was a painting of a Zen serpent eating itself in the bathroom of the café where I used to go and pretend to work when I was at my loneliest, and had received my college degree and was thinking oh no, now what, am I so embarrassing that I will become a writer?

Mignon was so often alone with herself and practicing improvisations of the future. Could she be as logical as men, pathological, supposing that to be practical begets something desirable: men at the harbor looking out over the water at the boats bobbing in green, frothing around the edges. Feeling free. Freer than most. Men belonging to themselves with divinity ahead, godliness, something really real.

The ear of the rabbit twitches like a satellite in my dream, I wrote that, it rotates to pick up a signal from behind itself which is the past catching up to me, is it not? Rabbit who lives with that beautiful woman up there on the craggy pocked face of the moon, she of the monstrous wanting, gray and blotched, I used to look up at her from my father’s shoulders with eye pressed to the magnification tube and the ceiling retracted over us, the moon a land I would never go, not like this one where we all got stuck, stayed too long. They get you with the paperwork, you fill it out and they stick it in your eye, you’re here to stay, congratulations.

But I was telling you about how mignon is more strange than cute, more filet-off-the-ol’-block than adorable, little cut of meat from her mother’s womb raised on leafy greens and rice. Who is always sorry. Who is always of the stance of sorry. Who follows me to the public pool and floats there with one foot hanging off the security inflatable rope in a warm spot of pee, someone else’s pee that mignon is still sorry for, sorry she couldn’t keep its unpleasantness to herself.

How many are you, mignon? Who holds you to you, and do you write through air or do your speaking parts write through you? Do you have an easy time of it, ever? What did you inherit through the misjudging of time and place? Is there a charge in the air around violence that is elemental, ornate, supposed? Can you speak? Can you remember you correctly? Is it roomy there, florid, viscous, in the past? Do you clunk with potential and does it hurt you? Your caterpillar feet pushed into sneakers.

The embarrassment of writing is related to the embarrassment of mother, which helps me to understand my mother’s embarrassment in an entirely new dimension. My mother must have wanted to mother, or can I accept that there are ambivalent mothers? Mothers who don’t have any explanation for how they feel, who project their big sonorous moods from here in perpetuity, to the pigeons playing double in shit outside the window. A little hilltop that recollects bigger hilltops. I know this and yet I believe my mother wanted badly to be my mother, and thus poured most of her life’s energy into me and it’s this innate embarrassment, this desire she couldn’t escape to mother, that courses through me, and which I feel acutely, when I am writing, when I am trying very hard to mother myself. The embarrassments never end, the preparation for it, the planning, the writing, and abandoning of all previous plans for a delusional state of spontaneity, the apology to and reconciliation with the contagion of writing, the shame when it disobeys, the joy when it cries and wants to be held.

Thus could I tolerate something a little bit disgusting, confused, oily and unpopular, a thing like mignon, the way my mother tolerated me? Thus I fear I’m fit to be a writer, not a mother. I had looked at all those discontinued lines, lamplight softly fading and some music still vibrating in the strings. How long has it been since last winter which never did come to light? It was the day the past came to an end, beneath us the earth was verbing around in color, and I felt a sympathetic twitch in my monolid.

Only when it seems to me it won’t eat me, the air, its aliveness, shoving the flowerpot from the ledge, then I can write in my book, as that summer when a line of breath from between the lips escaped and became an angry march. Writing natural as forgetting. Troubling, disobedient work.

I cherished all the lines mignon ever wrote for me, the cut of her forehead in profile embellishes itself in sun, is really miraculous. From now on I’ll take her to the doctor for a scrape or a fall, to the park at leaf-dropping time, the pink words fluttery and blowing off the branches—woosh—woosh—woosh—yellow and the sound of it blurring. She could spin on her big toe smiling if she wants, mignon ever tapping out these messages on my palm. So I had my hand on the cracked rivulets phone screen, and raised it, and spoke Hi, mama. Love you.

#268 – Spring 2022