The observation of a kiss brings on a stream of memories.
Photograh by Ronald Woan / Flickr
The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.
By Major Jackson
January, 10 kilometers southwest of Oaxaca City, smack dab in the middle of the Monte Alban—where the Zapotecs over the course of a thousand years flattened a mountain to build a city. You are here for a week to lead a poetry workshop, but first you and the other participants survey these epically old temples, tombs, and ceremonial platforms accessed predominantly by way of extreme ascents up steep pyramidal steps. The sun stings your eyes even with shades. And here, in the center of the Great Plaza, squinting, you gaze upon a couple in their early 30s kissing for five minutes or more, one of those breathless, deep in it kisses, one of those the-world-swirls-around-us-and-we-might-as-well-be-its-sole-inhabitants kisses. They are fashionably dressed, maybe too done up for the climb, the ancient red and beige dirt coating everyone’s shoes and feet: he in slacks and a sky blue short-sleeve and she in a cream silk blouse and burgundy print wrap-around skirt. Their intimacy so dissonant, you look around in search of a film crew: a script supervisor, a director, a costume designer. Both wear straw hats, which she holds to her head whenever a gust of wind occasionally sweeps across their bodies as though buffeting them. Just when the edges of their bodies begin to blur in the rippling heat, they pause and take each other in, their eyes dissolving. Cut.
Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman once reported in an interview: I have maintained open channels to my childhood. Sometimes in the night, when I am on the limit between sleeping and being awake, I can just go through a door into my childhood and everything is as it was… the sudden aggressivity of the adult world, the terror of the unknown and the fear from the tension between my father and mother.
Daily you walk into your childhood of violence, like a sequence in a film seen too many times that becomes your dream. Except this was your home, among potted plants and a vitrine cabinet of rare china: the dull smack of your drunk grandfather, who raised you like his when your teen parents could not, hitting your grandmother, and she fighting back with all the might her Jesus could muster those whiskey-heavy nights. Then, the only other sound: their tortured breathing and her cowering, balling up like a loose fist to fend his last blows; their bodies indistinguishable. You took it in, especially Friday evenings when late arrival from work and one of the local speakeasy’s was guaranteed, and it became your air, choking you, too, on the exhale until the next morning, finally awakening to the bright rustle of the kitchen to find them at a red Formica table laughing, she kissing the top of his head as she slid behind him, simultaneously reaching for burnt toast, everything is as it was.
Their remoteness stretches over ancient pebbles, a mystical isolation by their own directing, an open-air music of touch that announces more love than desire, all underscored by a deluge of sunlight which feels Mediterranean in mood. No one bothers them. For the most part, no one takes a second notice, despite the passing minutes of uninterrupted, slow head swirl and lip press. It’s a Monday. Only two other small groups are here; the vastness of the land makes it seem you are few in number. Speaking in various languages, visitors saunter by; others cast sideways glances, never too distasteful, just enough to gather unto themselves this sacred act on sacred ground, among the shadows banyan trees make and leaning slabs of stone portraying castrated men, in the presence of the dead waiting out once more this invasion of the living, wishing they too could once again press themselves into the shape of a beloved, wishing they too could maintain channels.
One Saturday afternoon, you watch a late-teenaged boy, slightly older than you, in a white ribbed tank top, along with his four sisters and mother, move boxes out of a beat-up Chrysler into the three-story rowhome at the corner of your street, vacant for several years. You never learn their names. Your friend Curt sits across the street and catcalls to one of the girls, the one with the slick ponytail down her back. After getting his designer sneakers snatched off his feet last spring, he has been lifting weights, bulking up into a walking wall of human meat. “Girl, you fine as daylight. Come over here. I want to be your sky.” Despite her smiles and giggles, her older brother, ignoring how flattered she is, warns him to back off. “Or what?” says Curt. “Imma kick your…!” This goes on for half-an-hour, the brother unloading floor lamps, hangers, prepackaged food, a laundry basket full of cleaning supplies while defending his sister’s honor from sexual taunts until Curt says finally and off-handedly “Let’s go,” meaning let’s get it on.
Your grandfather is trembling as he loads the chambers of his .357 magnum which he has just retrieved from his army-issued footlocker. Your grandmother is in front of him, pleading with him not to go out. His only surviving sister Margaret just called to say her husband James beat her up again, pretty badly. “Cille!” your grandfather says, “I’m just going over there to scare him. Dammit woman, get out of my way!”
How they know to do this, both make their way to the center of the street, with Curt taking off his shirt careful not to break his trot, speeding up slightly such that when he arrives his right fist, firm and close to his shoulders, unloads into, less a punch into the man’s left jaw and side face, but more a meeting of his perspiring body with that of the other man’s who crumbles unconscious on the asphalt, a clash erotic and intoxicating as a kiss as much as it is frighteningly repulsive. He stands above his victim quietly, heavily breathing, his brute face scanning the streets and neighbors who have assembled around him. All of your life, you think of that one fluid motion of power, terrorized by the fact we are capable of such collisions, such harm, such leveling of each other to flattened mountains, left to tunnel into ourselves, such wretched unhappiness, such unfathomable cruelty unless resurrected by the tenderness and affection of a lover, by kisses that leave us enthroned.
Such gentleness of touch when they breathe together. Like always in the presence of couples seeming to take plunges into a beloved’s body, you are stuck, unable to turn away. Their kiss heals all around them. It is like Steven’s jar in Tennessee: It takes dominion everywhere.
In Bergman’s film Scenes from a Marriage, Marianne tells Johan: “Sometimes it grieves me that I have never loved anyone. I don’t think I have ever been loved either. It really distresses me.”
Sometimes we go through doors.
In this land far from home, you squint and stare at a young couple kissing. Their love reaches somewhere deep inside you that needs healing, where scars reside. You convince yourself they want an audience; they need onlookers to bear witness, to receive and complete the endowment of the love between them. You can sense their chests beating, see from here their eyes opening and closing in wonder. You are less awed by these ancient temples where Zapotec priests performed human sacrifice. You are awed by a man and woman kissing countering the traumatic violence in our lives, the emptiness, all the blood and grieving spilled over the Earth.
Major Jackson is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors. He teaches at the University of Vermont and is the poetry editor of the Harvard Review. His first book, Leaving Saturn, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Each of his last two collections, Hoops and Holding Company, was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature Poetry. His latest book is Roll Deep, published by W.W. Norton, which the New York Times describes as “a remixed Odyssey.” He lives in South Burlington, Vermont.