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  • Condemned to Look
  • Janice Lee (bio)

Yes, poems are ways of saying you clearly remember the day of your death and your tomb. When I am writing poetry, I relive my days when a woman inside me dies many times. My body is full of graves. A sepulcher is dug up, and a young girl comes out of it with her dusty hands in tears. A lady who is a young girl and an old girl at the same time feels the presence of the young girl. I feel that the 15-year-old me and the 50-year-old me come out of the sepulcher through an illegal excavation. Time is not a straight line, but just a flat hell, like a desert. I am a tomb robber who is robbing my own tomb. Things from my tomb are exhibited under the radiant sun. Every time it happens I feel crude.


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[End Page 143]

The photos, like fragments, call out to disclose an essence that may have never existed. The refusal becomes aware of its own refusal and becomes complacency becomes condemnation. Suddenly one has the right eyes. (Rilke) It is through a process of mourning, for example, that we can see. Through a loss, through the carefully cut holes, I can get a glimpse of the other side. But perhaps I am not as receptive as I could be, want to be. It is not the ghost who is waiting, but I for the ghost, I for myself. My lungs inhale a barbarous air, exhale a shaking chain of memories.

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She was tall, so she’ll be in the back.

            Is that her?


            It’s like a game of Where’s Waldo.

Her face really stands out.

            I think it’s her facial expressions.

There is indeed a sort of violence in the extraction of different versions of a self. Extracting the memories, without the aid of gloves or other instruments, and translating those memories into something that can be interpreted by a daughter’s mind. This is a [End Page 144] conjuration. A thousand lives and deaths trapped in the strange balance of a body. But there is no body. Only ash.

With my father and brother, I look through these old photo albums, an old yearbook, photos as far back as when she was in middle school, and I wonder about my impulse to reconstruct a revenant from these images. We speculate on age, context, location, year, mood. My father too has also not seen many of these photos before. It is strange trying to remember a person who once was alive, who now is dead, who was never the person in these strange photos, at least not to you.

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Are those flowers?

They’re not real. It looks like maybe graduation. Sometimes rich people might have real flowers . . .

But why are they so big? They look like cabbages.

They’re made out of paper. . . .

When is this?

Maybe high school?

Are you sure that’s high school? Because her yearbook says 1976. So that must be middle school.

There she is.

There she is again.

There is an impulse for cohesion, for narrative. But the chronology is lost to us, and only visible are strange markers and years written in tiny letters. The woman she was before I was born was not my mother. She was not a mother yet. So we piece together an identity, from the fragments of an identity that is entirely very clear in our minds, and replace the identity we never knew or will know. She was his wife. She was my mother. Before that, she was neither [End Page 145] of these. An identity, instead of becoming magnified, clarified, understood, instead starts to become shattered and torn apart. It is an uncomfortable process. How does one extract a ghost from these images? These photo albums seem to contain a thousand graves and we are digging up each and every one of them. We exaggerate the parts of her we know, mixing and matching from the...


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pp. 143-151
Launched on MUSE
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