Episodes

Nancy Zigler reads ‘Museums in the Sky’

A full transcript of the episode is below.

Museums in the Sky

by Nancy Zigler

            My name is Cielo Salas, and I am writing to say that I am not sorry. You were a twenty-one-year-old philosophy major, and I was a twenty-seven-year-old grad school dropout. The professor had fallen ill, and the English department had let me sub in exchange for $3,333 dollars. 

            First day of teaching, you jotted down your phone number next to your name on my seating chart. The number also contained a series of threes. The letters were angular, confident. The mark of your pen almost ripped through the thin sheet before you. 

            I didn’t call right away, but I did begin to take each comma personally. You wrote about a town where it rained each day for six years. You wrote about a couple who existed in different dimensions of outer space. They kept falling in love over and over again until they woke up as each other. You wrote about how the universe was a hologram, and that we were all just shitty reflections of our invisible selves. 

            In Spanish, the word for deep space is espacio profundo. Isn’t that lovely? 

            My mom, Alma, named me Cielo so that I could feel limitless. Personally, I would have preferred she named me Black Hole or Aurora Borealis because I’ve always been drawn to the blankness of the night. She’s the one that liked space, not me, but since she’s been gone, all I’ve been looking for are signs and symbols that she did walk this earth alongside me.  

**

            It snowed winter to spring. I spent a lot of time not grading. Or not doing much of anything, if I’m being honest. Online, I found recordings of you from high school, back when you were a junior tennis all-star. I tried to decode the interviews, imagine what you ate for lunch that day. Repeating the words in my head: drop shot, tuna sandwich, number two fade. If we had been high school classmates, you would have been the hot guy who didn’t give me a second thought. I had flowered in later adulthood—like the universe had given us a chance to meet in the middle. 

            Boy, you could write the shit out of a sentence. Many of your pieces took place inside the same Moscow kitchen. Your characters smoked too much and never spoke in dialogue, then, the twist—how in the dusk, the velvet curtains painted the tile floors pink and it made you want to cry. I’d close my eyes to imagine the satiny wallpaper patterned with ostriches cracking out of gray shells. 

            By the time the snow had melted, I finally dialed your number. We went ice-skating in Schenley Park, and you made lazy figure eights as if you were born to do it.  

            “My parents were ice skaters,” you explained simply. 

            My mother is dead, I wanted to say. Instead, I cupped your hand in mine and we listened to the softness of snow falling off of cedars. 

**

            By the time the frost had melted off of crocuses, we finally had our movie moment in the laundry room of my apartment. Wedged in between two machines, I felt a darkness in me slowly spreading, rising and falling like a sine wave. A blurry phone number was written on the palm of your hand, the one you used to pull my hair back before it slipped through your fingers.  

            The dryer beeped. Wrapped in a hot fleece blanket, we exited the laundry room like two children on Christmas Eve. As we made it to the third floor, the lights flickered on: one, two, three, four. My door was unlocked, the windows wide open to let in the mystery and magic of Pittsburgh at midnight.  

            You took in my studio apartment thoughtfully, green eyes darting corner to corner, where I had color-coded all my things into artful nests on the floor with gaping holes in between. 

            “What, you moved in like, yesterday?”

            “I’m still figuring out the feng shui.”

            “It feels so temporary.” 

            You tilted my chin towards your face and counted my freckles. My curandera told me I got them from staring too hard at the moon after my mother died. Your hands on my face were the most intimate I had ever known. They traced over the grease burns on my wrists, which I got from working the fryer at Taco Bell in high school. 

            “Hey, have you eaten?” you asked. 

            “I haven’t gone grocery shopping. Since I moved in.”

            You slid next to me on the floor, in a nest where everything was purple. “Well, tonight you are very lucky,” you said. “You’re having one perfect plum.”

            You held the invisible fruit up to the naked bulb of my living room. We both admired it and you whispered stories of its deliciousness into my ear. I drifted off to sleep against the black nest, mostly made up of the contents of my heart. 

            Before you left, you looked out the window and into the empty parking lot across the street. There was a single star in the sky. I remembered that my mom had once said that the space station belonged in a museum of dreams that should not exist. I wondered if you had a beyond place too.

**

            I’m on a train to Pittsburgh. Tree shadows carve rivets in my mother’s face, one with wide and familiar green eyes. An old ache consumes me. 

            We talk about what heaven looks like. She tells me that she doesn’t know. I’m alarmed until she says that it’s better not to know everything. She sounds wise, and I marvel at what I do not know. We talk about surrealism, space-time, the stargazing gene in corn snakes.  

            As the sky fades to black, I realize that we are the only ones here, the sky a mess of red planets.

            This phantasm ages with me. In sleep, it’s the only place I don’t feel suspended in time.  

**

            In my class, we repeated the word rhododendron over and over, as if we could glimpse the word before it took off, like a swan in flight. After, we tried a few more: strumpet, sunchoke, synesthesia. I had forty more minutes to fill. So, we took turns reading Andre Breton’s poems out loud.  

             “Madam.” You paused to look at me hard. “A pair of silk stockings.” 

            I didn’t hear the tail end of the poem.

            Did you know that Venetia Burney, an eleven-year old, gave Pluto its name? After the Roman god of the underworld, with the peculiar talent of making himself invisible. 

            I ended class early and my students filed out of the classroom. You didn’t wait for them to leave as you stood over me, gripping the sides of my podium in a way that felt familiar. Rogue planets are not attached to any star.  

            “You teach us about writing,” you said, opening the door as if to leave. “What about living your truth?”

            My truth was that I was actually a reluctant astrophysicist moonlighting as a writing teacher. My mother had died the year I was supposed to defend my thesis, so I said no thanks and dropped out of school. Then I crawled into myself and never came out. 

            You gave me your stories. I gave you your grades. You gave me your coat. I gave you my hand. Gemini. Pisces. Moscow. Texas. 

            I’ve beat my brains out over it: how did our stars align? What did we have to offer each other other than refuge? We were two meteors shining past each other, lighting the other’s path. 

**

            A renowned physicist once told me that most life events are due to chance. People thread the stories of their lives together because life is not nothing. 

            Once, when I was about your age, I tried to understand string theory by holding my pen up to the light. A dot, a line, a cube. I reached this nirvana—dimensions begged to be understood. I knew the fourth dimension would bite me in the ass one day, the spin that becomes more than a sum of its parts.  

**

            My last week of teaching, I got drunk with a saxophone player with kind eyes. After I grasped his collar and told him about your intonations in the words silk stockings, I ended up alone in a jazz club downtown. Gathering my purse, I began to head east, towards a bench that was not a bus stop. Murphy’s law, I stumbled headfirst into you.  

            You snapped my keys out of my hand and said a quick goodbye to the redhead from our class. After I got into your car, you sped down the icy freeway with animal grace. I could make out your fine lines drawn against the night. We drove through a tunnel carved through a mountain. Your car was littered with gym socks, beef jerky, and R&B cassette tapes. The music blasted through the speakers.  

            “I’m from Philly,” you said.  

            “I can tell.”  

            “Everybody knows about us.” 

            “Yes.” I said.  

            “How do you know?”

            “Their stories have a lot of May-Decembers.” 

            “Are we in trouble?”

            “I’ll deal with the dean later,” I said, not mentioning that I had put in my notice of resignation that morning. I wouldn’t get the last $333 dollars, we had agreed. 

            “Did you like my story?” You smiled, the lights of the tunnel whirring past, making your pupils seem deeper. 

            “I liked the scene with the herring in a fur coat,” I said. “What, in Russia all you ate were little salads?” 

            “If you live in Russia you better like mayonnaise,” you said. “And never-ending winter.”

            “Like Narnia,” I said.  

            We came out the other end holding our breaths. If you know Pittsburgh, you’ll know the tunnel—when you’re submerged in the belly of the beast and then the skyline knocks you out cold. That night, it was one for the books.  

            You felt indestructible to me in that moment, among your mess and faded R&B. 

            Beyond the skyline and city limits was your home. I had imagined you above something ordinary like living in an apartment. I was dying to see your kitchen. Once you unlocked the door and we went inside, I was sobered by the mattress on the floor, a grease-speckled window, peeling red walls.  

            “You look about 1000 years old,” you said.  

            You looked so young.  

            “And you’re a Halley’s comet,” I said, leaning into your chest. You came into my life like a prayer. A blip later, and you’d be gone. 

            In that dim apartment, it dawned on me that my life was unspectacular. In my museum of dreams, the ghost of my mother followed me close. That black hole October when she died blew me right open like a kite and ended with a lifetime of me waiting for the train to come.  

**

            I ran into you many many years later, beneath a bridge with a highway rattling above us. The story that we told ourselves about each other a bold blot on the horizon. What came to me at that moment was the last story of yours that I ever read. You said to the woman with no food at her apartment: “inevitably, your skin was my autobiography.” 

            You were older now. Perhaps you never knew me, yet you traced the grease mark on my wrist before saying goodbye, and I felt a pang in my heart. The ice had melted, and spring had arrived. 

            “Godammit,” I said into the wind, thumbing my mittens against the railing. “We never could see each other clearly.”  

            The train passed overhead, and you were already gone. I have a fourth dimension, I wanted to shout after you. It’s pure as light, as sound, as song. Maybe I’ll write that on my gravestone. Grief, love, relative spacetime—it’s not linear. Back then, I had nothing to offer you except my sadness. 

            And maybe I am sorry. We write so that we can be seen, and because life is not nothing. That morning, the sun rose before a brilliant purple sky. I noticed when you turned away that your eyes were blue. I went to put flowers on my mother’s grave and buy a couch, a telescope, a tiny salad. 

            When I finally made it home, I frantically looked for my book on Andre Breton. Page 3. 

            “Madam,” I whispered. “A pair of silk stockings.”

            I turned the page. 

            “Is not a leap into the void.” 

Behind the Scenes of The Midwife/La Partera, with Julieta Corpus

If this episode isn’t displaying for you, you can access it on Anchor

The full transcript of the interview is below. It has been lightly edited for clarity:

Teresa Douglas (host)  0:07  

Welcome to Latin x audio lit mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. In today’s episode, we’re going to take a behind the scenes look at ‘The Midwife’ by Julieta Corpus. Julieta is a bilingual poet from Mexico whose work has been included in The Thing Itself and The Texas Poetry Calendar. Her latest literary contribution is a collection with poet Katie Hoerth and visual artist Corrine McCorkmack Whittmore, Borderland Mujeres published by Texas A&M Press, it will be available in the fall of 2021. Julieta Corpus’ first poetry collection Of Love and Departures/ De Amor Y Despedidas was published in June 2021 by E.M. Editoriales and is now available through Amazon. Of Love and Departures/ De Amor Y Despedidas is a bilingual poetry collection about grief and lamentation, after losing a spouse to cancer. Julieta currently works as a bilingual translator, editor, and a South Texas Community College adjunct with the English department. 

Welcome, Julieta!

Julieta  1:18  

Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Teresa  1:22  

I’m so happy to talk to you. I will just tell our listeners that when I first read this piece that you sent, it just knocked my socks off. I love the language. I love the wider world that is hinted at, in this piece. And it’s a privilege to get a behind-the-scenes look at how that came to be. But before we dive into that, I would love for our listeners to learn just a little bit more about you. For example, just how long have you been writing?

Julieta 1:56  

I have been writing since I was 11 years old in my native Spanish.

Teresa 2:02  

That’s amazing. And what did you write at that time?

Julieta 2:05  

At that time, I was writing silly, short poems to entertain my siblings. I would also illustrate them. And yeah, and that’s how I would spend my time my summers, in fact, just illustrating and writing.

Teresa  2:19  

So you’re a born story maker.

Julieta 2:22  

I was surrounded by storytellers. So how could I not?

Teresa  2:25  

Yeah. And I feel like that’s actually something. And I say this, knowing that everybody’s situation is different. But I feel that especially those of us who have who’ve grown up in the Latinx diaspora–those stories are just such a central piece of growing up.

Julieta 2:44  

Exactly, yes.

Teresa 2:46  

So it sounds then that poetry is your first love. Is that exclusively what you write do you write other things? Or is this this where you feel your words really come together? 

Julieta  3:01  

Well, yes, I can say that poetry was my first love. And it’s only of late that I have been delving into writing short stories. Because like I said, I grew up with storytellers. And my mom was a storyteller. What she talked about, it seemed to me at the time, was very fantastical. However, there were a lot of elements of realness in it. And so I’m trying to capture that in my short stories so that I can have that as my next publication, which will be Las Historias De Mi Madre/My Mother’s Stories.

Teresa 3:35  

That’s wonderful. And we can’t wait to see that. I know you have a piece that’s already out Of Love and Departures/De Amor Y Despedidas, a bilingual poetry collection. Why did you choose to do it as a bilingual collection?

Julieta  3:51  

I was born in Mexico, and I went to school in Mexico. So I came here in 1978, with my family. And since then, I somewhere along the line, I made a conscious decision to cultivate both languages so that I could have those two wells to draw from. I have been blessed in that sense–I have enriched my vocabulary in Spanish and in English, and have a bilingual brain with poetry. Well, sometimes the points come to me in Spanish, and sometimes they come to me in English. And so I just decided, why not have a bilingual poetry book, not to mention that I live in an area, Rio Grande Valley, Texas, South Texas, where the majority of the population is Latinos. And so I wanted, I wanted them to also read my poetry in my native language, which is Spanish.

Teresa 4:47  

And it’s beautiful. You sent some information in before and you said that the man and woman who were talking and laughing and loving in these pages shared poetry with each other. 

Julieta

That’s true. 

Teresa

That is probably the most romantic thing I’ve heard of in a very long time.

Julieta  5:05  

It’s very real. And it’s very true. This is a story of my love. This is my love story with my husband who passed away in 2011.

Teresa 5:14  

Sorry for his loss. It’s beautiful that you can find beauty even in the pain.

Julieta  5:20  

That’s something that is also almost, and I’m just gonna say this is inherently Latino, I believe it’s just part of us.

Teresa 5:31  

And I think it’s, it almost you’re forced to be that way just by the language. Just Spanish itself is so very poetic, really. And it lends itself to these kinds of things. So I will be looking for that collection. When is Borderland Mujeres out?

Julieta 5:52  

Borderland Mujeres has been pushed back because of the pandemic since this spring of 2021. And so right now we are given the October date as the month to see this book, to have this book in our hands. So we’re hoping that this happens. 

Teresa 6:15  

Well, hopefully our listeners will find it soon. Let’s switch to talking about the piece that you actually sent in. And, and I wanted to just ask, can you walk us through the process that you went through for writing this? Was this something that just sort of showed up? Did you plan it? How did it come to be?

Julieta 6:42  

If I remember, or if I recall correctly, I believe my birthday was coming up just like it is now–I’m in my September birthday month. And so I grew up listening to the story about how I came into this world. And it was during the hurricane Beulah so my mom had stories, my dad had stories. And I wanted once again, going back to what I said earlier, I want to preserve these stories because I want to pass them on to my nieces and my nephews. That’s my wish for, you know, for this poetry for the short stories that I write. But yeah, I was just sitting around thinking about my birth and what my mom went through. And, yes, my mom did have a midwife, and her name was Daniela Lupita. I got this name from my dad because I, of course, I don’t think I ever asked my mom. But yeah, I just thought, not a short story, I thought I need to put this in a poem, poetry form. And so I sat down to write it. And it had to be from the midwife’s point of view.

Teresa 7:49  

And it’s, it’s funny you say it had to be a poem, because it’s also very much a story. It isn’t only images, although images can be very powerful. It’s, it’s this wider world, it’s this midwife who has things that she does, outside of birthing, babies. A life she is looking to rest from because it’s been hard at the beginning of this poem. She’s assisted in the passing of a life. And it is just so much there in such a short piece of work, that you can almost feel the community that is there, that this midwife is a part of. And I loved the way for example, we talk about traces of dried sage still emanate from skin and clothes. There’s the tequila shot. There, are all these things that happen in the story. But they don’t bog it down at all. We get we get to the birth, we get to this idea that the name of the child is not going to be Beula. And we’re left with hope. Even though the midwife is tired, and she’s weighed down by her responsibilities, this is a very hopeful story.

Julieta  9:09  

Yes. And I drew for this story. I drew from my own family’s background and the way I grew up, I grew up surrounded by healers. And so for me, it was a familiar sight, the sage, the candles, the holy water, the images of the saints on the altar. And I wanted to incorporate that into the form. Because this is what I had seen growing up. This is where the hilanderas lived, this is where the midwives lived, this is what they were surrounded by.

Teresa 9:40  

And so what, if any impression were you thinking of that you wanted the reader to have when they hear this story–and I keep calling it a story when it’s actually a poem—when they listen to it? What’s the image you want them to take away from it?

Julieta 10:00  

I would like for them to think of this as, like a cultural snapshot of what giving birth was like for low income–for the majority of the low-income women living in Mexico in the 1960s. That’s what I want them to, to come away with. Because there is a little bit of history there–Beulah is there. And again, back to the culture, we’re talking about the midwife and everything she was surrounded by. These are women that are not written about, you know, and yet they are such a huge part of a lot of our lives. Those of us who grew in Mexico.

Teresa 10:42  

And a silent part, if you look at culture and what’s written about. 

Julieta 10:52

Exactly, 

Teresa

it’s wonderful to see the humanity, their community.

Julieta 10:53  

You hit it on the nail when you talk to when you mentioned community, because this was one of the many colorful, and very much sought after characters in the barrio. You know, the midwife we knew her by name, her name was passed around to pregnant women, “-and so and so will be your midwife. Whenever you’re ready we’re gonna call so and so.” It was, it was a community. She was part of the family. In essence, she was my godmother.

Teresa 11:22  

Yeah, I mean, literally, they’re at the moment of your births. 

Julieta

Yes, exactly. 

Teresa

Well, this is this is amazing. I thank you again for sharing, sharing this work, sharing the culture that is attached to this work. I do want to just ask, because you do have things coming out. Are there ways for people to keep track of your publications? Do you have Twitter or social anything that someone can check to see when your work comes out?

Julieta 11:58  

I’m more active in Facebook. They can find me on Facebook. That’s where I talk about my poetry events. That’s where I talk about publications workshops. Yeah, that’s the best place to find me.

Teresa 12:11  

Okay, so look up Julieta Corpus on Facebook. And you can see what else she has coming out. So listeners that’s where you go–that’s where I’m going after this episode. Thank you so much for coming and we really appreciated getting a little peek behind the curtain of your piece.

Julieta 12:32  

Thank you for the opportunity. It’s been delightful.

The Midwife/La Partera by Julieta Corpus

In this episode, Julieta Corpus takes us to Mexico in 1967. The full transcript of the poem is in the show notes.

Today, September 13th is the official launch of LatinX Audio Lit Mag. If the trailer isn’t displaying for you, you can access it on Anchor and Spotify. Here is the full transcript of the trailer:

I grew up surrounded by stories. In my earliest memories, I’m sharing a chair with my mother at my grandpa’s dinner table, my aunts, uncles, and cousins crowded around, passing food and talking about work and life. My grandpa was a construction foreman during a time when Mexicans were only labourers. And the way he handled neighbours who didn’t want a Mexican family in “their” neighbourhood is the stuff of family legend. Those kitchen table stories were often funny, sometimes instructive, and like many LatinX families, the way we passed life lessons and culture to the next generation.

I’m your host, Teresa Douglas, and this is LatinX Audio Lit Mag. Every week we’ll serve delicious tales from the LatinX diaspora, and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the author behind the work. We saved you a chair at the table. What are you waiting for? Take a seat and let’s begin.