NEA Literature Fellowships

Joanne Diaz

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(2009 - Poetry)

Metastasis, Boracay

When we travel, I'm usually so drunk on a cocktail
of panic mixed with boredom, so busy calculating
the peso-to-dollar conversion, so certain that I'll contract

the dengue fever from the one stubborn mosquito
who will be undaunted by the sheer bedroom netting
that I forget how much beauty each new thing possesses

and that some of that beauty requires an initial sickness,
an irritation, often in the form of a foreign body.
In the case of pearls, the problem is that the sickness--

a burr in an otherwise milky trance of protein--
happens all too infrequently. In the years before
cultured pearls became common, the Philippines

were full of divers: scores of slaves pushed overboard
to plunge deep for the baroque imperfection of a small,
radiant knob hiding among the sharks, poisonous

jellyfish, and the bends. I remembered this
as I dipped underwater in my snorkel mask and fins
then rose above again to see Jay's mother and aunts

onshore, hunched beside a young man whose suitcase
was full of pearls--pink, smoky gray, bright white--
fake pearls that cost pennies in American money.

But the way the ladies inspected each necklace and earring,
chatted with the young man, and slowly passed him
their dollars, they could have been the three Magi,

choosing the finest gifts. How could something so beautiful
cause no pain, no harm, and bring such delight
to three thrifty women on vacation in Boracay,

an island that seemed more like a Hollywood movie set
than a real place. I dipped below again to see the pinkish tips
of a coral reef that took thousands of years to form

being grazed by the foot of Uncle Ming, too tall
for the ascending filigree, his bare toes brushing
its skeletal rise, his eyes still dimly lit from half a case

of San Miguel that rattled in the back seat of the van,
his red swimsuit billowing and swollen, almost alive
in the clear water. The coral, once touched, turned

instantly to dust, a millennial cloud lifting in the filtered light.
I pushed back to the surface to ask the boatsman if this was right--
the shallow waters, the high reef-- but I didn't. Instead,

I watched as Uncle Ming took another swig, laughed freely
with his brother and nephew, and looked up to dry his face
in the hot sun. Later, he lay on the white sand

to make an angel with his swooping arms and legs,
indulged in a plate of crawfish heaped on rice as if he
were the king of Boracay, and made all of us laugh

with his sonorous Bing Crosby voice. I realize now
that even then it must have been growing in him:
the nacreous luster swelling his lungs, its concretion

an opalescence that would drift to the brain, spine, and liver.
Just like metastasis, a flitting of words from one idea
to the next, a fish waving its fins through the coral's last rise.

Joanne Diaz grew up in Billerica, Massachusetts. She received her BA from Tufts University, her MFA from New York University, and her PhD in English literature from Northwestern University. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, DIAGRAM, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, and Quarterly West, and she is the recipient of an artist fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council. She is an assistant professor in the English department at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Photo by Jason Reblando

Author's Statement

I am thrilled to be the recipient of an NEA grant. This support could not have come at a better time. For years, I wrote poems that functioned on a principle of exclusion-that is, I wanted each poem to look and feel like a tight corset that conveyed only the most essential information and insights. Recently, though, I have been working on a style that is based on a principle of inclusion, one that allows me to write long, discursive lines which connect popular culture with political concerns, cross many geographies and time periods, and use a variety of rhetorical strategies to explore charged emotional material.

This grant will allow me to finish the research and travel essential to this project. More importantly, though, I am honored to be part of a national lineage of writers and artists that is much larger than any one person. Thanks to the NEA, I feel hopeful and truly excited about my poetry. This feeling is a rare gift for a poet, and I am very thankful for it.