Kathy Barbour

A Dispassionate Study of the Influence
of the Mother Tongue


Though it is not inevitable
that a solitary boy, dark-
skinned, son of an immigrant
father and a naturalized alien

mother, who is only allowed an
albino rabbit for a pet because
it is quiet, timid, and doesn’t
make a mess (its food, its waste

both “pellets”) will grow up neat
and reticent himself, with marked
appetites, a penchant for blondes,
a metaphorical taste for shit,

and a deep distrust of words
(ambivalent by nature), the connection
between bunny, boy, and language
formation piques the interest of the

academic lagomorphologist.  That such
a boy sought mute comfort from a lop-
eared television set is no surprise.
One must consider the long-term effect

of watching Desi Arnaz in black
and white as he danced the merengue
in a spotless sportcoat, mangled English,
but sang babalu so sweetly that Lucy

forgot to be mad, swooned and clowned
with a bowl of grey fruit on her head—
while in the next room, in living
color, the table overturned, the dish

flew away with the spoon, and no one
laughed (there being no little dog
to clean up after).  Marriage, the country
of broken crockery, meant red

salsa stains clinging like poison
vines to the walls and ceiling—mess,
madness, and worse . . . insinuations
of filth too deeply engrained to scour

out of men.  Your father spread tar
on roofs all day in the feral Florida
sun, so that at night, freshly scrubbed
under his own, he could lie down cool

by his wife and offer her all he had
to give:  the work of his back
and hands, ten small moons glowing
silver over blackened rims—pushed

away with the silent accusation
that he was unclean.  (She was soon
to pour half a bottle of lye down
her throat to get at the source.)

When your turn came, you married a
sensible brunette, painted your bedroom
black, ensconced a blonde on the side
to keep it light, and banished all talk

of love from the house in either English
or Spanish.  It was predictable that you
become a singer of romantic ballads,
publicly adored, an on-stage cut-up,

bathed in the spotlight alone, afraid
of your own shadow.  My interest,
of course, is strictly clinical,
Arturo Armando.

Wendy XuKathy Knuckles Barbour teaches American literature and creative writing at Hanover College.  Her work has appeared in Raritan, Atlanta Review, Southeast Review, STILL, and (forthcoming) Literary Imagination.