DAUGHTER: The ink on this index card is not as faded
As the ink on your other recipe cards. When did you write this one down?
MOTHER: Six years ago, when I was thirty-nine
And no less a spinster than I am now,
Save for your reified existence, my daughter.
DAUGHTER: It must be your original concoction:
No recipe from contemporary books would contain so much corn syrup.
MOTHER: Nor would the gum taste or smell as sweet.
DAUGHTER: What was it like when you made it for the first time?
MOTHER: Nesting my pouch of corn syrup in boiling water,
Melting my gum base pellets till they look like flattened snakes,
Squeezing the warmed-up corn syrup, toothpaste-like, atop the snakes,
Mashing the snakes together till they form a lickable lump,
Stirring the lump with a wooden spoon,
Feeling sorry for the sacrificed spoon
(It will never again be gum-free, it will be thrown out after its service),
Dumping the lump upon a waiting mound of sugar,
Kneading and kneading, kneading and kneading
(O sweetness O flavor overtake my throat’s rotting),
Rolling it flat with my rolling pin,
Slicing it out into thirty-nine sticks,
Sphering the rest into thirty-nine balls,
Chewing for myself a shapeless wad or three,
Marveling how I, a double-dactyl’d Bubblegum Minister,
Have not yet mastered the child’s art of blowing bubbles,
Wherein scenting, sidestepping the truth
Is the gentlest approach.
The gum-scented saliva overtakes the afferent decay
That enters through the senses
And travels through all inbound conduits
To the central nervous system,
And to the chambered turbine
Whose proper shape has been sleekly contoured for commercial purposes,
Whose proper name has become a facile term
For the juvenile expression of the sentiment rapacious,
Diabolically disguised as essential or decorum’d.
(The beast with two backs is still a beast.)
Grasping my luck in being able-bodied, on a continent free to bake,
I close my eyes and smell my gum in the oven a-wafting . . .
O gum are you wafting me to Yucatan forests, from whence you came?
O gum I close my eyes and follow you to forests,
Where sapodillas grow half-mile high,
And where bats and thrips enticed by scent and color
Abet the slashed-open trees and calyx-hemmed flowers
In cycles of nobly loveless reproduction.
MOTHER: As I sit here today in my kitchen with you, daughter,
Anticipating the taste of the gum we’ve baked,
I feel it’s only right if before sitting down to chew,
We reveal our respect for the violent past that preceded and created our pleasure,
And show our gratitude for the privilege of sitting, baking, and chatting freely.
DAUGHTER: As usual, I’m prepared, having read most of the books on your shelf.
MOTHER: Parsing commodities to essential causes,
Through me, flavored gum designedly wrapped is no product decorum’d,
But the cause of caste wars—armed, rapacious, spiritual.
Mark the Mayans slashing trees,
Selling chicle to the chewing gum trust for cash for weapons to fight their rulers.
Let me riff on these rulers:
Growing heavy on sugarcane estates, dispossessing campesinos of their cornfields,
Providing onerous “employment” in specious recompense.
The Mayans responded in unveiled rebellion,
Led by Ay-essential, Chi-rapacious, and Pat-decorum’d.
Daughter, by sprigs of spruce or sapodilla,
And by chicle resin down tree bark a-dripping,
I was there, I was alive, I was the watcher,
A bubblegum prophetess high-profit preaching.
My substance, this substance we’ve baked,
This substance about to enter our mouths and slosh about,
This substance dried and trod on sidewalks worldwide,
Sealed the letter Ay carried,
Announcing a Mayan uprising in sweltering midsummer, 1847.
DAUGHTER: O horrible year! I know what happened.
The rulers publicly assassinated Ay-essential. O tragic occasion!
MOTHER: There were thirty-nine Mayan onlookers.
With Ay gone, they followed Chi-rapacious to the village of Tepich,
Where he and his other followers slaughtered twenty families in biblical vengeance.
DAUGHTER: What of the dispossessed campesinos toiling on sugarcane plantations?
MOTHER: Some stayed with their landlords, others joined the rebels.
Come spring, fifteen-thousand Mayan rebels seized Valladolid,
Massacring all who fled west on the road to Merida.
Daughter, it behooves me to chastise your cheering. Bloodshed is bloodshed.
DAUGHTER: What good’s a story if I can’t take sides?
Cheering isn’t an endorsement of bloodshed. Is every sports fan or moviegoer ruthless?
If you think so, you should get out more.
MOTHER: I may err on the side of condescension in rearing you.
When you’re out of your teens you’ll see: we snap at the ones we love.
DAUGHTER: I see it now. But back to the story.
What happened after the Mayans massacred the multitudes, on the road to Merida?
MOTHER: Pat-decorum’d, representing the Mayans,
Met the Yucatan leaders in a neutral village and named his terms:
Abolish the landlords’ rights to our labor. Allow us to baptize and marry like you do.
Grant equal access to lands and forests. Forgive our debts.
Install a governor who grasps our plight.
Acknowledge me, Pat-decorum’d, as our leader. Return the rifles you’ve confiscated.
Stop taxing the alcohol we distill from our sugarcane.
All agreed, all were ready for peace, till Chi-rapacious found out and declared:
Why are we settling? We can drive them off the peninsula entirely—and we will!
DAUGHTER: I reject your tripartite characterization of these leaders.
Surely this Chi was both reasoned and rapacious.
Surely this Pat had his moments impassioned.
And surely the assassinated Ay had some halo-less heroics.
How else does a man become a leader? Mother, for my sake, you’re burlesquing.
You must know that history’s too nuanced
For table-side regaling amidst chewy gastronomy.
MOTHER: I guess I’ll stop talking then. We’ll just chew in silence.
DAUGHTER: I’m sorry, mom. Please go ahead.
I want to hear the rest, in the way you want to tell it.
MOTHER: I admit, my daughter, I’ve dumbed it down.
The library shelves await your curiosity, tempting you to substantiate your protest.
III. Conditions for Revivalism
MOTHER: The Mayans battled through spring,
Conquering till they controlled the peninsula,
Pushing the rulers to the Mexican mainland.
Summer came—and with it, a mysterious Mayan retreat:
On the verge of total conquest, they returned to their cornfields.
Subsistent, after all! Dismissive of extra territory!
An eternal decree and an introvert’s plea: leave us alone!
You can have the Yucatan, or whatever you call it.
Let us live out our years sowing corn—and feeding ourselves!
Perhaps I am burlesquing, daughter, but tell me this—
When else has a military retreat baffled interpreters and historians so completely?
DAUGHTER: I’m sure you’ll tell me.
MOTHER: Given a reprieve by the Mayan retreat, the rulers regained resolve.
With newfound strength in number they recaptured the cities.
A dwindled population, the Mayans hid in jungles, and in caves underground.
Like so many spiders never leaving their burrows,
They sensed movements above through subterranean vibration,
And measured hope for earthly existence in years of sorrow and unmet prayers,
And a vanished faith in forgiveness, humanity, divinity.
Their symbol of revivalism, you’ve likely guessed.
Imagining myself in their place, I voice it thusly:
How could it be?
An above-ground life-symbol, here in our hollow, after so many years!
Behold it, long stiff and upright: a mahogany tree in the mouth of our cave,
Laved to life by our cenote’s jadelike waters.
And upon this tree, which alone could restore our faith in higher powers,
Is a miracle transcending the birth and growth of the tree itself:
A cross carved into its trunk! O tree, how did you get your cross?
Did the invisible hand of the Lord our new savior slash you
To revive our lowly spirits?
We will center our rebel army here,
And we will abandon it strategically,
And ambush the rulers when they attack it upon detecting our faked absence—
So eager will they be to destroy our newly potent citadel!
And while they attack, we will poison their wells
With the polluted clothes of cholera victims.
DAUGHTER: Thank you, mother, for not sugarcoating the Mayan violence.
MOTHER: Truest is the knowledge that charms while it saddens.
And what brightens one history tends to sadden another,
Since prosperity isn’t in infinite supply.
The Mayans, after all, purchased weapons from the Belizeans of British Honduras,
Paying with cash earned selling chicle resin from their forests
To a trust of U.S. gum manufacturers.
Their credit lines grew strong, backed by the Bank of London.
Thus the low-lying U.S. consumer,
While indifferent to his own land’s native tribes,
Funded the Mayans, whom Mexican authorities had deemed vanquished Indians.
IV. The Generals
DAUGHTER: That story of Indians, mom, is not in your books. Where did you learn it?
MOTHER: From a voluminous anthology too heavy to lug home from the library.
DAUGHTER: You’ve upped the ante of our pre-meal storytelling.
Tell me what other earth-true morsels of happy-sad history
You’ve gleaned from your lifelong study of gum.
Tell me a tale I’d only learn from my mother’s moistened mouth.
MOTHER: When I was thirty-nine, as you know, I foreswore lovers.
When the Mexican General Santa Anna was thirty-nine, in 1833
(More than three decades before all the Mayan excitement I just told you about),
He became president of the twelve-year-old nation.
At the time, there was rebellion all over.
Not just in the Yucatan, but in Texas too.
So Santa Anna slaughtered the Alamo’s defenders.
Fifty miles south, his colleague, General Urrea, captured a volunteer army of U.S. men.
Santa Anna ordered Urrea’s subordinate to lead the hundreds of volunteers
Onto a Texas road, and to massacre them.
Which is to say: they were shot, clubbed, and knifed until they died.
At the Sabine River, another group of U.S. troops camped out.
They tortured their Mexican prisoners.
Through such tactics, they learned that Santa Anna himself was near,
Preparing an ambush.
So, in a counter-ambush maneuver,
Nine hundred U.S. troops snuck up on the Mexican camp in mid-afternoon,
While the Mexican soldiers were in siesta,
While Santa Anna himself lay naked in his large tent,
Stoned on opium, in heat with a curvy slave.
In his condition, he had failed to post lookouts.
The U.S. troops attacked, like bats bursting from branches,
Nine hundred avenging the Alamo.
Daughter, for whom are you cheering now?
Mexican soldiers fled into marshes, drowned—
There was a river, indeed, running red with blood.
O butchering, merciless, inexhaustible recompense for the innocence that never was,
Except in made-up stories preserved by privileged parents.
Amidst the gore Santa Anna escaped.
He hid overnight in the tall grass wearing common soldier’s apparel:
Round jacket, blue cotton pantaloons, skin cap, scuffed shoes.
When the U.S. troops found him, they marched him back to the Texan camp.
There, he met U.S. General Sam Houston,
Who sat under an oak,
Bandaging a foot grazed in battle by a rifle ball,
Taking opium for his pain.
Through translators the generals spoke for two hours,
Smoking and drawing dotted lines through North America,
Basking in reputations immortal through feats in warfare,
Light heads breathing lighter air and weighty words,
Chapped lips and yellowed teeth amidst stubbled faces,
Carving a continent.
DAUGHTER: Mother, I’m so glad we can talk this way while our bubblegum cools.
Tell me: what became of Santa Anna?
MOTHER: In his early seventies, he lost a leg defending Veracruz from French attack.
He retired from the field to a life of politics and paper pushing,
But still raged like a young man to avenge his loss to the French
Who, for their part, had installed Maximilian as Mexico’s puppet ruler.
Santa Anna plotted an insurgency, seeking U.S. support.
The U.S. said no thanks—but we’ll grant you asylum in New York City.
DAUGHTER: And let me guess:
Now there’s a park in the Queens town of your upbringing
Named for Santa Anna! Or perhaps not a park
But a subway stop or a public fountain on an uptown block
Or a boat-filled port or a rust-green statue; or a peeling mural by the mall,
Or a shrub like a terebinth near city hall!
MOTHER: You’ve been watching too many musicals, I fear.
Santa Anna never set his one foot in my native Queens.
Though New York City was his place of asylum,
And though he had the wealth of a man of means,
Our government stashed him on Staten Island.
DAUGHTER: What did he do with his days and nights?
MOTHER: I’m not sure, but here’s what I know:
On Staten Island, there was an orphan grown older,
Who ran a glass store that was something like
The neighborhood hangout, not far from the ferry dock.
This orphan became a self-taught expert in a new technology: cameras.
He’d served in Lincoln’s war as a Yankee photographer;
The troops sent his portraits home to their families.
After the war, more design, more devices:
A feedbag for horses, a burner for kerosene lamps, neither a commercial success;
So he opened his glass shop one block from the ferry dock,
Befriending all his neighbors and customers,
Who shared their own ideas for his industrious talents;
And the orphan truly listened—while perusing Bessemer’s patents.
DAUGHTER: Let me guess who one of these neighbors was.
MOTHER: No skipping ahead, my impatient one.
Besides, digressions are where the fun is.
The distaste for discourse is the sign
Of the mind ill-suited for honest stories
And the brain too intoxicated by life’s pragmatic poisons:
The arbitrary symbols (time, money)
Which for too many humans seem like the whiteness of the whale
Rather than the commonplace colors of narrower perceptions.
DAUGHTER: But I’m not wrong, am I?
One of the neighbors must have been Santa Anna.
MOTHER: Strictly speaking, one of the neighbors was Santa Anna’s proxy.
The proxy told the orphan there was big money in tires—
Horseless carriages were the future.
Horseless carriages were the new photography.
And all you need to make the tires
On which a nation of vehicles will depend,
Is a bountiful supply of cheap resin,
Access to which is in the hands
Of an accomplished, famous Mexican—
Santa Anna’s his name: ever heard of him?
You’ll win customers on price, and on quality too.
All you need is the resin—so what will you do?
Tomorrow I’ll bring Santa Anna to you.
DAUGHTER: Mother, it seems you like musicals too!
MOTHER: The singsong rhymes offset my blues
But let’s get on with the story lest I fail to amuse:
Santa Anna, grown older, still pining for glory,
Rang for the orphan the very next morn.
And before the orphan could say hello
Santa Anna began in the form of a song:
I, said the General, am Napoleon of the West,
Speak loudly to me for I’m partially deaf
Though my hair is white and I walk with a cane
My virility trampled a curvy slave
She screamed my name proudly and pulled my hair
And I was the king of the whole hemisphere.
To reclaim my nation by violence and force
Is my fate—I’ll achieve it, as a monarch I’ll die,
You’ll help me raise money and profit yourself
Making tires from chicle I cheaply supply.
DAUGHTER: What a pitch! I’m guessing they reached an agreement.
MOTHER: Indeed. Importing one ton of Yucatan chicle with the General’s capital,
The orphan worked with his sons in the lab, for months,
Attempting to morph the sticky sap into something, anything
Resembling tire-like rubber.
But his skilled, subtle, heuristic hands,
Ever seeking to master the most challenging crafts,
To obtain the hard-won knowledge of the self-taught artisan,
Could not learn the rubber-making process;
Strangely, its chemistry eluded his talents and instincts.
Months passed. And Santa Anna lost patience
(Only so much time to live, only so much capital to spend on conquests).
He wordlessly abandoned the tire-rubber project,
Not seeking returns on his initial investment,
Not even sending his proxy to relay
A message to the orphan, terminating their agreement.
In his absence, the orphan continued his experiments:
A hobby to pass the time—
O parents and children gamely collaborating with heated mixtures, with baking,
O joy from the teamwork, from the task handled jointly.
VI. Alternatives to Spruce
DAUGHTER: Mother, are you inserting us into the story of the orphan,
A parent and children toying with substances sticky,
Probing the magic in realism domestic?
MOTHER: Both the orphan and I, I admit
Are persons positioned by a certain comfort
With what the world thinks of as rejections,
But what, in our hands, minds, we can reposition
As earnest efforts toward a larger, fruitful purpose.
It is all chewing, and chewing is all it is.
We respect the force called fate,
So easily dismissed these last two enumerated centuries.
For mark you, daughter, the linking of these sticky strands:
The first chewing gums in the U.S.
Were made not from the chicle from sapodilla trees,
But from the resin of spruces—O tasteless antecedent!
O habit of spruce chewing, by Native Americans practiced!
O timber industry in the nascent colonies....
Lumbermen chopping spruce trees, selling resin for cash on the side!
One day, daughter, I’ll show you how spruce gum is made:
First, you must scrape out the twigs and bark—
DAUGHTER: It’s okay to digress—please don’t think I’m impatient.
MOTHER: No, you’re right this time—
I should return to the original spruce stand of this yarn.
In those nascent colonies and later, in the random-shaped states,
The spruce trees dwindled; the colonists became consumers,
Seeking sweeter flavors for their war-won coinage.
The gum makers switched from spruce to paraffin wax,
Sweetening it with vanilla and licorice.
DAUGHTER: Here I see a parallel to what, according to your books,
The Mayans did with bitumen, adding flavor to the base to create their tlaaxnelolli.
MOTHER: Precisely. And now you have a sense
Of the gum scene at the transition of centuries—
From the one when railroads were servers and routers
To the one when radios were cellular towers.
DAUGHTER: What, then, became of the orphan? What was he doing with his time?
MOTHER: Finding ammo for his inventive mind,
And, like the fathers and mothers of today,
Finding activities for his family worth their toiled-for dimes.
One weekend, he and his family took a field trip to Manhattan—you know the kind;
My own field trips, from my own school days,
To museums, to the spike-headed statue of pennies turned green,
I have often described.
The orphan’s family entered a general store, and browsed the aisles.
The orphan, hands in his pockets, smiled, knowing browsers are far from buyers,
And not quite forgetting his failure with tires.
Up front, by the register, the clerk hawked his gum to a little girl:
“One cent buys you one whole piece! One cent—it’s almost free!”
And there was something in this merchant’s cry
That made our orphan reconsider his rubbery ventures.
Daughter, might you sing a song of one pence, in the orphan’s voice?
DAUGHTER: I’m quite prepared to do so. I believe he’d sing it like this:
All this chewy material imported . . .
I and my offspring devoted to turning resin to rubber for tires . . .
When instead, we could make what this clerk is hawking—flavored gum!
Yummier than anything from paraffin wax
The world will chew loud like a castanet clacks!
We’ll slice it as sticks, we’ll ball it in spheres
And put gumball machines on the platforms and piers!
MOTHER: Precisely. And it was then, as now, with the gambles
That pass as “ideas”—others soon followed the orphan’s lead
He driven by passion, those others by greed (that’s what I tell myself).
And the gum of today, deftly packaged and pitched
Had its root in the orphan-essential who itched
For a breakthrough success—always something to prove
But its true origin was the General’s move.
So as we savor the taste of our house-made gum,
Homaging privates who lacked opium
Relishing shelter of walls and a roof
We sweeten the stain of the gruesome truth:
The shrieks and screams of humans,
The weapons’ booms,
The soldiers without uniforms,
The wells by cholera wittingly poisoned,
The gore-stained earth, the belched gurgles of the wounded,
Their blood-filled mouths,
The chunks of flesh covering pitched tents on battlefields.
What will you or I die for, daughter?
Let us pray to ourselves that the answer is nothing.
And let us chew.
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