My grandmother’s vanity had a tin full of coins and an empty perfume bottle that still retained a scent. A pressed pansy, perhaps. A Virgin Mary pendant attached to a paper clip. Drawers that held her journals that I would read when I was older and she had been long gone — ”Well, good things can happen to me, who knew,” she wrote in one. I wish I knew what the good thing was.
I don’t have a vanity, but I do keep an altar. This altar is a kind of vanitas, a gathering of everything beautiful and deathly, to honor the presence of death in life. I hang a painting of Baba Yaga, a vintage postcard of an meteor shower from the Museum of Jurassic Technology; I offer some dried roses, some live ones, some stones, a sea shell, a bouncy ball, a bone, a pink champagne coupe filled with coins, candles that flicker the strongest when I talk to them. My altar reminds me of the I SPY books I used to read with my grandmother.
An important thing to place on your altar is a poem. I’ve written before about how poems can be prayers, or offerings, or spells, whatever represents your practice. Poems are made of highly intentional language, each word chosen carefully to accord with others. Here’w one you can add to your altar, especially if you are using yours to honor your ancestors, or even to speak with them.
By Vanessa Angélica Villarreal
Yesterday, the final petal curled its soft lure into bone.
The flowerhead shed clean, I gathered up your spine
and built you on a dark day. You are still missing
some parts. Each morning, I curl red psalms into the shells
in your chest. I have buried each slow light: cardinal’s yolk, live seawater,
my trenza, a piece of my son’s umbilical cord, and still you don’t return.
A failure fragrant as magic. Ascend the spirit into the design.
My particular chiron: the record that your perfect feet ever graced
this earth. Homing signal adrift among stars, our tender impossible longing.
What have I made of your sacrifice. This bone: it is myself.
In a note to the poem, Villarreal writes that she wanted to evoke the folk altars of her childhood while mourning the loss of presence around the practice: “As the speaker cleans the dead flowers from the altar, she begins to lay the petals into the shape of a spine, building the form of the longed-for dead in the hope that the offering of each significant object’s ‘slow light’ will return the deceased.” Dwelling in the liminality between life and death — egg, saltwater, hair, cord — these objects of enchantment provide a conduit to ancestors desperately needed. Her poem reaches towards the dust of the stars and finds the same materials in her in her bones.
Villarreal is a first-generation Mexican-American, born in the borderlands. She is a poet and a scholar, researching colonial and generational trauma. Her work honors her grandmother, who died of a preventable cervical cancer that disproportionately affects women in the Texas borderlands.
Who is free to die of “natural” causes? Women of color, working class women — our deaths are often state-sanctioned, willed by neglect or cruelty. I think of Audre Lorde, denied the leave she needed from her university job to tend to her health. I think of my grandmother, her lungs filling with dust from the magnet factory where she worked before she died of cancer.
Constructing an altar is often a private practice. This poem captures the loneliness of practicing a ritual without your elders near enough to guide you. Or the loneliness of a flower after its last petal falls off.
But the poem gathers those petals, each one placed on the altar as every word is placed in the poem. The sweetness of a petal curling up to touch itself.
By sharing these poems together, in our scattered but strong queer community, we start gathering what moves us, what we find beautiful. We begin practicing rituals together — magic like it used to be. Villarreal explains, “So many queer people live their entire lives negotiating what their identity is and negotiating their desire, and they live a queer life in private, they live their queer identity in private, but never get to fully embody it.” Even from our most private spaces of prayer and plea, we can start embodying our ancestors who have been taken from us by structural cruelty, only to become our chirons, our wounded healers. As Villarreal concludes, their sacrifices are built in our bones.