Bird, Window


Dusk, my desk, a poem lodged inside me, stillborn—a flash of darkness at my window, and then a crash in the room next door. Bomb, gunshot, sonic boom? I arrive in time to hear glass shatter and watch the window collapse. Shards of glass scattered among the volumes in the bookcase, at my feet, and then as I heedlessly walk, in my feet. There is blood. I imagine an owl, a steely crow, an eagle with a majestic wing span struck the glass, then, scarcely stunned, flew past my window.

Hadn’t I seen a flash of darkness?

This violent intrusion must be a sign, a message about my life, the poem I’m struggling to write. And then I remember a childhood neighbor’s pronouncement: if a bird flies into a house, it means that someone will die. I don’t believe this piece of folklore, and yet…it matters to me that the bird survived. A dead bird cannot portend a promising future.


A bird crashes into my window. An accident. Random collision of soft animate being with hard inanimate object. It happens all the time. And not always accidental: bombs fall on children, planes explode in the sky. Who am I to attribute personal meaning to this? Any meaning at all. It is dangerous to take what happens in even one’s own life personally. Only by chance did the bird hit the window of the room next door and not the window I face all day long.


And yet…and yet.  My writer’s brain insists on meaning. Nothing is random.  And then it says…Because…it says. Chronology implies Causality. Character arcs and revelations. The bird symbolizes…it says. There must be an epiphany in here somewhere, it says. Everything is personal. And then…and then…The bird lives! The poem is born! My writer’s brain holds out for redemptive endings.


People never say how violent it is when some living thing comes into or out of this world. They speak in euphemisms. He died peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his loving family. Mother and baby are resting comfortably.   

The deaths I’ve witnessed haven’t been peaceful. My mother thrashed. Her limbs turned mottled and blood-deprived. My uncle’s mouth turned to an O, a cartoon drawing of a gargoyle. People I loved looked nothing like themselves as they died. There were transformations, but search as I did, I could not find the epiphanies. Nothing was revealed.  If they escaped their bodies, I could not track their flights. And yet, from their throats emerged the cries of wild birds.  


A day later, I stumble upon him (or it—why does my brain assign a gender?), feet up, eyes glazed, stiff, in the dirt in the dark corner of my yard. A lowly sparrow, ants already crawling over him. Inside him. Impact turned animate being into inanimate object. A violent almost-entrance became an exit.

A small brown bird, indistinguishable from the many of his kind that flank my bird feeder.

Competing for a few seeds. As I strain for my few words.

This is the story I want to tell:

A bird crashed into the window of the room next to my office. I saw the flash, heard the crash and ran, to find a glorious bird with a massive wing span. The blow scarcely stunned him. In the sky beyond my sight, he still flies. His violent emergence into my life can only mean that something good is about to happen.

I wait for further signs.     


Photo at the top of the page taken by Books Smuin. 


One afternoon in the early spring, Yasmine and I ended up in a department store on the way to Itaewon, a section of Seoul sometimes referred to as Little America. A nickname born of its close proximity to an American military base, and the fact that shops, restaurants, and clubs catered to American soldiers. As we passed the jewelry counter in the mall, Yasmine suggested we buy matching rings.

“Why?” I asked incredulously. Except for earrings, I didn’t wear jewelry.

“I always thought it would be nice to have a friendship ring. But until now, I never had a close enough friend,” she looped her arm through mind and pulled me closer to the display.

I felt flattered, but by then, somewhere deep in my subconscious, something had begun to nag at me. At random moments, I’d feel a prick, a pinch, as the notion attempted to bore its way back into my conscious mind. The secret I spent so much energy frantically attempting to bury. Lately, I had learned to successfully refuse its entrance, but in quiet, solitary moments when it grew persistent, I swatted at it like a buzzing, bothersome mosquito.

“A ring…might be nice,” I looked at my hand, wondering which finger I’d wear it on. At the moment, I was so focused on my finger and my subconscious dread that I barely noticed the word I had used, the bland, noncommittal adjective. Nice? Isn’t that what people used when they didn’t have anything good to say, but didn’t wish to say anything negative either? But why would I shy away from her gesture? From her overt proclamation of how much she valued our friendship?

Looking into the glass case, she pointed to simple gold band, which too closely resembled a wedding ring. “What do you think of that one? We could even have our names engraved. That way when you leave, when you go back to America, you won’t forget me.”

“I wouldn’t forget you anyway.” I laced my fingers through hers, and she gently squeezed my hand.

“You will. If only you could take me to America with you.” Then she smiled again and led me back outside. “We’ll come back.”

But we never did go back. We never did purchase rings because a month later, Don arrived from Canada and started teaching at Wonderland. Blond, blue-eyed, thin, and overly enthusiastic about learning Korean, his first priority was in finding a Korean girlfriend. Dating a Korean girl, he reasoned, would embed him more deeply in Korea, make him more vested in society. Why he felt so driven to immerse himself I never did ask. At the time, I didn’t care. I only prayed he would disappear.

Because the moment he stepped into the faculty room for the very first time, he settled his attention on Yasmine. His second Saturday in Seoul was the first Saturday night in weeks that Yasmine and I did not see each other for even a few minutes. It took her only a few days to succumb to his pleas, promising to go out with him on one date. But one turned into two, which turned into three and soon ushered in a serious long-term relationship. Even when Yasmine invited me along, remembering how inseparable we once were, I often declined.

I’d never felt so jealous of anyone. So threatened. Yet I knew I shouldn’t feel that way. She was only a friend, I repeatedly reminded myself. Just a good friend, the best friend I had made in Korea. But if she was only a friend, why did I feel so empty without her? Why, at night, when I lay in bed alone, did I feel as though I had been shipwrecked and tossed up onto a deserted island?

A couple weeks before my contract expired, Yasmine invited me to join her and Don for a night in Itaewon. At first, I balked at the idea. Don was the last person with whom I wished to spend an evening. But after thinking about it, considering my options, I changed my mind. In two weeks I would be gone, and then what? I’d miss Yasmine, and it would be too late to undo my stubbornness. To avoid regret, I agreed to go.

When I met Yasmine at the subway station, our agreed upon meeting place, I was surprised to find her waiting for me alone.

“He’s sick,” she smiled, putting her arm though mine and leaning against me as we sat down in the subway car. I was elated. In no way would I miss him, but I worried that she would.

After a quick dinner at Nashville, a burger joint, we crossed the street to J&Rs, the bar we frequented before Don entered our lives. Since it was still early, the place was relatively empty. Sitting down at the bar, we ordered beer. I didn’t care for Korean beer, but it was cheap, and both Yasmine and I drank as though we were parched. By our third round, the place was packed with Americans. Music pulsed around us and when No Doubt started to sing “Don’t Speak”—a song that still reminds me of her—Yasmine leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I smiled, and her deep-brown eyes sparkled. My chest tingled, and I held her gaze until out of the corner of my eye I saw Don lurking in the doorway. Had she done it to provoke him? Or was she genuine in her affection? Either way, I was irritated by his intrusion.

Anger and disdain rapidly dislodged the euphoria I had felt seconds earlier. Scowling, I confronted Yasmine, “I thought he was sick.”

“He was.” She looked as genuinely confused as I was, but instead of anger, her eyes seemed to twinkle with delight, the way a child’s might just before executing a prank.

“Let’s dance,” she grabbed my wrist and dragged me to the dance floor. I’m a terrible dancer. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I rarely danced. The exception, of course, was when I was drinking. After a few beers, I didn’t care how awful I looked.

Don watched us as we disappeared into the crowd. Instead of following us, he headed over to the pool tables. He quickly made friends with three other guys and joined their game. When the music slowed, I tried to excuse myself and exit the dance floor, but Yasmine, as inebriated as I was, pulled me closer. I don’t know who initiated. Whether the alcohol blotted it out or my own subconscious wiped the memory clean matters little. What matters is that her lips were suddenly pressed to mine, and I kissed her with more emotion, more feeling than I had ever kissed anyone. The song ended, and a faster song started to play, but lost in our kiss, we were oblivious to everything else.

That’s when he noticed, and his rage erupted, reverberating throughout the bar. His scream echoed in my ear, and the force with which he pulled me away from Yasmine knocked me to the ground. The crowd swam around me. As if through a tank of water, I heard Don shouting at Yasmine. Yasmine, completely unnerved, turned her back on him, offered me a hand, and when I stood up, she embraced me. In defiance of Don’s wrath, she kissed me again. When my hands slipped up the back of her shirt, Don punched a wall, then dragged us both out of the bar.

Outside, he hailed a cab and shoved me and Yasmine into the backseat. Unperturbed, Yasmine pressed against me, her lips warm as we continued to kiss. I thought for certain that when the cab pulled up to her apartment, either she or Don would dismiss me, and I’d be left to walk home alone. But instead, the three of us stumbled up the steps together. When Yasmine opened her door, she nudged me inside, then barred Don from entering. Confusion clouded his face, then fury flashed in his eyes. She slammed the door, and his fist pounded the metal. “No,” he shouted, no doubt waking everyone else in the building. “You can’t do this. You can’t let her stay.”

Yasmine locked the door. Angry voices, shouting in Korean and spilling out of other apartments, eventually silenced Don. Without words, Yasmine and I fell onto her bed. Half dressed, we curled into each others arms. While I let her hands roam at will, fear prevented mine from going too far. What I wanted was wrong. My upbringing had taught me that. And so I stopped myself, content in the moment that I, not Don, was falling asleep beside her.

Furious, Don returned to Yasmine’s apartment early in the morning. This time, she opened the door when his fist smashed into it. Immediately, Don sighted me in the living room, crouched down next to Yasmine’s CD collection.

“She’s not a dyke, you know.” Breathing heavily from running up the stairs, his eyes threatened violence if I got too close.

Blankly, I stared back him, trying to process the meaning of his words, the meaning of my actions, actions I so desperately wished to blame on the alcohol. But now that I had sobered up, I didn’t exactly regret them.

I had kissed a girl. I enjoyed it. But what exactly did that mean? Why did it have to mean anything?

“Do you hear me?” His voice rose. “She’s not a dyke.”

“Neither am I.” The label unsettled me, but as I sat there, my eyes uncomfortably locked with Don’s, I knew that he had shattered the last of my illusions.

“Yes, you are!” Don pronounced the words like a life sentence, and I stoically swallowed them, knowing that an appeal would be futile.

We glared at each other for another moment. I knew he would not back down, and I had nothing left with which to defend myself. Abruptly turning away and stepping past him, I smashed through the door and thundered down the stairs. Outside, the morning sun pulled me into a warming embrace, but wanting no comfort, I broke away.

In the shadows cast by a truth I could no longer deny, I cried.


Photograph at the top of the page was taken by Elizabeth Jaeger.

Arabesque: A Series of Revelations



As with all ballet positions, the arabesque begins here.

To find your true turnout, first stand with your feet together. Now open them up as you would unfold a fan, with your heels acting as the fulcrum. You will see that your turnout is not ideal. It forms, instead of a straight line from the toes of one foot to the toes of the other, an angle. An obtuse angle.

This is the first position. It is the most simple, but also the most revealing, the most vulnerable.



The turnout is a rotation of the legs outwards, the rotation that allowed Louis XIV to show off the heels of his shoes.

A good turnout is a process, the constant opposition of strength against flexibility. In the hip alone, seven hip rotators muscle their way against the three ligaments that secure each femur to the pelvis. Allow this energy to spiral down your legs, rotating your knees and shins and ankles, down to your pinky toes. You must sustain this energy, in your body and in your memory, just as dancers before you have done. Ballet is “an art of memory, not history,” writes the dancer and historian Jennifer Homans. “[B]allet repertory is not recorded in books or libraries: it is held instead in the bodies of dancers.”

In ballet, our bodies are memoirs.

{Arabesque à Terre}

In the visual arts, an arabesque is a series of undulating lines that curl like vines, interlacing as they grow. Renaissance artists ornamented manuscripts, furniture, and entire walls with arabesques.

In ballet, we have our own arabesque. Keeping your rotation from the first position, brush your right foot to the back. No, not like that. Peel your foot off the floor sequentially—first your heel, then your arches, then your metatarsal, until your big toe is the only point of contact with the floor. There should be no weight on your right leg, the working leg. All of it should be on your left leg, the supporting leg.

Now, check your position. Are your legs equally turned out? Are the toes of your right foot pointed? You must form the longest line possible, even in your toes. Keep your body upright, your core stable, your back strong, your hips square and facing the front.

You are sweating. Your face is tense. Your shoulders are up, and your neck is stiff. This is only arabesque à terre, an arabesque on the ground. I have yet to add in a port des bras, or an epaulement, or ask you to take your working leg en l’air. You are not a statue, but a body; you must be soft and supple.

Good. Now all you have to do is remember all this so that your body can perform the arabesque on demand and in a fraction of a second. Every movement in dance should, wrote the ballet master E. A. Théleur, “as the words in a language, be correctly pronounced, without any apparent or studied effort of the performer; this is (if I may be allowed the expression) the fluency of the dancer.”


Started late. My body is not a native speaker and will never achieve fluency. My body will never be a good memoir.


In an arabesque, a spiral radiates iterations of itself as it progresses, weaving various motifs into a single, unbroken line. This structure is unique in the world for its “infinite correspondence,” which, according to art historians, provides the viewer with “sufficient information to imagine how the design would appear were it extended beyond its actual limits.”

The arabesque entered ballet first as a choreographic design, rather than a pose. On stage, dancers composed themselves into a floral arrangement, weaving garlands and veils and pastoral instruments into their formation. Abstracting their bodies into one continuous, undulating arabesque, the dancers imitated, at once, nature and ornament.

{Carlo Blasis (1797–1878)}

The Italian ballet master reframed the arabesque as a motif, one that could be reproduced in a single body. For Blasis, “arabesque” designated a category of mannerist poses in which the upper body and the working leg leave the body’s perpendicular line to create, in effect, an incline.

This inclination is, first and foremost, an anatomical response to the mechanics of the pose. When a limb as heavy as a leg leaves your axis of gravity and extends to the back, it demands of your body a new understanding of balance: your torso must tilt forward to act as a counterweight to your leg. It demands of ballet nothing less than a new aesthetic, a departure from the aristocratic mannerism of standing upright.

For Blasis, the arabesque is a bodily attitude, at once a composition and a mannerism. “Imitate a painter in your manner of combining and arranging; let all the objects of your picture be in strict harmony one with another,” he advised, and imitated with his own body the mannerisms of Mercury.

ng Mercury}


Carrying his caduceus in his left hand, Giovanni da Bologna’s Mercury stands on a breath, a single exhale of the wind god Zephyr. With his right, Mercury points to Jupiter, and the gesture pulls his body into a forward-leaning spiral. Countering the weight of his outstretched arm, Mercury extends his right leg to the back, bringing his body into equilibrium, into poise.

The attitude is Mercury, stilled to express our desire for flight.

{Arabesque en l’Air}

Go to arabesque à terre. Take your arms out to the sides. Curve them as though you are hugging a large balloon. This is the second port des bras, or “carriage of the arms.”

Now bring your working leg into an arabesque en l’air, an arabesque in the air. No, don’t just lift it like it’s dead weight—without affecting the position of your hips, lengthen your leg into the air. Imagine that your toes are drawing an arc behind you. Check if your legs are equally turned out—it’s not about the height; it’s about the position. Keep your legs straight, and wing your foot.

Your upper body will naturally tip slightly forward, but keep your core strong. Avoid splaying. The foot of your working leg should be aligned with the center of your body. Feel a connection between the foot in the air and your opposite shoulder.

Have you forgotten your arms? Why are your fingers shaped like claws? Do not let your elbows dip—feel a long line running from your shoulder to your middle finger. Remember, your arms are extensions of your back. A strong port des bras comes from a strong back. A strong back gives you the strength to support an arabesque.

Your shoulders are up, and your neck is stiff. You’re not breathing. Your face is tense. You must dance with your whole body—is your face not part of your body? Ballet is athletic, but it is not a sport—it is an art. Never reveal the effort it takes to dance. You must perform at all times, even if you’re only in the studio.


The equal distribution of weight. Find your balance in arabesque through equiponderance, such that your outstretched leg tilts your upper body towards something—perhaps a lover, the absence of a lover, or the anticipation of one.

Equiponderance is an ongoing attempt to approach equilibrium. A dancer does not hold—in the way we are told to hold our heads up high, our muscles straining to lock our posture to the point of stiffening—a dancer ponders, distributing their weight about their axis of gravity.

{Hopes & Dreams}

Blasis had hoped to perfect a turn in arabesque. “[W]hy should dancers be so limited as that in the position of the body during the performance of their pirouettes?” he mused.

Back then, Blasis was a pioneer. Today, this is no longer a feat—amateurs, too, can turn in arabesque. The ballerina in the musical box I’d always wanted turns perpetually in one.


Blasis was fond of concluding a movement sequence on an arabesque, a pause that, while the audience sat in suspense, imprinted onto memory.

The success of such an arabesque depends not only on corporeal equiponderance, but also on an equilibrium between the dancer’s external form and, as Blasis writes, their “passions, the impulses of [their] soul.”

In a moment, the dancer reveals to the audience the very essence of herself.

{La Sylphide

We have no memories of the original choreography, only an understanding of its aftermath.

The 1832 premiere of La Sylphide marked the beginning of Romantic ballet. Then, Marie Taglioni (1804–1884) was the first to perform a full ballet en pointe. Prior to that, pointe had been used as a momentary, acrobatic stunt.

On stage, Marie the Sylph floated on the point of her toes. She is so light that, in one print, when her toe descends onto a cloud, it barely moves. Directly above her pointe shoe, a bulging calf reveals the strength required to perform lightness and femininity.

At the end of the ballet, the Sylph’s human admirer catches her with a scarf, and Marie’s wings fall like petals. She loses sight and dies; her body, borne away by her sylph sisters.

After La Sylphide, we abstracted Marie’s image, reproducing it on caramels, cakes, and the bodies of young women and aspiring ballerinas.

{First Arabesque}

Bring your leg into an arabesque en l’air. Your working and supporting legs should make at least a 90-degree angle. Open the arm on the side of your working leg to either the side or the back, such that it mirrors the extended line of your leg.

Now, lengthen the line of your working leg by placing your other arm in front of you. Unless otherwise instructed, place your fingertips at eye level. Feel a horizon running from your fingers, through your body’s vertical axis, to the toes of your working leg. Feel the energy pulsing, out of the tips of your fingers and the tips of your toes, a gesture to infinity.

{Revelation, II}

Never reveal all of yourself at one go, my father advised when I was going off to college. It is better to be low-key. Better to appear, at first sight, distinctly average and uninteresting. This way, when your peers find out more about you, they will be surprised. They will be curious.

{Marie’s Romantic Admirers}

In the book he sent her, Victor Hugo signed, “A vos pieds, a vos ailes.” At your feet, at your wings.

 “An innocent Eve, a fallen Eve,” wrote François-René de Chateaubriand of the Sylph. “I placed her upon an altar and I adored her.”

 “Taglioni is one of the greatest poets of our age,” declared Théophile Gautier, comparing her genius to Lord Byron. “She has ronds de jambes and undulations of the arms that are worth as much as a long poem.”

Marie the Sylph embodied the very essence of Romantic poetry—its yearnings for the spiritual and the sublime. So, too, did the arabesque. “Behind the arabesque, and through its openings,” wrote Hugo, “all philosophy can be seen; vegetation lives; man becomes pantheist; a combination of infinite takes place in the finite; and before such work, in which are found the impossible and the true, the human soul trembles with an emotion obscure yet supreme.”

Ask yourself, what can your arabesque reveal?


Arab-esque. In the history of ornamentation, the term first came into use in 1656 as an adjective, e.g., “the arabesque frescoes.” As the original vegetal pattern was assimilated into Western art, “arabesque” emerged as a noun in 1720. It was now possible to circulate the essence of the Arab, in the form of an ornament and via manuscripts, bookbinding and furniture.

The arabesque originated in the tenth century as a biomorphic design in Islamic art, adorning the surfaces of religious art and architecture. In a mosque, the intricacies of the arabesque invited one to contemplate the mystery of God and his works, and while its winding lines suggest vines and other geometrical patterns found in nature, the arabesque prevented image worship by avoiding the representational realm. Due to its religious role, the arabesque is often seen as the Islamic view of the world.

Of course, “arabesque” is a European term applied to Islamic art. The word arabesque, then, reveals not so much Islamic worldview as it does European perception.

{A Riddle}

You see me walking along the streets. To you, my skin looks yellow, my hair, black.

What am I? 

By which I mean, tell me about yourself.

{La Bayadere}

Choreographed by Marius Petipa, the 1877 ballet La Bayadere is a love story set in exotic India. In the first act, the warrior Solor and the temple dancer Nikiya swear their eternal love before the temple’s sacred fire. Consistent with the conventions of melodrama, their love is a transgressive one, one that goes against the norms of the caste system and against the dictates of the Rajah.

As a result, Nikiya dies. A grieving Solor smokes his way into an opium-induced dream, into the “Kingdom of Shades” scene. On stage, apparitions of Nikiya descend into his consciousness, zigzagging their ways downstage. Thirty-two Nikiyas—sometimes more, sometimes less—of the corps de ballet enter the stage one by one, performing arabesques down a ramp. Once Nikiya’s image occupies the entire stage, occupies the front and back and periphery of Solor’s mind, the corps commences a mournful adagio.

Over nine minutes or so, the corps performs thirty-nine arabesques in their white, made-in-Russia English tulle tutus. Indianness is reduced to a headpiece, with arm drapes that run from bun to wrist.

{Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829}

In his 1800 Dialogue on Poetry, the German Jana Romantic called for a “new mythology,” one that would “transplant” the rational, enlightened human “into the beautiful confusion of the imagination, into the original chaos of humankind.”

Schlegel’s “new mythology” was not so much a novel creation as it was an appeal to resurrect ancient poetry. As in the spirals of an arabesque, “All poems of antiquity,” wrote Schlegel, “follow one after the other until from ever growing masses and parts the whole is created; everything is related, and in everything there is one and the same spirit, only expressed differently. Thus,” he continues, “it is truly no empty saying that ancient poetry is one whole indivisible perfect poem.”

In other words, no matter their unique characteristics, all poems are animated by a single spirit and universal essence. Schlegel’s arabesque, while permitting diversity on the surface, is ultimately a universalizing impulse.

{Brendan Fernandes (b. 1979)}

In the performance art Inverted Pyramid (2014), Fernandes whittles the cast of “Kingdom of Shades” to one dancer. Instead of her thirty-one fellow corps de ballet members, the dancer performs the thirty-nine arabesques with life-sized cut-outs of her body in arabesque, competing with these forms until her body fails.


Arabesques “may be varied ad infinitum,” wrote Blasis, “for the slightest change in the situation of the body.” Depending on the placement of the limbs, the inclination of the head, the movements that precede or follow it, the arabesque expresses everything from jealousy to love, from power to fragility, from poise to discomposure. For Blasis, it is the “good taste” of the dancer that determines the physical intricacies of the position.

As a test of virtuosity, the arabesque is a rite of passage, one that locates the dancer in the ever-growing artistic tradition.


Someone once told me that dancers had developed limbs and simple minds. That someone, who has loved me ever since I was born, thought dance was a hobby I should quit.

Years later, upon realizing I never would, that someone asked me what I liked about dance. I’m just trying to understand, that someone said, having only watched me dance once, for five minutes. And I remember that someone’s first comment: Why is she unstable on her feet? That someone wanted to understand.

{Anna Pavlova (1881–1931)}

When the great prima ballerina visited India in 1923, she and her students took classes from Hindu dancers. On her experience in an interview, Pavlova commented, “[My students] achieve the outside appearance of that dancing. The inside feeling neither they nor I can wholly achieve, and we know it. […] It has a power which I try to employ in my dances, but which I certainly could never by means of words explain.”


Ballet is a lifelong thing, said my teacher Sarah as I left the studio after class one day, feeling frustrated and incompetent. I turned to catch her eye and, feeling seen, looked away.

{A Portrait of Marie}

One lithograph captures Marie as the Sylph in the Scottish countryside, her white tulle skirt blooming about her hips and ending at midcalf. Poised on the point of one foot, she draws her working leg into a low arabesque en l’air, raising an arm to form a diagonal line from
fingertip to toe.

Did you know? Marie had, according to her teacher, a hunched back. Prior to La Sylphide, which her father Filippo had choreographed for her, critics described Marie’s body as “ill-made” and “
almost deformed.”

You can see it in this lithograph, the way Marie leaned forward in arabesque to mask her rounded back, her body a figure of longing. And yet, it was this figure that became the aesthetic of
Romantic ballet.

This figure of Marie, we remember.