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IMAGINARY ANCESTORS: THE GIRAFFE WOMAN OF BURMA, by                 Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography
First Line: Their voices reach us as if from the shaft
Last Line: Lies close to you as air. Help me to hold up my head.
Alternate Author Name(s): Mary Gilbert, Sister; De Frees, Madeline
Variant Title(s): The Giraffe Women Of Burma
Subject(s): Burma; Women - Abused; Wife Beating

Their voices reach us as if from the shaft
of a well, these long-necked
women of Padaung, whose clavicles, depressed
by all that brass, reveal
the burden of beauty. Over the miles, the years,
I shoulder the weight, embrace the wood
of our common cross, and under the load,
the scars, these bold

Slung from my neck, the brass-bordered
crucifix like the ring on my hand
recalled an earlier day when priest and medicine man
shaped the first coil for the five-year-old
with fiery promise and a flash of metal. Then
divination with relics, with chicken bones
for the favored time. Protection from tiger bites,
one legend says, and I feel the stripes
change subtly

as elders rehearse the punishment
for adultery. The necklace of habit removed,
atrophied muscles let go
and the light-headed woman surrenders her weight
to a coffin. Meanwhile, these ringing
tiers and silver chains, coins
swung from the links, tell the world
who these women are, identify their tribe. Legs
shackled with brass

or held in place by detailed
prescriptions, reduce their walk
to a hobble. The pillow under the chin does not
spell comfort, but elegance
in position. They cannot tilt the head back
to drink sweet water, must bow to sip
from a straw. If they set their ornaments aside,
against the tribal law, they need
a brace or the hand of a friend, merely
to keep on breathing.

In a Rangoon hospital, X rays
screen the skeletal change: collarbone
shoved down, ribs displaced, a neck
that, year by year, looks
longer. The downward pressure on the spine
means something has to give. All through the blank
December I chose unfrocking, my one
alternative, I held my head carefully
above the collar,

folded the turtleneck twice
in a mockery of survival. My lungs filled
with water, closing. Whatever raises this voice
from a long way down
lies close to you as air. Help me to hold up my head.

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