Major Arcana XII: The Shapeshifter

After David Maduli / After Natalie Diaz[1] // After Faith Adiele & Serena W. Lin // After Maya Soetoro-Ng & Monica Ramos // with lyrics from Sade & a paraphrase of Sylvia Plath

“[The Tik-tik] asks us to look at the parts of ourselves that we often turn away”
                 —Jana Lynne Umipig, Kapwa Tarot


Thirsty for the distant river, I never really listened

when popsi spoke of his dreams. Was on my way


up the offramp to teach in Southern Cali and Sade’s voice came on

with pretty much nothing but the guitar and the space it left for piano:

the way the mountains looked when the sun glinted their peaks

in the rearview mirror as the next line hit—only being late

prevented me from pulling over to let the river through.


Distant fire, back here, revealing the crows

faithful to time, the oldest masks are how

we wear the faces of our deities: god or demon:


which did you fear first? What I seek in billboards

shapeshifts into the part of me that’s missing,

the part that’s better framed by boarded up

windows and murals below—illicit preferred. Here, pink

sunglasses, here the tight-rolled joint I forget

I brought to work. Whatever hides also uncovers the beauty


                                                            that I am broken

multiples and complete. There are masks placed on us: the ones

we’re forced to wear like the scar of age. There are those we save

for our most intimate mirrors. What often goes un-noticed

in shapeshift is the residue of each previous shape,


like the residue of a volcano in the island-

sand, labyrinth lines of loss. Here, the poison; here

the mud that draws it out. My father told me, “seek

the temple in the one who sweeps it.”


                                                I remember his hands

and the way the mountains looked. Sorry o, Popsi. For years

I’ve pretended I learnt seeking elsewhere than from you. From someone

who broke windows because rotten foundations. That, too. Shapeshift

a rock into a mask: it reveals the faces of those

who carried the cornerstone. I’m speaking of justice because


I’m afraid to reveal my shame to you. Shapeshift reminds a wall

it hasn’t always been a wall. Graffiti is a tattoo of that memory,

give thanks. Heavy with the burden of

the truth, remind the wall how easily it becomes

a mirror, a thing that knows to shatter. I remember


my father looking at his only children. Sad: the light shot

diamonds from his eyes when we told him we were jealous

of their blue. Popsi, sorry please for all the violence I do

to what you’ve taught me when I write. Sorry


I’m about to speak to you, instead of in your language,

in Greek mythology. What Narcissus teaches me

about shapeshift is this: it is not the reflection in the mirror

I should fear. It’s the mirror’s hungry-for-life ability to swallow.


                                                                        My father,

of Hindu descent at a Catholic First Communion, smiled as I tried

to stop him from getting up, walked—refusing to drop his head,

neither arm crossing his chest, neither fist at clench—right up and received

the blessing of the saved. As he sat back down at the end of our pew


he whispered, There is only one God. Shapeshift, finally,

tells me I need those words to mean:

no god will demand you walk right past

as if your shame is the one mirror you offer.

[1]    With the exception of “the mirror’s … ability to swallow” (which interpolates Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror”) & the final stanza, the italicized words come from Sade’s song “Like a Tattoo.”

Hari Alluri (he/him/siya) is the author of The Flayed City (Kaya) and Carving Ashes (CiCAC/Thompson Rivers). A winner of the 2020 Leonard A. Slade, Jr. Fellowship for Poets of Color and a co-founding editor of Locked Horn Press, he has received grants from the BC Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts. His work appears in the Watch Your Head (Coach House) and Pandemic Solidarity (Pluto) anthologies, as well as recently in AnomalyOvenbirdSolstice, and elsewhere.