When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.
It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the day lilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.
I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
“I am fifty four years old, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother’s tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously.
“I am leaving you all my journals,” she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. “But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.”
I gave her my word. And then she told me where they were. I didn’t know my mother kept journals.
A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.
On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth – shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank.”
After your mother dies, you will learn to live
on the edge of life, to brace yourself
like she did, one hand on the dashboard,
the other gripping your purse while you drive
through the stop sign, shoulders tense,
eyes clamped shut, waiting for the collision
that doesn’t come. You will learn
to stay up all night knowing she’s gone,
watching the morning open
like an origami swan, the sky
a widening path, a question
you can’t answer. In prison, women
make tattoos from cigarette ash
and shampoo. It’s what they have.
Imagine the fish, gray scales
and black whiskers, growing slowly
up her back, its lips kissing her neck.
Imagine the letters of her daughter’s name
a black chain around her wrist.
What is the distance between this moment
and the last? The last visit and the next?
I want my mother back. I want
to hunt her down like the perfect gift,
the one you search for from store to store
until your feet ache, delirious with her scent.
This is the baggage of your life, a sign
of your faith, this staying awake
past exhaustion, this needle in your throat.
I passed through the narrow hills
of my mother’s hips one cold morning
and never looked back, until now, clipping
her tough toenails, sitting on the bed’s edge
combing out the tuft of hair at the crown
where it ratted up while she slept, her thumbs
locked into her fists, a gesture as old
as she is, her blanched knees fallen together
beneath a blue nightgown. The stroke
took whole pages of words, random years
torn from the calendar, the names of roses
leaning over her driveway: Cadenza,
Great Western, American Beauty. She can’t
think, can’t drink her morning tea, do her
crossword puzzle in ink. She’s afraid
of everything, the sound of the front door
opening, light falling through the blinds—
pulls her legs up so the bright bars
won’t touch her feet. I help her
with the buttons on her sweater. She looks
hard at me and says the word sleeve.
Exactly, I tell her and her face relaxes
for the first time in days. I lie down
next to her on the flowered sheets and tell her
a story about the day she was born, head
first into a hard world: the Great Depression,
shanties, Hoovervilles, railroads and unions.
I tell her about Amelia Earhart and she asks
Air? and points to the ceiling. Asks Heart?
and points to her chest. Yes, I say. I sing
Cole Porter songs. Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? When I recite lines from Gone with the Wind she sits up and says Potatoes!
and I say, Right again. I read her Sandburg,
some Frost, and she closes her eyes. I say yes,
yes, and tuck her in. It’s summer. She’s tired.
No one knows where she’s been.
You died on a Monday evening.
The Weather Channel says it was raining and windy
but I don’t remember that.
What I do remember is
the phone call in the wee hours of the morning.
The three-hour drive to the airport.
The Delta employees being too kind too helpful,
(there must be a secret code on one’s ticket for
“Her mom is dying.”)
The long wait for the rental car, the longer wait for luggage.
The traffic at rush hour, the helicopter, the rubberneckers.
The plea to god to let me arrive in time.
The dad on the porch crying.
The clock frozen at 6:21.
The dead body in your bed.
The stillness of the room, the energy gone.
(Where does it go?)
The lock of hair I snipped from your head.
The whispered good-bye.
The dog standing in the driveway.