October 31, 2009 § Leave a comment
Very soon the souls of the dead will be able to cross over for a little while. Is it for a minute or an hour? I always think of the dead in February and June. That was once true. But the calendar fills up.
When we think of ghosts, it’s always what they want: revenge or a body or someone to listen. The ancients thought they wanted food and wine; also revenge, a body and someone to listen.
Of course some think the dead want to let us know they’re doing fine, but I doubt, if they persist, they’re all that concerned. More likely, they’re chatting up the gang in the Whatever, testing out the new persona. Those of us left here are forgotten, except as parts of self-definition, as a person might forget to write home when she moves to a strange city, yet still finds it important and deeply moving to say to the new friend: I come from a large family. I’ve been married four times, though I’m only 32. I love my dog more than my parents. My brother eats cars.
Do we dress up in costumes to scare the dead? To mock them? To let them know that not only are we still alive, we can change whenever we want? We can imagine being them while they can only remember being us.
No, it’s to remind ourselves that someday we’ll be ghouls and zombies, too, and so why be frightened? Like you say to the five-year-old when you visit the nursing home and the elderly resident’s head rolls on her neck like an egg on the counter deciding whether to fall, eyes unfocused—she’s almost not there except the veiny hand is tenacious, questing out, grasping and holding— “It’s only your great-grandma, sweetpea. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ll show you the pictures: she looked just like you.”
Chronically ill with a disease that won’t
kill me, I watch afternoon TV.
Sprung sofa embroidered with
cookie crumbs and laundry quarters
I rest on the hip that doesn’t hurt
yet and click the remote.
Here’s Oprah hosting a man
who chats with the dead.
Blunt chunk smoothed
into a light blue suit,
voice like a mouse’s soul refurbished.
I inch backward on the sofa,
adorned with pillows my mother gave me,
fringed, Turkey red,
to make the room look new,
and grab one for my lap.
The bereaved testify:
A mom and dad, spruce as show dogs,
A chipper widow.
They’ve heard the words,
odd detail of a solitary act
or common memory returned
that compel belief. There is no death!
No death! Life
Everlasting; and the dead care
where we’ve placed the photo,
who’s got the diamond earrings.
I glance up. I’ve got you at thirty
putting my brother’s infant foot
into your mouth.
He flails baby limbs—
he who will also die young—
grins to wring a parent’s sweetest juices.
The Evangelical in the audience
objects. “How do you talk to those in Hell?”
She teeters on her heels.
The medium sits calm as a stuffed Buddha.
He’s too rich to care what she thinks
The dead stick to him like lint
the money washes in
though his work is no picnic
the spirits vibrate at a pitch so high
and rush forward in spurts of feeling
like excited teenagers–Mom, it’s me!
And some won’t talk at all.
That would be you.
Thirty years I’ve seen you
trapped in a cube
of polished stone or ice, motionless
in black space, knotted
into straitjacket package.
I long to snag you from that darkness,
set you down
on my desk like something I can fix
carve out the blight
insert what’s missing.
The image fades
the TV chatters. O my father,
who lived once and kept it brief–
help thou my unbelief.
October 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
Revolutionary War musket
I went to the doctor today, who was not in, and got his PA, who was sweet and cheery, though not as knowledgeable as my sister from PA, who would be my doctor if she had a really fast horse. She’s a vet but says that since her clients want only the best for their furry children, she’s up on the all the fancy stuff.
She didn’t say fancy stuff. She said “appropriate antibiotic.” Later amended that, on Bob’s suggestion, to honey. Honey is a good dressing for wounds (especially burns, though armpit abscesses can also use the help). If your wound is particularly nasty—and stinking—first get some maggots and use them to debride the dead skin. By the time that’s over, a honey compress will be very welcome, although you should avoid it if you’re camping in bear country.
“Debride” means remove dead flesh, and does not refer to the infamous Pennsylvania practice of luring brides from their honeymoons by filling the nuptial bed with maggots. I’m not sure they do that anymore; I’ll have to ask Kevin.
My sister’s honeymoon was worse than a bed of maggots. She went an emergency room in England on a Friday complaining of severe pain, tests were done, and she was told to stay in the hospital for the weekend. When she asked what was wrong with her, they said she had to wait until the doctor came in on Tuesday. She said she was leaving unless they gave her a good reason not to. She was on her honeymoon, remember, in Europe, which wasn’t a continent she’d ever see again. (Yet.)
They repeated that she should stay but neglected to inform her she had an ectopic pregnancy. If you read British fiction you can imagine just the sort of nurses she had. Not any worse than bad American medical personnel; differently bad. Nothing like the nurses in war movies, guys. Try reading.
So she left, her fallopian tube burst, and she almost died. Perhaps because of this, she’s very good about not making people wait all weekend for test results, unlike my radiologist, whose name I don’t know yet, who was supposed to tell me (“He’ll call within one hour,” promised the tech) whether my ankle is fractured or not. He didn’t call. He left for Argentina with somebody else’s bride.
This is possibly not true, but I’ll say it again when I have his/her name.
Maggots were first used on Civil War battlefields. They would have been of great help in the Revolutionary War, with its thousands of wounded, limping, miserable soldiers. George was never debrided, either; Martha came to the war with him, in Cambridge, Morristown, and Valley Forge. I was in Valley Forge a few weeks ago; it was lovely, though not as nice as Cambridge. Martha’s son by her first marriage (the one that left her a rich widow and therefore attractive to Washington, who required means) fought in the war and died of typhus. His name was Jack Custis.
I lie in bed with my ankle throbbing, my infected shin sending out little pulses of pain, and imagine suffering all this plus high fever, chills, headache and vomiting (not to mention the lice). Then having to rise and fight at dawn. I’m not sure I’d shoot a musket very well in that condition. Not as well as I usually do, anyway.
Have you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game …
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”
Do you remember the hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget
–Siegfried Sassoon, March 1919
this next one is long, but worth it
Letters From A Father
Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake, there is
such pain, would have to go to the hospital to have
it pulled or would bleed to death from the blood thinners,
but can’t leave Mother, she falls and forgets her salve
and her tranquilizers, her ankles swell so and her bowels
are so bad, she almost had a stoppage and sometimes
what she passes is green as grass. There are big holes
in my thigh where my leg brace buckles the size of dimes.
My head pounds from the high pressure. It is awful
not to be able to get out, and I fell in the bathroom
and the girl could hardly get me up at all.
Sure thought my back was broken, it will be next time.
Prostate is bad and heart has given out,
feel bloated after supper. Have made my peace
because am just plain done for and have no doubt
that the Lord will come any day with my release.
You say you enjoy your feeder, I don’t see why
you want to spend good money on grain for birds
and you say you have a hundred sparrows, I’d buy
poison and get rid of their diseases and turds.
We enjoyed your visit, it was nice of you to bring
the feeder but a terrible waste of your money
for that big bag of feed since we won’t be living
more than a few weeks long. We can see
them good from where we sit, big ones and little ones
but you know when I farmed I used to like to hunt
and we had many a good meal from pigeons
and quail and pheasant but these birds won’t
be good for nothing and are dirty to have so near
the house. Mother likes the redbirds though.
My bad knee is so sore and I can’t hardly hear
and Mother says she is hoarse form yelling but I know
it’s too late for a hearing aid. I belch up all the time
and have a sour mouth and of course with my heart
it’s no use to go to a doctor. Mother is the same.
Has a scab she thinks is going to turn to a wart.
The birds are eating and fighting, Ha! Ha! All shapes
and colors and sizes coming out of our woods
but we don’t know what they are. Your Mother hopes
you can send us a kind of book that tells about birds.
There is one the folks called snowbirds, they eat on the ground,
we had the girl sprinkle extra there, but say,
they eat something awful. I sent the girl to town
to buy some more feed, she had to go anyway.
Almost called you on the telephone
but it costs so much to call thought better write.
Say, the funniest thing is happening, one
day we had so many birds and they fight
and get excited at their feed you know
and it’s really something to watch and two or three
flew right at us and crashed into our window
and bang, poor little things knocked themselves silly.
They come to after while on the ground and flew away.
And they been doing that. We felt awful
and didn’t know what to do but the other day
a lady from our Church drove out to call
and a little bird knocked itself out while she sat
and she bought it in her hands right into the house,
it looked like dead. It had a kind of hat
of feathers sticking up on its head, kind of rose
or pinky color, don’t know what it was,
and I petted it and it come to life right there
in her hands and she took it out and it flew. She says
they think the window is the sky on a fair
day, she feeds birds too but hasn’t got
so many. She says to hang strips of aluminum foil
in the window so we’ll do that. She raved about
our birds. P.S. The book just come in the mail.
Say, that book is sure good, I study
in it every day and enjoy our birds.
Some of them I can’t identify
for sure, I guess they’re females, the Latin words
I just skip over. Bet you’d never guess
the sparrow I’ve got here, House Sparrow you wrote,
but I have Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows,
Pine Woods and Tree and Chipping and White Throat
and White Crowned Sparrows. I have six Cardinals,
three pairs, they come at early morning and night,
the males at the feeder and on the ground the females.
Juncos, maybe 25, they fight
for the ground, that’s what they used to call snowbirds. I miss
the Bluebirds since the weather warmed. Their breast
is the color of a good ripe muskmelon. Tufted Titmouse
is sort of blue with a little tiny crest.
And I have Flicker and Red-Bellied and Red-
Headed Woodpeckers, you would die laughing
to see Red-Bellied, he hangs on with his head
flat on the board, his tail braced up under,
wing out. And Dickcissel and Ruby Crowned Kinglet
and Nuthatch stands on his head and Veery on top
the color of a bird dog and Hermit Thrush with spot
on breast, Blue Jay so funny, he will hop
right on the backs of the other birds to get the grain.
We bought some sunflower seeds just for him.
And Purple Finch I bet you never seen,
color of a watermelon, sits on the rim
of the feeder with his streaky wife, and the squirrels,
you know, they are cute too, they sit tall
and eat with their little hands, they eat bucketfuls.
I pulled my own tooth, it didn’t bleed at all.
It’s sure a surprise how well Mother is doing,
she forgets her laxative but bowels move fine.
Now that windows are open she says our birds sing
all day. The girl took a Book of Knowledge on loan
from the library and I am reading up
on the habits of birds, did you know some males have three
wives, some migrate some don’t. I am going to keep
feeding all spring, maybe summer, you can see
they expect it. Will need thistle seed for Goldfinch and Pine
Siskin next winter. Some folks are going to come see us
from Church, some bird watchers, pretty soon.
They have birds in town but nothing to equal this.
–Mona Van Duyn
October 30, 2009 § 2 Comments
The New York Times has an article by Gordon Marino about Kierkegaard and the difference between despair and depression, the main point being that despair is of the spirit, depression of the mind. Certainly one can be very unhappy yet spiritually joyous: artists, monks, priests and their ilk often find themselves in this condition.
I remember it well. I call it youth. I was miserable yet the world was so glorious! So beautiful—autumn leaves in the mountains, the full moon over water, the rocking cradle of a subway car late at night. So strange, changeable, fascinating…far more alluring than the rancid charms of suicide, which has always been nattering at my elbow.
Yet if, as Kierkegaard says, despair is the result of refusing (or not knowing how) to be oneself, I must differ. Certainly, in my teens, 20’s and 30’s, there were big parts of myself I was denying out of shame and fear. And if I had been able to embrace them, I would have been much happier. Yet it’s now that I feel despair—now when I’m much more accepting and open about who I am.
Or have I only accepted my limitations? Am I still squashed by fear, this time that it’s too late for literary acclaim (among other things)? Perhaps. But there’s also my confusion about what approach to take to death. Like our President, I inherited this mess, it was never my idea, and I’m dithering.
McChrsytal wants troops to focus on protecting Afghans, not killing insurgents. I want the same thing in my spiritual life, such as it is. But I spent so many years zealously protecting parts of myself that only needed light and air, and then became furiously angry at my mistake; I’m not sure how to get back in the game properly.
I need a posse for guidance. And Joe Lieberman’s head on a stick.
Oh, sorry. That’s a topic for another day.
October (Section One)
Is it winter again, is it cold again, didn't Frank just slip on the ice, didn't he heal, weren't the spring seeds planted didn't the night end, didn't the melting ice flood the narrow gutters wasn't my body rescued, wasn't it safe didn't the scar form, invisible above the injury terror and cold, didn't they just end, wasn't the back garden harrowed and planted-- I remember how the earth felt, red and dense, in stiff rows, weren't the seeds planted, didn't vines climb the south wall I can't hear your voice for the wind's cries, whistling over the bare ground I no longer care what sound it makes when was I silenced, when did it first seem pointless to describe that sound what it sounds like can't change what it is-- didn't the night end, wasn't the earth safe when it was planted didn't we plant the seeds, weren't we necessary to the earth, the vines, were they harvested? --Louise Gluck
October 29, 2009 § 1 Comment
Boethius and Philosophy, Mattia Preti
I’ve been more or less in bed for a week, after falling and spraining my ankle. I’ve done this before, but I always had someone with me. This time, Charles came for several days, which was very helpful, but now I’m alone except for the cats whom I don’t have the emotional strength to engage with. Yesterday I ignored Fitzroy all day (fed and brushed him but distractedly, and yelled at him a few times); by bedtime I was ready to relent. He jumped on the bed and wandered around, first lying near my head, then by my knees, then by my head again. He bit me on the nose and knuckles as he does when he wants to wake me in the morning: not generally a nighttime behavior. He mewed and circled my body in the dark, like a Victorian suitor finally told, after years, that he can commence making love—who then doesn’t know quite what to do, where to begin, what he wants, or why.
My poor neurotic cat! I’m used to my quirks but it’s sad to see an animal flail in this nervous, closed-up life, especially without books and television or the consolations of philosophy.
The Consolation of Philosophy was written by Roman statesman and Philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius in AD 524, while imprisoned awaiting execution for treason. It’s a meditation on the nature and meaning of suffering, particularly the suffering of good men; on fate, predestination, God’s mercy, etc. I read sections of it in college, retaining only a vague pleased sense of how much thought and literature lurked around and between the brightly lit arenas of Athenian Democracy, The Renaissance, Napoleon, George Washington, Paris in the 20’s, WWII, and Watergate. I was fond of the strenuous and dazzlingly elaborate logical structures Boethius, like many Christian writers, built to decipher and justify the unfathomable. I liked the combination of quivering intensity (his) and backwater charm (my perspective). The intellectual rigor worked on both levels. It was a man’s only weapon in the fight for his soul, yet also, to this reader, a delicious kind of puzzle and distraction.
But my current idleness reminds me of what I love best, what I still think of as myself, no matter how many other selves I acquire or display. This self is a privileged, exquisitely sensitive young creature with a romantic intelligence, an amiable nature and a greedy heart. A heart with a trapdoor. Such a person manages to avoid things like treason and prison.
A 14th century Japanese poet, Kenko, wrote this in his era’s version of the personal blog—an essaylike form called “zuihitsu” or follow the brush—
“About the twentieth of the ninth month, at the invitation of a certain gentleman, I spent the night wandering with him viewing the moon. He happened to remember a house we passed on the way, and, having himself announced, went inside. In a corner of the overgrown garden heavy with dew, I caught the faint scent of some perfume, which seemed quite accidental. This suggestion of someone living in retirement from the world moved me deeply. In due time, the gentleman emerged, but I was still under the spell of the place. As I gazed for a while at the scene from the shadows, someone pushed the double doors open a crack wider, evidently to look at the moon. It would have been most disappointing if she had bolted the doors as soon as he had gone! How was she to know that someone lingering behind would see her? Such a gesture could only have been the product of inborn sensitivity. I heard that she died not long afterwards.”
Meanwhile, the cat has returned and sits by my bed (where I’m laptopping, leg elevated), looking at me. It’s always disconcerting when you realize they’ve been looking at you for a while.
“Hello, my dearest feline,” I say.
“Meow,” he replies—a plaintive, long-drawn-out meow, soulful and irritating. He needs to get out more.
The Harvest Moon
The flame-red moon, the harvest moon,
Rolls along the hills, gently bouncing,
A vast balloon,
Till it takes off, and sinks upward
To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon.
The harvest moon has come,
Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon.
And the earth replies all night, like a deep drum.
So people can’t sleep,
So they go out where elms and oak trees keep
A kneeling vigil, in a religious hush.
The harvest moon has come!
And all the moonlit cows and all the sheep
Stare up at her petrified, while she swells
Filling heaven, as if red hot, and sailing
Closer and closer like the end of the world.
Till the gold fields of stiff wheat
Cry `We are ripe, reap us!’ and the rivers
Sweat from the melting hills.
October 20, 2009 § Leave a comment
Brig “Mercury” Attacked by Two Turkish Ships, 1882, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)–a Crimean painter I’d never heard of until I found this painting. Go look at more of his work here.
Last day in Florida. I leave this evening. I’m not ready. It’s warm and very windy now—the swimming was glorious, waves big and raucous. Sparkling blue tumult. My bathing suit was stolen from the laundry so I wore an old one which is too small, and pulled it down in the water. Ah, freedom. Frolic and laughter. Shells in my hair.
“Is that a coconut or a drowned man?”
“Does it matter?”
“I like your breasts on the waves.”
“Thank you, my dear.”
The last few cool days have made me think living here would be quite nice, if I were able to get away a lot in the summer. But it’s not that here is difficult; it’s leaving there. Manhattan. The West Village. The apartment I’ve lived in 25 years.
It would be easier if I would be moving into a big house on the ocean with a wraparound porch, but I bet everyone says that. And even the ocean day and night wouldn’t block out my memories of New York, but would rather remind me of the noise of traffic, and I’d wake up thinking I was home.
The first time I lived in Manhattan—when I was 11—I couldn’t sleep because of the noise of buses on Madison Avenue. It seemed violently unnatural, of a piece with my father’s suicide the year before. Like being in a rockslide and before you’ve recovered enough to move, the earth shifts again and you fall a few more feet. Or like the paranormal romances I’ve been reading lately, where the heroines end up in Hell frequently, but Hell isn’t Dante’s version; it’s a bit more manageable, like a Sahara crossing with monsters.
Yet by the time I left, at 15, New York was my spiritual home and after finishing school in N.H. and then wandering for a few years, I returned. I like to say how much the city has changed in 25 years, but from this vantage point, it doesn’t seem to have changed at all. More glitzy buildings, cleaner parks, too much Ralph Lauren et al on Bleecker Street. Still, it’s the same people forest. Flirty homeless guys in front of the church, single women trundling dogs in strollers, ambitious young men having drinks together while their poorer cohorts sell used books on the sidewalk, beautiful girls on their phones annoying everyone, tiny old ladies making their way carefully to the supermarket.
All this because some fish got tired of the ocean and grew legs. That’s such a New York thing to do.
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.
Tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness,
and pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents
in and out among the mangrove islands
and stand on the sand-bars drying their damp gold wings
on sun-lit evenings.
Enormous turtles, helpless and mild,
die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,
and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets
twice the size of a man’s.
The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze
like the bills of the pelicans. The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job’s Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies’ Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess’s skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.
Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself.
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.
btw, I’m descended from the most famous Indian Princess, Pocahontas. Just so you know.
* Sea Fever, John Masefield.
October 19, 2009 § Leave a comment
Death of a Reprobate, copy of lost panel by Hieronymous Bosch. Private collection, New York.
Rachel Maddow just mentioned that her 90 year-old grandmother, who is “enjoying” hospice care, is worried about her Medicare benefits being cut. Leaving aside the question of whether or not there will be Medicare cuts, and what kind, you have to wonder how someone in hospice can be concerned about this. Besides the fact that Rachel’s grandmother can’t be long for this world—and the bill has miles to go before it sleeps—the whole point of hospice is no extravagant care. Are they using the word to mean something else now?
Not being elderly, and having only one elderly relative, my mother, who seems about 45 most of the time, I may not be the best person to comment on cutting Medicare. But I’m not young either, and I know I’ll be 80 in the blink of an eye. Maybe then I’ll finally have my life in order and be eager to live another 25 years. It’s possible. But if my health is such that that’s not going to happen without great expense, I believe whatever my personal wishes may be, the needs of the young should come first—that this should always and without exception be the case.
As long as I’m alive, I’m going to want more than my share of the world’s enjoyable resources—like most everyone else. It’s hard to give up dinners out and vacations so that strangers can live better. But for some reason, I don’t have this reflexive selfishness when it comes to health care. Is this because I don’t have a horrible disease yet? Or because I’m always at least somewhat depressed? Yes to both, probably. But I remember being younger and having cancer scares: it didn’t matter how unhappy I was, the thought of death was terrifying. Not ME!! My consciousness, my self, was so precious, so utterly required.
It’s different now. Only the idea of a long-drawn out, much-doctored illness distresses me. Give me a few more years, and some lucky slide into spiritual belief—which escapes me now—and I’ll be glad to surrender my seat on the bus. Especially if it means I don’t have to have my ailing carcass hauled around hospital corridors, in and out of MRI machines and operating theaters, poked and stuck, drained and pumped, irradiated, imaged, cut, peeled and picked over by squads of stressed-out medical students.
I’d rather have my soul eaten by a cat demon, and my flesh thrown into the feeding vat for the soon-to-be-ubiquitous mold robots.
Here are two poems about illness.
A Story About The Body
The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” the radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity—like music—withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl—she must have swept them from the corners of her studio—was full of dead bees.
Her Long Illness
Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurses’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.
October 17, 2009 § Leave a comment
Headline in The New York Times: Three Pigs May Be the First in the U.S. With Swine Flu
Okay, that’s the three little pigs who built their houses from straw, sticks and brick, right? And the wolf comes and huffs and puffs and blows their houses down, all but the last pig, the smart pig, who gets to keep his house and also manages to boil the wolf for dinner when the wolf, prowling on his roof, falls through the chimney into a big iron pot?*
They ALL have the flu? Things are in a bad way in this country.
A few days ago, I dreamed I had the flu, so I guess I have some anxiety. Not enough. My last memory of having the flu is very pleasurable. I was in my 20’s. I liked the mild delirium. The body aches felt sexy, like being spanked. And I thought getting the chills while burning up with a fever was fascinating. (Mother and husband kept telling me to take aspirin. I wanted to write poetry.)
Charles dreamed last night that he was either a teacher or a student at Harvard. “I must have been a graduate student,” he said, trying to puzzle out the conflicting images.
“You don’t apply that kind of reason to dreams,” I replied. “In dreams you can be both at the same time.”
“But I was trying to figure it out in the dream,” he said. “Why the students looked up to me.”
“I was probably a TA.”
MORAL: If you live in a nice house and your mortgage is paid off, stay inside day and night, avoiding the company of other pigs, or you will sicken and die. Also, if you’re offered the post of Head of the Art Department at Exeter when you’re a 30-year-old father of four with no advanced degree, don’t quit and become a freelance artist. It will spark anxiety dreams for the next several decades, and even having a crackerjack dream-interpreter wife won’t help.
*Depending on the version, the pig also has turnips and apples to add to the pot, which should make for a good stew, once you strain out the wolf fur. I’d add onions, thyme, and a jigger of high quality sherry, to give it that dangerous-but-still-a-gentleman flavor.
Here’s one of my favorite poems of all time.
Eating the Pig
Twelve people, most of us strangers, stand in a room
in Ann Arbor, drinking Cribari from jars.
Then two young men, who cooked him,
carry him to the table
on a large square of plywood: his body
striped, like a tiger cat’s, from the basting,
his legs long, much longer than a cat’s,
and the striped hide as shiny as vinyl.
Now I see his head, as he takes his place
at the center of the table,
his wide pig’s head; and he looks like the javelina
that ran in front of the car, in the desert outside Tucson,
and I am drawn to him, my brother the pig,
with his large ears cocked forward,
with his tight snout, with his small ferocious teeth
in a jaw propped open
by an apple. How bizarre, this raw apple clenched
in a cooked face! Then I see his eyes,
his eyes cramped shut, his no-eyes, his eyes like X’s
in a comic strip, when the character gets knocked out.
This afternoon they read directions
from a book: The eyeballs must be removed
or they will burst during roasting. So they hacked them out.
“I nearly fainted,” says someone.
“I never fainted before, in my whole life.”
Then they gutted the pig and stuffed him,
and roasted him five hours, basting the long body.
* * *
Now we examine him, exclaiming, and we marvel at him—
but no one picks up a knife.
Then a young woman cuts off his head.
It comes off so easily, like a detachable part.
With sudden enthusiasm we dismantle the pig,
we wrench his trotters off, we twist them
at shoulder and hip, and they come off so easily.
Then we cut open his belly and pull the skin back.
For myself, I scoop a portion of left thigh,
moist, tender, falling apart, fat, sweet.
We forage like an army starving in winter
that crosses a pass in the hills and discovers
a valley of full barns—
cattle fat and lowing in their stalls,
bins of potatoes in root cellars under white farmhouses.
barrels of cider, onions, hens squawking over eggs—
and the people nowhere, with bread still warm in the oven.
Maybe, south of the valley, refugees pull their carts
listening for Stukas or elephants, carrying
bedding, pans, and silk dresses,
old men and women, children, deserters, young wives.
No, we are here, eating the pig together.
* * *
In ten minutes, the destruction is total.
His tiny ribs, delicate as birds’ feet, lie crisscrossed.
Or they are like crosshatching in a drawing,
lines doubling and redoubling on each other.
Bits of fat and muscle
mix with stuffing alien to the body,
walnuts and plums. His skin, like a parchment bag
soaked in oil, is pulled back and flattened,
with ridges and humps remaining, like a contour map,
like the map of a defeated country.
The army consumes every blade of grass in the valley,
every tree, every stream, every village,
every crossroad, every shack, every book, every graveyard.
His intact head
swivels around, to view the landscape of body
as if in dismay.
“For sixteen weeks I lived. For sixteen weeks
I took into myself nothing but the milk of my mother
who rolled on her side for me,
for my brothers and sisters. Only five hours roasting,
and this body so quickly dwindles away to nothing.”
* * *
By itself, isolated on this plywood,
among this puzzle of foregone possibilities,
his intact head seems to want affection.
Without knowing that I will do it,
I reach out and scratch his jaw,
and I stroke him behind his ears,
as if he might suddenly purr from his cooked head.
“When I stroke your pig’s ears,
and scratch the striped leather of your jowls,
the furrow between the sockets of your eyes,
I take into myself, and digest,
wheat that grew between
the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.
“And I take into myself the flint carving tool,
and the savannah, and hairs in the tail
of Eohippus, and fingers of bamboo,
and Hannibal’s elephant, and Hannibal,
and everything that lived before us, everything born,
exalted, and dead, and historians who carved in the Old Kingdom
when the wall had not heard about China.”
I speak these words
into the ear of the Stone Age pig, the Abraham
pig, the ocean pig, the Achilles pig,
and into the ears
of the fire pig that will eat our bodies up.
“Fire, brother and father,
twelve of us, in our different skins, older and younger,
opened your skin together
and tore your body apart, and took it
into our bodies.”