My daughter’s blood thins as it weaves
through her body, so we enter the land
of illness, settle in like tourists in a war
plagued nation, sure the bombs will fall
but not on us. My daughter is 10
months old and I have to nurse her
to keep her still while they insert
the IV. So she screams and sucks,
sucks and screams, learning sustenance
is this, but also this. My daughter’s wrist
is splinted, bandaged, so she cannot unbind
herself from this reverse bleeding. So
her body accepts the needle, the thread
of blood that stitches her to wellness. So this
blood will propel her through health’s wilds
until it too is burnt away. So oxygen
circulates with the clattering carts, the weak
coffee, the hanging bladders of sugar and saline.
So we wait behind the plastic curtain, watch
cuffs and big and little soles brisk past
as if everyone but us is cut off
at the shins. So we listen to the whimpers
of children we can’t see, soft hushes
of their hidden parents. But I do see them
when I take my turn to pace the length
of our ward. Some are like my daughter,
dual citizens of sickness and of health.
Others are here for chemo, health a land of gold
paved roads they’ve only heard of, never known.
So I want to describe these children, their clear-
cut foreheads, their eyes like oilskinned lakes
only God could have set ablaze. So I’m tempted
to say angelic, otherworldly. So I learn how far
I am from forgiveness. From inhabiting
another’s life. So my daughter takes
the blood of another and grows bright
with it. She glistens a health that nearly sickens
in this place where others take and take into
their bodies whatever they are told and still
they pale and pale unto translucence.
Once my body formed another body.
Dreamed her. Woke to her. So
my daughter bears the weight-
less cross I carried, so I know disease
floats through us, traceless. So I cover
my mouth when I cough, my hands
in sanitizer. The ittiest germ
I ah-choo could lodge in their lungs
like a bullet. So some of these children will die
of other things, taking the cancer with them.
Still, we get hungry and the cafeteria is a copy
of a café, the sandwich a copy of a food
we might enjoy in different light. So night
and these halls fill like boulevards
in liberated cities, where even the shell-shocked
come out to stroll in evening. So the glass doors
part. So we leave, burn a little upon reentry
into this blessed dusk. The sidewalk sparked
with mica, pines jittery with wind like television
through a neighbor’s window. The pixilated world
glittering impossible. So it’s still possible
to feel the day rising up from the asphalt,
a heat our legs swing through as if through
a field. It’s still possible to fall into our car
as if across the back of an old mare
who knows the way home. Or better yet,
to a new place where we can pitch a tent
beneath some abandoned plot of sky, overgrown
with stars, so we can believe luck really is
tarnished and common as a penny. So we pick it up,
unashamed, knowing it can buy us nothing
but the moment of its gleam.
Elegy Proving Airplanes Don’t Fly On Shared Belief
Today I smashed into a glass door. Nothing in me knew
I couldn’t pass straight through. Still the door
collisioned into existence. My bruised nose in the mirror
the proof—Even so, in the darkened cubby above the city
after my daughter is asleep, the air-conditioner silenced,
letting the night speak heat, I lean my forehead on the window,
all ten fingertips. The empty soccer field below. I swear
I feel my forehead, my every fingertip, ease through,
like a soul pulling free of a body. This is how I go back
to the studio apartment facing the sea, but with no view
of sun bleeding like yolk into its cold boil. I can’t prove it yet,
still, but I believe it would take just one more morning
to save you. It would take a rising sun, pink as a newborn
god in his bath of brine. But the sun is always busy rising
elsewhere when it matters. The sea an empty tomb. And we can’t
muster enough doubt to roll back the wall, to feel the real
of your wounds. We have only this room in which to act.
Adulthood is the sanest gold. It molds in slats of venetian blinds,
still closed at noon. It strangles like a canary in the dank daylight
of extended adolescence. We are still young enough to drug our tribe
immortal. “What is the value of a single life” is the pseudo-
philosophical discussion we are having. What is the value of mine?
is the question the boy contemplating dying really asked. Jesus
was only a man someone says, missing the point. It’s true,
you’ve accomplished nothing, not yet, but if you had only lounged
a little longer in the sweet-damp of early bodies, the human-meat
of unbrushed teeth, stale breath tenting unwashed sheets—We abandoned you
to boyhood in the body of man. Body with flaws known and not. Body that will never
explode into what its genes were ticking toward. A body with its blinds
still closed, so that glow could only bar a prison. Oh prisoner
of a single bad decision, prisoner of one last irrevocable
tantrum. When the body jumps the mind cannot undo. And so
because no one simply says don’t die, you do.
Elegy with Scrambled Itinerary
2 to 3 months prior to death:
Hospice nurses seem too practical to be angels, but news they do deliver. For example: A pamphlet on the nightstand reveals the soul leaves the body in stages, like grief. I’m still deciding what I believe absent in the recently deceased. But some disgruntled tenant paces the condemned structure that was my grandmother.
86 years prior to death:
A girl in a tarnished mirror decides she doesn’t like her ears.
2 to 3 Weeks Prior to Death:
We begin to trash what’s left before the earth can repossess. Her fingers pry callouses like floorboards from her palms. Teeth steadily strip layer after layer of skin from her lip. The single muscle of her dying thrashes clear of sheets and hands and jellied blobs that promise weak-tea sustenance.
4-5 years prior to death:
Don’t grow old, she says.
Unknowable years prior to death:
I play runaway beneath a lilac bush. I can still be nothing until someone calls my name.
Unknowable days prior to death:
All children are lonely in this way. Strangers enter the room, hold fingers to her wrist, her neck. When they leave I hold my ear to her chest. She answers like a seashell. I remember the lilac bush, bees ballooning its scent and I held the string, no longer a girl, but a kind of lifting.
28, 530 days prior to death:
Light falls like an ax through the glades. She sees the moment of her leaving racing toward her through the firebrand autumn trees.
4-5 weeks prior to death:
Something must be terribly wrong with me, she says, it seems like I’m alone so much of the time. Yes, childhood seems a fitting bookend.
2 to 3 minutes prior to death:
There is so much space between each breath it’s impossible to mark the moment of transition, when the body at last shudders out whatever it has to.
2 to 3 days prior to death:
She screams there are worms. We tell her they’re caterpillars. She screams there are caterpillars. When the mind is beyond association it doesn’t matter who feasts on what remains. Childhood mostly remains. Hayfever, coaldust, a constant cough in rural west Virginia, a town with two churches and nothing better to do than confess at both on Sundays.
2 to 3 days prior to death:
They seem too practical to be angels, but mercy they deliver in little yellow vials. Beneath the lid of her sleep she says goodbye to all of her ages.
1 to 2 days prior to death:
Even morphine cannot make her sleep.
1 week prior to death:
I contemplate wrapping her like an infant, a drive to the coast through silence that rings
a seashell’s undertow tongue. I can almost see the blown bodies of cows hovering
in pastures sick with green. Eyes so large tiny insects oar their glaze.
5 days prior to death:
It is too late for world in a windshield. A test: Look Grandma, the ocean. Oh yes, she murmurs through closed eyes, oh yes.
Elegy for a Sea Hare
It’s the size of my thigh, pockmarked
as an overripe papaya, and exudes
a similar oozy heaviness. The older boy
prods it with a stick and the creature opens
some hidden fount of strangeness, inking
purple into the yipping wavelets. What is it?
whispers a woman who isn’t from here. I tell her
I’ve never seen one before in my life, though
I learned to swim in this bay, shaped kingdoms
of this same motley sand. My parents own
a double plot a mile south, have planted yellow roses
whose roots they’ll feed. I’ve already uprooted myself
so many times, as if no soil can hold me,
but it will hold me. Someone breathes
I think its dying. And it is. Gently, quietly,
nameless beneath our curious eyes. What guides
us toward the us-shaped space we die in?
My grandmother, born in coal-country West Virginia,
rode her children’s wake all the way to California,
only to die within a handful of childhood memories
scored so deep into her being they couldn’t be erased
by her disease. Stranger, with your mucous-sheen,
your leprous peelings, who would touch you?
Stranger, you reek of coral reefs, aquamarines and neons
lit with lethal nectars. Not this snake-tongue bay,
flicking out, flicking in, between blonde pasture manged
by cattle. Still, these mudflat tides, they lift you,
lull you into whatever is your version of being
a body aliened by landscape, an itinerary
of indecipherable scars. I’ve never wanted to die
beside this bay, so why not let these tides be
trade winds. Let me wash up in the tropics whence
you, Stranger, came. Somewhere fragrant with night-
crushed jasmine and kaleidoscopic rot. Let me be ship-
wrecked by some fever to which the natives have been
long immune. Let them guess. They’ll never guess
I’m flat on my back on that old raft, crumbling
a piece of salt-cured kelp between my fingers,
watching the eternal coastal fog crest the ridge,
engulf me like a tsunami.
Elegy for My Brother’s Childhood Monster
He still can’t name it and I’ve no lamp
to amp the shadows into tigers
we can tame. He must be so small
inside his body now. His legs
shoot from the bed into the blankest air
where no length of his woman
warms him. I think of those big-soled feet
sometimes, just hanging there
like twin planets too large to mistake
for stars. I think of losing: relatives, teeth,
moles, the bits that compose the old
and moth-rid places where our stories
overlap. Sometimes I want to get in
the car with his childhood,
the one that looks like mine
but isn’t. I want to drive with it
to some nebulous middle
state where corn is engineered
to survive just another one of many
things that must be survived.
It stands up straight in the sun,
blonde as his child-fine hair on mornings
when I woke to find him shipwrecked
in my bed. And I never asked what he ran from
in whatever wilderness he conjured
of his room. And then he grew too big
for those sweet and shapeless fears.
His hair darkened, hardened close
to his skull, a door
kept religiously closed.