Girlish still, in mildness and spark,
surviving in a skeleton
fragile as an armature of reeds.
should soften the shock
of my arrival, but she startled up
from the gurney
and the morphine,
eyes wide across acres of hours:
I will never go home. My house
was sold — while droplets condensed
on the murky sacs of an IV rack.
As no family was near,
I sat with her for the night shift,
evening to sunrise.
They said, “Oxygen-starved,
she’s unlikely to eat.” She said
Air is unprized ease —
in the margins of a magazine
I transcribed what I heard.
So fitful in sleep
yet lifting to a rinsing lucidity
— Does it frighten you to go
before you’ve understood?
Note the rise and fall,
every breath released
like a sigh. In advance,
our unspoken goodbye.
— Pretty boat . . . What boat is this?
Now a row of faces. All so small.
Later when I had gone,
they completed her chart.
Empty johnny and wrist tag.
This was New Year’s Day.
Vague sun pressed through mist
thin as watered milk.
First dawn in a century
to find her
nowhere on earth.
Life leaves us habits in place of happiness . . . Where is the golden certainty of my youth?
Old man, not so old
but with beard twigged and thready as a nest
and his chest like a slack-bellied steer’s.
Impressive even now, six foot five,
one who’d give you pause.
Not my own but my wife’s
addle-pated uncle, name of Ron
— as he says: Ron Quixote, Man of Dementia. Our tattered knight.
He loves recitals and symphonies
as he’s listening, but later . . . ?
Take him to dinner and a show,
when you drop him off he’ll know, but by dawn or next noon
he can’t recall. What? Where? With you?
As he wanted his own car
(his own — for how long?)
I showed him the way in mine,
from one town to the next, belayed
on lit lines from headlights,
and for every few seconds looking forward
I’d peer back through my mirror to see
his hands, white-knuckled on the steering wheel,
and thrusting face, eyes held fast on my tail-lamps.
He adored the opera, and as we
descended the stairs, each with an arm
over the other one’s shoulders, he said
What do they see, Coupla gay guys, yah?
Out on the town. Or father and son.
A vast laugh tipped his girth,
and rain swept over us, brittle curtain
drawn across trees and old gray fields.
But: Where’s my car parked? Then, Which car?
and What road will take me home?
Which house? What life, with which wife?
And he groaned, I’ve got no rearview mirror.
This is no joke.
Home, we were only driving home,
five miles of fog-smeared blackness,
the mass of moisture not presence or substance
but something scraped from view,
the vacuum beyond almost seen;
only twenty years between us, and twenty feet,
while the eight tires of our two battered jalopies
whipped circles of spray like dories in swells
through a sunken, saturated place
near the cattail marsh
where a friend passed in thick mist thirty years ago
and was suddenly surrounded
by a herd of horses he had to swerve between,
and one kicked out a taillight.
Not even there, I only heard the story
but I hear a hoof crack and the shattering lens,
one of countless memories: carried how? From where?
Him or me, who is who, I believe
I’m sure I know who’s in the lead,
I’m in front glancing back.
Our eyes in this storm, tiny lenses for a mind
which is not unlike a sleet-smeared, night-struck windshield
in a car with no view to the rear, driven by a man
without memory of what’s behind.
Imagine how he feels: Mouse-nest of riffraff
in the inner ear; sheaves of flies’ wings
under eyelids, which obscures his gaze,
and belly enlarging like a balloon pumped ever more —
But that’s so fanciful. In truth, his vantage is wan.
Waking to coffee and toast. Then coffee, toast, and cold cuts.
Later gin and toast, or canned soup (a burner left on for hours),
or many nights, a carton of some fried thing. With pie.
Fugue-like, these wiper blades’ staggered sweep.
The radio plays an aria from the opera we saw.
Cascades of static tumble across the broadcast like sand
circling the tight ligature of an hour glass . . . skidding down . . .
From where? Toward where?