in memory of Margaret Greger, 1923-2009
I. Death Takes a Holiday
Battleships melted down into clouds:
first the empire died, then the shipbuilding,
but cloud formations of gun-metal gray
ruled over the sea that was England in June.
A scarecrow treaded water instead of barley,
gulls set sail across a cricket ground.
In a suit woven of the finest mist,
Death took the last seat on the train,
the one next to me. He loosened his tie.
His cellphone had nothing to say to him
as he gazed out the window, ignoring us all.
Had the country changed since he was last
on holiday here, a hundred years ago?
Like family, rather than look at each other,
we watched the remains of empire smear the glass.
Had we met somewhere? “Out West last week,
I passed your parent’s house,” he said.
“I waved but your mother didn’t notice.
Your father must have turned off his hearing aid,
in that way he has.” In the rack overhead,
a net, a jar, a box, a pin: Death had come
for another of Britain’s butterflies.
He rose, unwrinkled. “I’ll see you later,” he said.
II. Demeter in Winter
Earlier and earlier, the dark
comes to the door, but no one knocks.
No, the wind scratches at the window.
Clouds skate the ice of your old room,
Daughter, a cloud falls to the floor
and can’t get up—
or are you my sister? Remember the rope
tied from schoolhouse to home,
so the blizzard could find its way to us?
It climbed into the attic,
spread a white sheet and ay down in the dust.
Who left behind the army greatcoat
into whose cave we crawled that night?
Lie down beside me. Under a blanket of snow,
something freezes: the mind’s gray rag,
caught on a rusty nail. Come closer.
Say I am not the woman I used to be,
just bones turned to sand in a sack of skin.
Daughter, if this page isn’t blank, turn to the next
and read me the part where you disappear.
III. Persephone on the Way to Hell
Over there, beside the road—
is that the letter I should have left you, Mother?
The shade of a scarecrow waves a blank page
as big as he is.
Blond waves of winter wheat roll up
to the knees he’ll never have,
tempting his shirt to set sail
for some other myth.
He’s a white plastic bag
tied to a stake and stuck in a field
at the end of summer. What’s left of a river
lies in a bed grown too big for it,
surrounded by rocks it carried this far.
Mother seems smaller, too.
I saw you, my lord of the dark,
take her hand as it were just a child’s.
The door of a room had closed in her mind.
“Where am I?” she wanted to know,
reigning from her old recliner. You knelt
and tenderly took off her shoes.
IV. The River of Forgetting
Why aren’t you packed to leave town?
my mother asked. Why was I holding a rock
worn down until smooth,
gone dull when it dried?
Where was she, who prided herself
on being born with no sense of direction?
Where were the fifty years
of maps my father drew for her?
Did she remember her own name by the end?
Remember for her, you modest houses,
so alike that only those who die there
can tell them apart.
Cottonwoods crowding the driveway,
did your leaves whisper which turn
the dead should to take to the water?
The ferry that hasn’t run for fifty years
leaves for the river of forgetting tonight.
V. The Azalea Justifies Its Existence
Dream of yourself or stay awake,
Martial says, and the azalea agrees:
fifty weeks it dreams,
not the greater green of Florida
the rest of us do, but a pink almost red,
a shade I’d forgotten for thirty years:
a coat marked down and down again,
coat in a color not from the desert
of subtleties my mother favored
but somewhere between magenta and mauve—
but coat in her size, and so she bought it.
Finding her in a crowd, you found yourself
facing spring come before its time.
Yesterday she died.
She couldn’t lift a spoon to the watery winter light
of eastern Washington. Azalea,
if only she could see you now,
the pink of your magnificence
like some ruffled thing thrown on
in your rush to extend a sympathy
so far beyond the pink of flushed and fevered,
it’s—what is the word for such ragged,
joy-riddled gauds of grief?
VI. The Death of Demeter
From a distance, a woman’s life is nothing
a glass of ice water losing its edge.
I should know, Daughter. I spent the night
in a graveyard, behind a tombstone,
trying to stay cold. The trees
that wouldn’t stop whispering—
they’re nothing but chairs and tables
dying not to become tables and chairs.
A tree cries out to be covered with leaves?
A deep breath of dirt fills the lungs.
Permit me to propose a few things.
I don’t want my soul to find its body.
VII. The School for the Dead
The blackboard’s endless night,
a constellation of chalk dust unnamed—
through the classroom window, I saw a map
pulled down like a window shade:
continents pushed apart, an ocean
blotting out names with tears.
South America and Africa no longer nestled
like spoons in a silver drawer.
The lost mitten of Greenland froze
to the Arctic Circle, the empty space
called Canada yawned. The new pupil,
my mother, hunched in a desk too small,
waiting for her daughter the professor
to begin the obedience lesson:
how to lie down. How to roll over
in the grave. How to play dead.
VIII. Nocturne for Female Voice
I walk the old street at night, the way I always did,
I heard my dead mother say.
Why didn’t you come? I had to talk to a tree.
I talked to dogs—they bark at anything,
even a ghost. You shiver, Daughter,
but know nothing of the cold.
Tumbleweeds roll into town as if they owned it,
night shrouds me in darkness, wind wraps me in dust—
where’s your coat? You’ve been to Rome
with a man you weren’t married to,
and now you know ruins? If the body is a temple,
as the nuns tried to teach you long ago,
it collapses on itself, bringing down the mind.
The vacant lot at the end of your childhood—
which of us rules it now? I lower myself
to the puncture-vine, the weed I warned you
never to step on. I prostrate myself
the way you coax something to grow
in the desert of the past. Its pale star
blooms a week and then bears fruit.
It survives by causing pain.
I walk our street at night, the way I always did.
Why didn’t you come? I had to bark at a tree.
I howled like a dog.
IX. The Library of the Dead
Deep in the shelves of shadows,
I closed the book I hadn’t read.
Who wanted for food
when you could smuggle something
snatched from the jaws of the vending machine
into the library of the dead?
Down on my shoulder came a hand:
my late mother’s, turned to ash.
In the house where she died,
we would sit, not speaking,
even in eternity: she had her book
and pressed one upon me, companionably.
Everything had shrunk
to fit in a suitcase when I left.
The past had been ironed flat,
a thousand leaves starched and pinned
to a cottonwood just a shade of its former self,
the only sound its rustle, industrious,
leaves turning waxen, unread—
though no shelf lay empty
in the library of the dead.