N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 0 8
a sequence for my mother, 1923-2008
As my mother lay waiting for surgery
in hospital gown covered with heated blankets,
twilit morn gave way to dawn, rush hour traffic racing
beyond August's ragged leaves still in this pearl hour.
she looked as one already dead, laid out still,
chin tilted upward, brows & cheeks sculpted alabaster,
the babe asleep within—I dreamed of all those passing
the night awaiting day to come, imagin'd processional
in silent light, & wept in the profound beauty of death,
unseen companion always by my side, patient lover
who brings the skull's eyes into the babe's heart,
whose song is an endless float where does & fawns drink
& lift their eyes to recognize you, whose dewy footfalls
break the strong man & give him his tears, who fills
the silent woman's tongue with words: even now
my mother opens her eyes, wondering if I too am still
by her side, I dreaming of my own children, of the day
when they'll wait patiently by my side & know this song.
brothers & sisters
call back & forth
she's confused she's
got piles of dirty laundry
can't remember what she
said when said who said &
now she's lost a whole day—
uncertain what happened
when she was following
(going to breakfast)
& the starlight call
when, strangely alert, she
remembers she should
have gone to
breakfast & can't figure
between dawn &
& now, the brain scan,
Death, you come
to speak to me thru your mask,
you touch me thru my mother
who now is dying, & think
to make me shudder. I see
her as a child with all those
dreams a child bears like fresh
flowers in baskets to an aged
mother, all those songs dancing,
dancing in Memory’s too-large
ears. I see the ingenue
standing at the church door,
triumphant with new husband,
their faces full of light,
& the agony of divorce,
the lost dream, the struggle
to provide for innocents
floundering in painful streams,
the aging woman emerging
alone, gripping that rage
like a wand, a chalice
with bitter dregs for all
who cross her. Death,
tho you have long sung
parting songs in my ear, I
long ago trimmed
the twisted root that would’ve
strangled me, & see now
only an old woman’s
tears, & I a sorrow child
left to bury a broken
dream, to sit quietly
by the grave of sorrows
& clean out the store-
house that others may
dream anew & let go
as they too flounder
& find their way
on the stream where desire
could break all to pieces.
scarecrow sitting up, bony fingers clutching her wetted hospital gown,
rounded shoulders, trembling legs, she seems the death mask of a former
self, round moons of her eyelids alabaster like the eyes of tomb statuary—
she trembles & shakes, startled by my presence, eyes now wide—alert.
her mouth opens, she struggles to form syllables which fade even as she
mumbles in tongues, hisses, sighs: “what did you take from my plate?”
there is no plate, only a teacup with teabag, perched above chickenflesh
legs. her eyes grow large, she now sees me, sees that I am David, not
Charlie, closes her eyes when she talks or looks away, hands grasping
the urine-stained gown. she will not look me in the eye. there is little to say,
though she is quick to ask for her walker—I think, perhaps, so she might rise
to use the bathroom. she takes my hand & looks away, but can’t get up.
the fall has made her weak, feeble, forgetful, & the nurse comes & stops
her escape. she looks at me again & is startled, closes her eyes quickly.
her breath now labors; the nurse reassures me it’s only Cheyne-Stokes.
I watch her breathing & think of her evasions: so much pain between
us, I the eldest, “beloved,” whom she once “would have smothered”
while she could, as she brought me from the hospital. how does one
reach through a veil, through a death mask, through the blind eyes
of a lifetime & somehow find the ghosts, the love that must have lived
once? at last, leaving, alone, I drive to my next station, dreaming
how we usher out those we love whose love has always had conditions.
I am the sorrow child again, lost in a wide sky where tears cannot show
what the heart cannot fathom, where the heart must indeed be.
half in the dark, my mother & I await the meeting
that’ll turn her to her next dream, assisted living or
warehoused nursing. she is frail, lucid even in illusions,
now singing/talking French songs she’d played on piano,
now recalling voices already lost in her recent past,
her skin still alabaster fair, eyes bright, unsteady
even in her wheelchair as the nurse wheels her
to the conference. the therapist is gentle, yet as
mother hears at last that she will not return to her
former room, that she must turn to the next phase,
she looks down, her mouth open, then blankly up at
me, at Charlie tapping notes on his laptop: we
see the other side: the phantom doctor calling
at 3 a.m. with advice to take gingkoba, emails she
sends on a computer she gave away 6 months before.
therapists and nurses smile slightly; she cannot
walk nor dress herself, is sometimes lost in vague
time. would she like to see a private room in nursing?
the black bees
quick banter swells from mouth to mouth
& she cannot keep up—her eyes move
across her now-grown children’s faces,
questioning. frail, she does not speak.
gaunt wrists rest near unfinished ice cream,
sunlight in chiaroscuro thru the window.
pleased that they’re here, she cannot follow.
later, under the courtyard’s rickety pergola,
she is solitary in her wheelchair, oblivious to
conversations continuing around her, her eyes
above, where black bees move from vine to vine,
busily engaged, the white clouds passing
slowly beyond them. she follows the bees
with her eyes, her head tilting and turning
as they move. I, the eldest, see all, but
do not intrude. for today, this is enough.
Masks of Six Decades
Once I wanted peace on earth—before that I was a sullen gangster, a mad child, a naked dreamer
racing dark paths. I became a broom-pushing poet, chronicled blue-collar rages & sorrows, quiet
lives. I meditated in boiler rooms & dreamed I’d tamed the dark shapes within. now I eye them,
sleeping, turning, formless, always present: I no longer trust my own sanity. I became flam-
boyant drama professor, constructed affable absent-minded personae as my poetry languished,
fell in love with my students & soared when they found their way. now silver-locked elder,
I relax on toilet & watch sunlight bend thru a vertical shaft of cloud above naked branches,
rise on what thermals remain, to the mountain cave where silence beckons & the singer folds
his arms to rest. my children have risen to their dreams; I wake to my beating heart & sigh.
strutting corpse, soles of feet now afire day & night, rebel waistline, skin wrinkled overnight,
eyes sore from an hour’s reading—will I end singing my blindness, visions borne beyond
lines close to the nose, go out dancing naked in Blakean light or rage against the night?
I think too of my father, now quiet at family fest, eyeing my antics & spoken ephemera,
laughing softly, sighing that he must cling to my arm crossing a parking lot or up a stair,
patting my hand with his, curious still that the wheel spin within the wheel, questioning—
& my mother, ghost in a wheelchair trapped in memory loss mid-sentence, listening un-
comprehending as voices speak together, exhausted, asleep in chanted syllables read for her,
tho singing head high “blue skies from now on” as the sky changes beyond the window—
what nightmares each of them let go down the meandering river in the long turns of their days,
what sighs & rages, moments of ecstasy to get to this quiet hour, grave dreams still held at bay?
others may travel Mayan ruins, Amalfi Coast roads thru age, yet I dream only of Mackinac
Turtle Island, days in broad-brimmed hat working in my garden, sitting in orchid porch shade,
old friends, lovers, ghosts talking by my side. I’d breathe Superior’s wild air & kayak
two-hearted waters, manitous calling me to lie down & let go a life endured as one may.
the world will not be moved by words, tho poets would have it so: we sing our lives out,
wink out in darkness surrounded by friends if lucky, as any good man or woman dreams
& is no more. the fault is not in words, & despair yields no dreams upon which to hang
bugle, drums or lyre: I’d have many loves shaking hips to a wild beat, solitude within
dream, herons gliding upriver thru dawn mists beyond these eyes & still-beating heart.
Between Sleep & Wake
as I cut the cake & we sing, she sleeps, wakes, startled—
her long-dead sister Phyllis is depending on her, she has to
get it right—don’t let the planet stop turning, it has to—don’t
let it stop. . . she sinks back in sleep, head on her breast,
sighing. we talk, we eat cake & ice cream, & watch her. she
wakes for a bite of yogurt, two. sometimes she finishes
half a sentence—stares into the light, our faces, her hands.
Charlie spoons yogurt; we plan our visit with the nurse.
later, as she wakes, I lean to her ear & whisper: “thank-you
for giving me birth. It has been a good 60 years”—she
is briefly, fully awake, searching my eyes. will this be
her last smile, the last soft laughter we’ll hear, together?
Her New Room
no longer conscious, she lies propped up, head cocked back,
breathing heavily mouth wide open. we sort her things—
what stays, what goes—load furniture & TV she’ll no longer need
& run it to the van, not knowing how much time remains.
her chair stays with the fiction that she might muse in it,
look out new windows. we pin up photos of grandchildren,
bring favorite statuettes, a poster, knick-knacks for her wall.
we would disperse these things now before tears shake us, yet
would not leave her new room without signs of what she was.
when she wakes, briefly, she stares sans recognition. there are
no words except “water,” choked out from congested lungs—
yet she cannot drink, descending swiftly to a fitful sleep.
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?
what became of the girl whose dreams dressed up for
Madame Pomponelli’s neighborhood fashion show,
the sixth grader who skipped on sidewalks to French lessons
with Miss Meloche? where the girl whose father sang
"if ya can say it's a bra brecht moonlicht nicht,
you're all richt, ya can,” she whose mother slumped
to floor with paralytic stroke yet somehow endured,
the girl chosen from her dorm to speak to reporters
after Pearl Harbor, summoning words to guess the pain
that lay ahead? where the bright-eyed wife & mother
confident in construction site as her children climbed
dirt hills nearby? where the mother finding marvels
in screech owls screaming in the dark night, the woman
sobbing thru the wall, she whose fiction hid why he
didn’t come back, she pleading with a son who howled
& refused his father on monthly visit? where she who
worked beyond limits, drove thru snows men shrank from,
she who stood by children who had no other succor?
where those early years whose endurance was celebration,
before marriages, children, distance, tangled memory
would divide us in ways we couldn’t foresee? where she,
now reduced to labored breaths & sighs, long sleep?
the room is silent, empty but
for the bier. she lies, sheet
draped over her body—
she is so small in death—
the head tilted back, eyelids,
aquiline nose, cupid’s bow lips, skin
yet still lovely—we are
in tears. my lips touch her
heat & struggle all
gone in the waiting day.
The Empty Chair
a sequence for my father, Robert Cope, 1920-2008
Flight to Phoenix
in seat staring out window at clouds,
I look into my empty hands—
think of his face, my own a mirror
thru which I can see him
& in his, the pattern of my being.
I followed his canoe, early evening, he
looking back as I swam my first long half-mile
as he later followed me up Bright Angel.
sorrow we both contained, how many tears,
madness we passed
& left, to keep the heart secure.
he was a deliberate hiker thru sage & castled butte,
his camera imaging the mirror of our days:
a fly on yellow cactus flower near walls of vishnu schist,
the son in full stride on switchback below,
the thousand-year handprint in sinagua doorway.
In My Father’s House
we walk thru his rooms, sit where he sat, tell stories—
the wild ride back from Hana, his teenage self scaling
Long’s Peak on the front face where none now climb,
hiking beneath Taquamenon, vision thru falling water,
the eagles trailing the boat a mile from shore—
the silences are deep, hollow, empty.
sometimes we slip & speak of him in the present.
out his windows the line of browned peaks
rises against the clear sky.
the saguaros are in bloom,
acacia throw out bright petals.
the mirror casts backward thru ancestors
toiling land & turning lathes, scripture ever in their hands—
Quaker faces lit with simple gifts,
always the shadow in the corner of the eye,
the evening dance turning, passing time & light,
beloved who bears one from the dark
wrapped in blankets beneath the still moon.
rapt, shaken, & he
is with me, looking out thru my eyes, his hand
my hand in the garden, cutting, giving life. yet he
is not here,
a breeze in the acacia, then silence.
how swaddle myself
with blankets long vanished & recall a father’s eye
overlooking my child-sleep?
The Empty Chair
in memoriam my father
now there is an empty chair when we gather, for him—he is
in waves lapping the shore at Saguaro Lake, in the breeze
at the Muskegon breakwater & on your brow as your craft
turns the currents sailing surely toward Mackinac, Turtle Island—
pathfinder, he is sure beside you when you survey pines & birches,
lose yourself in tough memory in Phantom Ranch Canyon sunset—
his hand takes yours when you push off into new streams, daunted;
he is still beside you, silent, sure as a full moon in empty sky.
desert sunrise, saguaros in bloom, sotol plumes & skyrocket phlox,
lush yellow-bloom’d oleanders along the path all bear his signature.
the empty chair shows we are all beside ourselves, & while the silent
night bears tears, memory is also a mirror wherein we find the seal
& imprint that shows we are his, that the shared sign in kin & kind
is our charge & journey we make, the absent presence borne within.