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







Frail Dreams


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.




Starlight Call



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


between dawn

when she was following

doctor's orders


(going to breakfast)

& the starlight call

when, strangely alert, she


remembers she should

have gone to

breakfast & can't figure


what passed

between dawn &



& now, the brain scan,

the terminal





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. 




                                    frail dreams


            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?




Last Look


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

            translucent, alabaster


yet still lovely—we are


in tears. my lips touch her

            forehead goodbye—cold,

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.


how much

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.


I am

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.