I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately, in part because of a recent, unexpected death in my spouse’s family. In part, because the days are getting shorter. And, in part, because we are approaching that time of year when, in some cultures, the “veil” between the dead and the living is thought to be at its thinnest.
I don’t know what happens to us when we die or where our loved ones go but I do know that sometimes, as a poet, I feel “haunted” by people who are no longer living. Sometimes I feel haunted by historical figures–people from the past who I suddenly want to learn more about. In my poem “Even Houseflies,” for example, I reference Pliny the Elder who was a 1st century Roman Historian and Otzi the Iceman whose 5,000-year-old body was found in the Alps over two decades ago.
Other times I am haunted by family members–by my mother, in particular. My mother died in 2001, largely from the effects of alcoholism, and just when I think I’ve written the last poem about her, another one comes along. Although many of my mother poems emerge from a place of pain and loss, I consider these hauntings to be a wonderful gift; a way for me to connect, through my writing, with one of my dearest ancestors.
I am sharing two poems below: “Last Poem about My Mother” (which is definitely not the last poem about my mother) and “Even Houseflies” which references both kinds of hauntings–the personal kind and the historical kind.
Last Poem about My Mother
This is my mother
watching her heart–
dark, liquid motion
on the screen beside her.
How she called it
beautiful. This is
please and thank you,
and softens the wounds
of strangers. This is a body’s
last words; what is left
after fire. This is cavities
in the bones of a bird
that make flight possible,
and flits unseen
through every gesture and word.
This is my mother
and a way out of my mother;
a place I can say
that I left.
The day they entered our house
I did not know that their brains,
if separated from the body,
would resemble a single grain of sugar.
Or that liquid is their only intake,
requiring them to moisten anything solid
with their own saliva. Their lives,
an array of endless regurgitations.
And who’s to say, after I’d killed
the last one–nine, maybe ten in all–
and resumed my reading,
only to be stopped by the words:
Even houseflies must have their angels–
that it wasn’t the angels themselves
who sent me to learn how they live.
Who’s to say this wasn’t the gesture
of some lively god pressing a small coin
into my heart. Like my mother
who won’t stay dead, her eyes
fixing into mine like she knows
I’m her best chance. Or like Otzi
who keeps coming back–as shaman
or shepherd–in a cloak of woven grass;
the ease with which he walks
on hilly terrain. Or Pliny,
studious and brave, drawing a bath
too close to Pompeii. Who’s to say
these aren’t the gestures of gods. Active
during the day, but at night they rest
in the corners of rooms, where their eyes–
their thousands and thousands of eyes–
make a mosaic of the dark.
Both of these poems were first published in Connotations Press, 2017