- By this imagined light-washed rock, let's pause
—I need to catch my breath and look about me:
Green, icy river broadening toward the sea,
Lichen-frilled granite, gleam of isinglass.
Think of a mossy trail through spruce. The murmur
Of finches in the boughs, the secret hiss
Of sifting needles pierce the ruddy darkness
Lit by calm, level sunbeams of—late summer?
Our children's voices—tatters in the wind.
Swift rush of wings, blurred feathers, clattering cry
—A great blue heron beats into the sky.
Love holds me speechless. Our hands clasp. And then
—No warning tremor, my heart skips no beat—
Just the ground slowly opening at our feet.
- Arms taped to what feels oddly like a cross,
Green rubberized curtain severing my head
From my prone body (to prevent the spread
Of germs, I'm told): a wildly cheerful nurse
Gives me the highlights—"There! He's cut the last
Layer. The cyst's exposed, and now he's taking . .
Dear, are you all right?" My arm is shaking.
An intimate scooping, fibrous tearing, vast
Pressure. Mauled alive yet without pain
My body seems a table sharply set
With cutlery the surgeon leans to get.
For God's sake take your elbow from my groin.
A fly-wheel in my brain—repeat, stop, start:
0 Jewel hidden in the lotus's heart.
- I note that you and I are wearing gray.
Why this unease at the red beads that brighten
My somber dress? I feel the bandage tighten.
The surgeon strides in from Pathology.
He sits. We sit. I read his face like braille.
"You've—a malignancy." Is his voice kind?
The huge word blots all meaning from my mind.
You grasp my arm. He fumbles with a pill.
"Now if the incision gives you any pain"
—Transfixed with terror, marvelling I hear
"Take this at bedtime. Keep the stitches clean."
Your eyes—a look I've never seen before—
Still, still I do not howl and bite the ground
But take the mild placebo from his hand.
- The restaurant is mercifully dim.
I settle in a booth to wait for you.
Beside me a plump file, stuffed to the brim,
Holds biopsy slides, mammogram, x-ray
We're taking to the ritual Second Opinion.
Is there an honor system that prevents
My peeking? Hurriedly I strew the contents
Across the soup and rolls: my skeleton
And my left breast, some random foot bones, skull.
And here's my surgeon's crisply worded note,
Blurred letters that detach, dissolve and float.
What was the question? Force it to stand still.
How bad is bad? One sentence yields the answer.
He guesses stage two metastatic cancer.
- As steadily as the rain falls, I weep.
The windshield wipers make an arc of clarity,
A sodden kleenex serves me. The disparity
Between my anguish and the date I keep
Is almost laughable. I've an appointment
To choose upholstery for the living room.
Flowers or stripes to drape the edge of doom?
I'm lost. It rains. I weep. Oh for an ointment
To soothe my aching eyes, my raw, scraped soul.
What use our cozy, brightly furnished house
Without me? My tears fall. Some comic muse
Is saying "Cheer up, we're all terminal."
I stop the car and knuckle my eyes dry,
Then put my head down on the wheel, and cry.
- You called me brave. Brave? Let me tell my thought:
What's happened is not worst, my deepest dread
—Old superstitious bargains made with fate—
Senile unlife or a child crippled, dead.
I even thought—how could I live, endure
The loss of love, that brilliant star withdrawn
That lit a magic path out of my bare-
Bones hermitage into the world? And then
My mind reeled back—such cowardly courage, such
Fearful bravery, slavish to preserve
Treasure I'd rather perish than have touched!
Do I hold life so cheap? Then I deserve
Never to see the elm buds any more
Nor feel the wind filling our sails offshore.
- Received: one breast, with skin and nipple, fresh,
Some twenty lymph nodes and a pad of fat
By the pathology lab. A pound of flesh?
They'll culture it, and then—and after that?
Try not to see, oh try to cauterize
The image in the shadows of the mind:
My breast, blue-vein'd, that yielded to your hand;
Stack belching tainted smoke into the skies.
Drink up the cocktail—vanity laced with shame—
What's one lost breast beside a rescued life?
I've neither God nor my own self to blame,
And I'm—yes, thankful for the healing knife.
And yet—and yet—beneath this blousy tunic
I know myself half woman and half eunuch.
- The afternoon seeps by: asleep, awake,
Propped up by pillows. Writing paper, books,
Glasses of juice proliferate in mixed
Disorder and discomfort. This dull ache
—Body or soul?—will pass—and does it matter?
I rouse myself, put on a record. Still
It makes no difference—Mozart, Bach, Purcell—
Not harpsichord nor plaintive reed can shatter
My numbness. Numb, I raise the windowshade.
Sunlight flares up among the naked trees.
My neighbor's trash cans, adamantine, blaze
And opal-breasted doves preen in the road.
Wounded—oh wrenching loveliness of things —
Glassy indifference, struck and fractured, sings.
- A traveling show draws up on spangled horses,
Unfurls a starry backdrop, clowns, a supple
Lady sawn in half, a crystal ball,
Then in a flash rolls itself up, vanishes —
Quick figure-ground reversal that my mind,
Less nimble, can't keep focussed: at each death
The universe unmakes itself. One breath —
And mountains, oceans, music, every strand
Of intricate connection, time, the stars
Blown out. No one and nothing
To say I. To say You. Faceless mouthing
Emptiness before the first thought was:
Mask to scare a child, names flung like earth
Into an open grave, these words for death.
- The dog sheds hair less copiously than I.
My broken strands clog hairbrush, sink and shower.
The dead-white, green-flecked pill three times each day
Drains me of youth, of humor, joy, desire.
Hungry, my stomach heaves. I've learned to shun
Old favorites—garlic, oatmeal, wine and bread.
A walk around the block—I'm ready for bed.
My daughter hugs me and we weep. My son
Stretches beside me on the counterpane.
"And do you swear" his eyes bore into mine
"That every single last malignant cell
Will disappear if you just take your pill?"
If I am perjured—may the angels prove
I did it in good faith, and out of love.
- What is this death? Come, let me face it down.
Shall I compare thee to—to what? To sleep?
Unfeeling rock and water? Or the deep
Oblivion of anesthesia? When
The stars were born it was from nothingness—
Or is what we call void the primal Self
That some have named God and some nothingness?
Our life and death, each one a yin-yang half
Spin in that matrix like a ball in air.
Our atoms and the stars' are the same stuff.
When we praise, wonder, tremble, rage and laugh
The universe knows itself in joy and terror.
Flung forth, combined and scattered, nothing's lost
—What choice is there but close my eyes, and trust?
- Twelve months have passed. Has the time come, for me
To write the epilogue? How one September
Day I looked about me at the somber
Golds and bronzes—realized I was free?
I stretch after sound sleep. No painful, hard
Stitches cramp my arm. No innocent smells
—Rice cooking—make me retch. I can walk miles.
And I can lie beside you—naked, scarred.
Inside I'm—just the same? No. A deep cave
Where subterranean streams cut winding grooves,
And grave and sacred beasts on ocher hoofs
Circle, and emerald sparkles in the nave,
By chance discovered, lures me on to plumb
These depths. Our life. What's been, and what's to come.