Swimming
Lesson
You held me over the water saying Trust me,
trust me, trying to be gentle,
lifting me over them again, I clung to rowboats,
to the small gaps in the docks
where the boats tied up; you drew me back

You lifted me again, how long could I fasten
to fear as if it only held me
above the waves, your voice growing stern, Trust me,
trust me, taking me by the ankles
dipping me in the water

Rubbing my shoulders dry afterward, asking
it wasn’t so bad, was it? telling me
how you had decided the night mother left
never to be afraid again, how you dream of coming apart
like a toy worn with love.

You made them see how strange I was,
dragged me out of hedges where I sang in made-up words,
if I stopped singing, I would disappear
like birds evaporating into the bright green silences after
their songs.

Ladies man, lieutenant, you used to lift me out of bed
so you could have your girls there,
wrestler’s arms wrapping around my buttocks, my back;
I let my body go limp
like a child being rescued out of snow drifts.

You lie in bed now, rehearsing speeches
you would have made as a young congressman;
at 45, you pace off boundaries,
sue your neighbors; you sell missiles now,
you hold your youngest daughter

And tell me you feel no guilt, persuading
small countries their systems are insensitive, rubbed
faceless and obsolete as old dolls;
they must be strong, you hold them out over the waters
saying Trust me, trust me.

When the cops charged us, I ran cursing you,
crying through the teargas, looking
for a phone as if I could make you listen,
as if the ardency of your sorrow would save all America,
bombed children floating out of blurred lives

Like faces in negatives,
brown bodies hollowed by the exploding light
its white fur sticking to them
I want now at 33 still to win you over,
to carry your bags to the car, to say something clever

About the soft politics of the young,
to lie, so you will look up
as if you were going to brush the hair from my eyes
and take me aside,
teach me once more to believe, to be brave

Which hand to lift in defense,
with which hand to strike

 

At The Mouth
Of The Cave
You are close enough to death to know
its warm, dark temperatures,
it is like camping in a cave alone, learning to sleep
on the loose grit of old stone,
to watch bats blur and blow past you, blind
and goatfooted as leaves,
bats scuttling like leaves, blind wings,
sly tongues that lap and suck
scoop and nibble
like children making small treats last.

Being close to death, you know
little that sings at human pitch anymore,
death sings to you like radar,
you know its signals,
you are already sending the tiny, bat-shrills
of your brain into the dark, coding,
decoding at once; when you wake out of comas
you remember your mother’s songs
as if she too, close to death, had learned
its high continuous pitch.

She makes songs out of pacts she swears you to
asleep, lifting your hands,
who died first shall linger at whatever crossroads
there may be, wait for me, my mouse-eared,
my little pipistrelle; when you wake
you remember only waves of sound,
hummings of the walls
of a cave in which you inch deeper and deeper
making her find you, each time,
close to death.

In the trach ward, dozens of grey children
flutter like small bats,
she cuts your name into the brass necklace
that covers the hole in your neck,
you touch your wheelchair and laugh, its your wings,
you say; we have to fold
and unfold them around you,
they dwarf you;
touching you is like touching between the wings
the bat’s soft brown fur.

Close to death, your body crouches over you
like a cave; your organs grow, stunted
and stubborn as fossil reptiles;
you adapt to your comas
as if you had been born in their crevices,
at their mouths you flicker and swerve
zigzagging like those pipsqueak bats
that sip pollens and nectars, crisscrossing openings
little skiffs tacking
before they sail free of their harbors.

Roost here,
take only short flights from these nesting places,
live always at the mouth of this cave.

 

Companions
She should have lived with silent, implacable women,
with cooks, with housekeepers,
with schoolfriends in salt and pepper jackets
whose second husbands had died, leaving them huge, childless houses,
rooms named like children,
rooms they kept ready, filled with dried wildflowers
and historical novels.

She should have lived with Alice Edwards,
with Miriam Waterman, Lucy Enright,
Dottie Teale, with women whose names sound
like the chaste heroines of 1890
New England romances where virtue triumphs over jews
and other oily anarchists — settlement girls
poets used write of having throats pale and lovely as swans.

She should have lived with women
who had done with sex, women gardening long after
the dark performed its marriages, body
after body raised like books of common prayer,
women working down the narrow gardens they planted by fences,
by sides of summer houses
rooting musk and moss rose, beach heather and beach plum.

Women who take long winter walks with irish setters,
who belly under barbed wire to bring back
the first forsythia, who follow Near Eastern women, mimicking
the lilt of their walk, showing off to nieces,
who hum as they ride bicycles with fat tires
and straw baskets, who dry rose petals
on screens over furnaces, who sew them into their sleeves.

Elderly women who sleep in boys’ pajamas,
who bathe after supper and read long historical novels
of slave boys or courtesans who search ruins
for masters, those old sorry tyrants
who straddled them softly, sorrowfully like drunken fathers
who left them bewildered
and made formal by their abiding love.

Women who read late and rise early,
who pride themselves on their spelling, calling out words
from the other room, who know the names of things,
gemstones, fossil rock, pottery, ships’ knots, snakes,
who speak of men without bitterness
as if they were rented houses they have lived in along ago,
and where they had to do the wash by hand.

She should have lived with women like herself,
70 year old women who swing the length of beaches, one foot
pushing them along the ocean floor,
women she could love
as she had never been able to love her mother,
whom she did not have to please,
women who wake early in houses they have to see to.