Conjunctions:69 Being Bodies

Her husband lifeless
in chair facing
TV, whole days
mute, her own mind,
her hearing,
shot. And it won’t
get any better. Absolutely
nothing to look
forward to, she says
to whom if
not you?

Wearing two identical
left shoes. No one
believes I don’t
dye my hair, she remarks
for the umpteenth
time. Point taken, I’m
grayer than my
mother though
in the mirror I see
her face, her small
dark eyes.

Five states north, he
wonders what
causes the
he hears behind
his mother’s
voice: she must
be down on the
floor, the phone
in one hand
and with
the other
must be
scratching the
tumorous dog
whose paw
rakes the carpet.

green case on the nightstand
glasses on a Redskins lanyard

green glasses case
containing one hearing aid

minus its battery on the nightstand
glasses on a Redskins lanyard

in the green grass
under one of many bird feeders

in the backyard thronging
with blurred mute birds

Occasional muculent chortling
or choking and steady
beep of the EKG.

The beak-hard
determination to
be a good person,
what happened
to that? How
is it true
I have to
go now? For her, the
occasion of my
presence begs
more. Who is my
mother now I am
unspoken for?

So take her hand, walking in
the garden: an animal moment of warmth
she won’t recall after our sit. Voracious
starlings ride a swinging cage of suet.
That signal enthusiasm in her eyes
muddles with torment. Choose whatever
you will and the disease
still wins. Like a heavy shawl,
the shadow of cloud drags across
mountains on the horizon. Maybe I’ve
misread her expression.

To plunge into love as into a sidewalk.
Came awake as though I were a siren going off.
The ugliness of putting food in my
mouth, my belly gurgling
like so many horseleeches. And so
days-to-come will crack open without you,
dropping their yolk over places you walked.
And the white lowly primrose will foam
wild like some scrap of your happiness
refusing to abandon me. Blah blah. The
mirror in the shrine is memory. All
you lived adjusts now and is lived back
in me here on earth. A flock of geese
sifts through the barrow pit. Postpuke
acid sears my throat.

To find the present breaking itself
loose from the sequence of events, bolting
through gaps in the corral of context and
carrying its befuddled rider
                             into an expanding plain of brumous outlines.


* * *

How she fights the sleeping pill, to stay up with me as I drive back from the beach, to keep talking, to speak and be spoken to: the assurance of voices, even her own now druggy iterative slur, which is like low birdsong, a blind inquiry in twilight—is someone there?—and a claim she is alive, here in the seat beside me, her seat belt around her, overcoming the pill, the devious obstacle course, the drowsiness I administered in order to drive her four hours home this evening, to concentrate on driving, to save my pollen-swollen and mucus-inflamed throat from the overtime shift of talk, to stay the repetitive questions, her struggle among scraps and familiar names torn from faces and feelings, the cipher-names of her husband and her grandchildren, a language of blanks, I drive with my left hand on the wheel, the other massaging the loose skin of her hands, feeling for the tightened cords in her palms, bands of fascia that curl her fingers forward, and when I think she’s finally fallen asleep, her face uptilted and drawn, as we cross Indian River Inlet where she would, with my father, fish for flounder from the Grady-White whose single outboard, pumped and primed, had been startled into coughs of blue smoke in the canal back in Bethany dawn hours earlier and piloted, always by my father, through the gauntlet of buoys—red right return—that drew it through Assawoman Bay, past Harpoon Hannah’s, and into the yawning Atlantic, when I start to pull my hand away, she tightens her grip, not opening her eyes, maybe in reflex, holding on to her will to be awake with me, her son, whom she knows, whom she thanks now in her almost sleep, her narcotic fatigue, in the spreading murk of the pill I coaxed her to swallow so that the trip might be easier for me while she rides beside me, holding on.


* * *

Sitting on the edge of the bed with her shirt and pants off, she reaches behind to unclasp her bra. I help her stand and draw her underwear down and she lists to one side in pain, though she doesn’t complain.

This is how she wants to go to the bathroom, naked, before we put her pajamas on. Never either shy or proud of her body. Even in my childhood, I understood she regarded the body as implement. Whatever the psychological traumas my sisters and I metabolized, we grew up at ease in our bodies, unembarrassed by nakedness.

Before me, my mother looks plumper than she does in clothes, but staggering toward the bathroom, reaching for the doorknob, she is a splotched drama of mortality, her buttocks collapsed into folds, the scar from her vertebroplasty lost in a constellation of liver spots, her waist overcome by sagging flesh.

A memory: in La Paz, I saw the Aymara wave backward over their shoulders to speak of the future. And to reference the past, make sweeping forward motions with their hands. The Aymara word for eye, front, and sight denotes past, while the word for future means back or behind. In my mother’s body too, her front is the past and her back is our future.

She sits and I bunch pajama bottoms over her feet, one at a time, and pull them up as she bends forward to stand in elaborate slow motion. Another world’s wounded crane.


* * *

To listen to each repetition with renewed attentiveness as if it were the first occasion, to forget you’ve heard it before and to receive her words as her first words or her last ones, for she repeats things not only because she’s forgotten but also so they will be remembered. To come into a rhythm of farewell with her, marking it, relishing its periodicity, in order to crack open another kind of love inside the old, familiar love, a vast of acceptance, without condition, akin to what a mother might feel for her child.

Want to but can’t. I can’t die, she says, and her eyebrows
furrow, expatiating the point. A chiming
of patient monitors like electronic crickets
in perpetual night. Or a subaltern intelligence. Code
red is clear. Did Karin put lipstick on you this morning?
A quarter turn of the petcock on the O2 tank. We brought
dinner from the Quotidian Pain. Outside
the hospital window, stars glowing in the ultraviolet
light of the Prawn Nebula. It’s you who are. What?
A hummingbird, she says. My lord, in heart, and let
the health go round. Though I am so far already
in your gifts.

Forrest Gander is a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow and the author of many books of poetry, essays, fiction, and translation, including Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems (Copper Canyon) and Alice Iris Red Horse: Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo (New Directions), a book in and on translation. He won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection Be With (New Directions). His collection Twice Alive will be published by New Directions in April 2021.