Tuesday, March 1, 2011


When my father died five years ago, my reaction was mainly philosophical.  He had been ill and largely silent for so long that each time I'd leave him, I assumed it was the last time we'd see one another.  I'd get on the plane in Atlanta and begin my mourning, making notes for poems like "Moving Day in Georgia."  When he died, I lived with more deliberation, made choices that before wouldn't even have seemed like choices.  I said "No."   (In fact, my father's last words were appropriately rebellious.  He told his nurse "No!  I'll eat tomorrow!")

My mother's death has been quite different.  During the last week, I've felt periods of normalcy, even moments of relief.  I'd find myself worrying about how we're going to manage inserting an IV when the next UTI invades her body, then remember that the need to worry about how frightened and resistant she could be is over.  But there have also been times when my feelings of loss seemed to arrive in a blue, nameless mood.  I feel homeless in a peculiar way.  There are other metaphors; my friend Jeanne Shami talked about feeling as if her orbit has lost its gravitational centre.

For years, deconstructionists like Derrida argued that there was no transcendental signifier, no single word like "God" or "being" that guaranteed the meaning of other words.  We live in a sea of    differences where each word is only partly defined by what it is not.  Cat is not bat, because one begins with C and the other with B. 

[We might have gotten the two confused, however, when the two words merged for an instant above my bed last summer when my cat Sheba brought down a bat with a single deadly accurate leap, paws outstretched.  I rescued the bat, which lived to echolocate the tale.] 

More recently, Derrida has declared that the transcendental signifier is justice, a sentiment I share in my more optimistic moments.   Right now, people in Egypt and Libya and Yemen are hoping for this. 

In the face of such enormous brave hopes, I won't suggest that the transcendental signifier is "Mother," and besides I mean the comparison metaphorically, not literally.  It's as if "Mother" is a kind of primal word; when that word is gone, the meanings of other words shift and sway a little, as if blown by the wind, as if shrugging their shoulders with a question rather than firmly declaring their meaning.  Forgive me, then, if the title of the poem below seems all wrong to me:  memories, no matter how insubstantial they are, are never "nothing"; a life, even gone, is never nothing.  Yet that's the only word I've got.  Can you help me find a better one?  The poem is not just about "nothing," but about how hard it is, even for artists, to capture that moment when a person's will and breath disappear.

Learning to become nothing

Sleep is the first teacher,
sleep, and those moments on the bridge of waking when you knew
there were dreams that evaporated,
preferring to be a breath.

The lethargy of hot days
and the drugged sleep of convalescence teach
the slumbrous gravity of grace and grave,
the discipline of indifference, the sweet
lack of will.

The word "no" has been uttered without rancour--so easy
is it to peel the silver from the back of your mirror.
Routines go missing, arbitrary habits like brushing your teeth
and eating meals.  Evenings
are without incident, cycling round and round
like a left-handed child practicing cursive Os,
trying not to smudge the dusky blue ink.

This poem of nothing, of zero, of silent
seed pods is not
a pastoral.  There are no moons,
full or dark, waxing or waning:
Nothing ever changes.  There are no musicians, no mysterious
shadows in green glades,
It is not natur morte with blushing apples, translucent
grapes, drooping rose buds, its obsession
with an authenticity just this side of death.  It is not a portrait:  no pier glass
generously reflects the unseen side of your life.

It is about the lightness of hunger
you ignore, the way it blooms
like a golden Japanese lantern lit at dusk, and then,
jostled, consumes the colour that contained it. 

One night there is a taupe moth, wings like pleated linen,
a cobweb across the window.  The next night a little dust burns
against the light bulb, a white tangle sways in the corner of the sill.
Some small trace, a few deceptively tangled words rest
heavy in my hands.


  1. the poem makes me think of the last two stanzas of Rilke's first Duino elegy...he seems to be circling around that idea of "nothing," although for him, he sees death as more of a "forgetting."

  2. How about "Letting go of the illusion"? for the title?

    Body is an illusion, created to look so different than its make up of simple elements?
    The illusion gone after death, leaving the reality, the soul, for all of us to hold onto?

  3. I'll certainly think about this. You've caught the essence of the poem, it seems to me.

    Thank you for your comment--