Zinnia (& other poems)

Zinnia

When the oaks swell
soft with water

I’ll build you a fort of branches.
Come cross-legged in the belly

of the wild, and I’ll press
gin to your lips, kiss

the sweat off your palms.
You’ll find me somewhere in red,

cutting zinnias for the table,
stepping barefoot in dog shit,

rinsing under the hose.
I’ll be laughing and lighting

candles, dipping my fingertips
in the honey wax.

My zinnia, my garnet and glaring:
count the days down.

At what moment exactly
does waiting become waste?

I’m afraid of not finding
(my way back to) you,

afraid of making you up.
I sleep with these images of you:

planting loose seeds
in your father’s garden;

drinking black coffee
on his stoop.

Tell me the oaks are swelling
soft with water,

and I’ll build
anything for you.

 

Quitting

Longing was long overgrown.
You, my invisible eclipsed, asked
everywhere for else.

If god was light beyond light,
you burned inside me, where no other could see.

Each never-enough was ruin, gleaming.

How often I scraped
the scorching from the stovetop.

You are any longer
my anywhere, my hush
and wonder.

At what moment exactly will I stop finding
your impression in me?

How often we soaked the spoons in soapy water.

How thorough you were, how forgiving of my excess.
A thousand times

shaking proud in the secret of you.
(Containing nothing.) I am asking you
to lie low

for a while, my most terrible –
as if I could say

how long, how loyal, my fingers rode the lip.

 

Blau Sein
     after Anne Carson’s “Change”

Then a huddle of women squatting on the ground smoking cigarettes in the glare of the moon.

When I met him the kingdoms of my life all shifted down a few notches. We went for coffee and talked down about the things around us; we recognized each other like italics. We met at a party; I was looking around for something to drink. Can I have a sip of your bourbon? I heard myself ask. It was one of those moments that is the opposite of blindness. In German, to be blue is to be drunk (blau sein). He was right; I saw a blue rinse over everything. The bourbon burned down, hot as a flash of light on water. He watched me swallow, tapping on his thigh with piano fingers. I had the strange feeling he might start dancing. I unfolded. I exhaled the stain – hummed thank youI believe in being gracious. Some hours later the world was pinking with light. We stood close together under a streetlamp. The huge dawn moved overhead scattering its heat and mosquitoes. You’re still blue, he said, I have the strange feeling you might start dancing. 

 

Notes from the Hospital, 1st Night

A woman all in pink
came forward with her clipboard.
A whole petal of a woman
a carnation praying –

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come? –
I saw my brother in a reckless coat
of brown blood and wet grass –

My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth –
the world smelled plastic
like Lysol or anesthesia –

he will not let your foot
be moved; he who keeps you –
him cut out of his clothes – will not slumber –
had God walked

in I’d have asked
why fear tasted so much
like pride like I was special
like help was coming

just for us – behold,
he who keeps Israel –
will make me into
a carnation like her

my most knowing
and I – will
neither slumber
nor sleep –

 I will be a woman all
in pink
all psalm
and all sister.

 

You Were My Even-then –

I will talk only of days that dripped with light, of wind chimes silvering on the porch, of your beard rubbed shining with oil. How careful we were in the beginning when we met in secret and talked of planting tiger lilies in spring. In another world I could’ve missed you. Thank God I didn’t.

I wasn’t looking to set anything off with you. How I was shaken when you said love when you said no matter how. In another life I knew only to protect my disorder; I checked the world over and over for signs of dying (glittering material) – you were my even-then.

How it was quiet in the rain that morning I learned tiger lilies stain yellow. We were idling in the parking lot. You had wet hair. I had the leftovers from Betsy’s wedding in a glass vase blooming between my thighs. Yellow ashes silted everything. I never planted anything for you. I hope I was at least your even-then. I hope I still am.

– L

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Miracle

              

“The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle. It is a miracle.” – Simone Weil

On Edward’s eighteenth birthday in October, I refused to look away. I changed his clothes after he vomited the cake into his own lap. Once he was clean, my father and I helped him into the hospital bed and I lay down beside him, still smelling the sour spoil of vomit on my hands.

“Edward, do you remember what today is?”

“Mah, mah – birth – day?” the words shook and struggled out of him.

“Yes! Yes!” I said, in that strange ecstasy that made me treat him like a child, the one that made me praise him for the smallest things. “Do you know that you are loved? Do you know that I am proud of you?”

In response, he pressed his hand hard into mine. I burned with pride.

Whenever I did look away, it was either toward memories of my brother from before his brain injury, or toward the hope that his mind and body would work again, exactly as they always had. Whenever I did not look away, I smelled vomit, or I watched him labor over the least of language: I saw a fear that demanded to know the whole of me. In those moments, my body became an absolute witness for him, and this was the only gift I could give him.

In those moments, the present was so bright it was burning, but I did not displace any of its light – I did not rearrange it into future or fantasy. It was the light alone that existed, and I did not alter it. It was the light alone that existed, and I abided my desire to break it, to reshape it, to make it mine. It was the light alone that existed, and I worshipped it, exactly as it was.

And this was very rare, very difficult. I think it was a miracle.

Perseveration

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Over chili and red wine his mother describes the garden to me. In the backyard past the blue-tiled kitchen through the sliding doors she grows a world of miniature houses. I imagine her pale hands in the orange of afternoon: they are not gentle building. With the brick and beam of dead moss she makes for each house a looping jagged skeleton of clump and weaving. She decorates their brittle bodies with cork and ribbon; fills each room thick with compost. The glorious locus of creation and decay.

When my parents are asleep I help my brother to the bathroom in the dark. Lopsided, we shuffle over the pale brown linoleum to a low toilet. I hold onto his shoulders in the black of the bathroom. Lizzie, I miss our home. His body is a gray light of familiar things. He speaks the looping jagged skeleton of his language beneath our parents’ sleeping: I miss , I miss –.

Perseveration: the repetition of a particular response … phrase, or gesture, despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus, usually caused by brain injury or other organic disorder.

I cut my hair to my shoulders. My mom says I look five years older now. At the hospital they still think I am his little sister.

This organic disorder of him, this hard longing – it tastes particularly potent to me this morning. I’ve let the repetition inside me somehow. I pour a spoonful of pink medicine for his stomach; he hurts like a five out of ten this morning. We pack everything in laundry baskets, leaving only our Prosecco in the fridge for the next family.

In yesterday’s clothes we have black coffee and English muffins in Goldberg’s Diner on our way out of town. We unwrap glorious gold paper packages of butter. Over our quiet final breakfast in Atlanta I remember an August morning at the beginning of all of this, handing paper and coins to a man at the corner of McLean and Union. I gave him the money through the passenger window, stopping on my way downtown to Edward in the ICU. Thank you, sister. Thank you. This morning I remember my sisterhood, the organic disorder of a language I will always have.

Nightgown

I’m wearing bare legs in Atlanta on the last day of November, and my brother’s stomach hurts like an eight out of ten as we give our goodbyes. It’s probably an ulcer. This morning after black coffee and eggs we struggled into a downtown church that smelled hard – bitter and rich, like somebody’s urine was living or dying on its stone porches. I was torn between wanting to wash the whole building and wanting to pull down my red underwear and piss in sour harmony with the perfume. I did neither, but remembered last July, on the subway after rosé when Meg lifted her blue dress to pee on the platform. She bent her bare legs in the fluorescent underground. It was flaked with stain and black film as she bent bare – in front of midnight’s half-crowd – and she laughed as the piss coated her white ankles. It mostly smelled living.

This morning my brother’s left hand shook in mine each time we stayed seated for a hymn; around us strangers towered with one sound. At communion, he whispered, “Go ahead,” nodding toward the bread and wine, abundant at the front of the sanctuary. Instead, I told him I loved him by taking his fist in two hands. Instead, we shook silent in the green, velvet pew. “Lizzie, I wish this could heal me.”

I think of my brother as a hundred places. He doesn’t know this, but I’ve put him everywhere. I talk about him when I least expect it. Almost every time I eat, I imagine the pink hole where the feeding tube sat and scarred him: it feels bare and backward to have him anywhere apart from here.

I find a bathroom immediately after they drop me off at the airport. In the widest stall I dig through my purple duffel for the gray wool tights I only wear in Vermont, balance my bare ass on the toilet, pull the soft thing from my ankles to my hips.

I drink cold coffee in the middle of the crowd where I taste nameless and worn-out. We are all waiting with crossed knees on blue leather in the spoiled air of the airport. We are all filling our mouths with anything bright – I have my coffee in unison with their 5 Gum, and Goldfish, the Diet Coke, and Burritos. It somehow feels abundant, swallowing together.

Between November’s rough and rusty breaths, I remember this morning when I helped my brother to the toilet, and I remember how I watched his small, stale legs fold bare against the cold seat. The whole thing, beating and boiling above the tiles where I stood strange, helping. The whole thing, sunk in the center of my stomach, a pink hole, folding backwards into herself.

I bought the blue paper lamp for my bedroom with money from my last paint-shop paycheck; my mother hung the fragile thing from my ceiling in September. Tonight I remember the gift of her: making toast with butter in the middle of the night, flat-footed in the kitchen beneath the long white nightgown that I’ve taught myself she wore in her hospital bed on the morning I was born. I’ve always believed this – that I was born from below, from between, the bright sheets of her sleeping dress. If I could reach her closet from Vermont tonight I would hold its stale, split hem, smell its armpits, kiss the pale, thick-sewn flowers fallen at her pink-blue feet.

May it come that all the radiance will be known as our own radiance. I write this in a letter to Edward. His stomach pain turned out to be gastritis. I imagine the acid in him, lapping at the lining. He sloshes in his white bed on the floor of the hospital apartment. My parents lie sideways across the room in the crease between two foreign twin beds pushed together. Stale, silent.

Do I want someone to read this and take care of me? Do I want someone with clean hands in my bedroom under the blue paper lamp, touching my temples with the window propped open, kissing my fingers when I burn them in the sink? Do I want someone to know that I was born inside a nightgown? Do I want to lap at anyone’s lining? Do I want anyone at the foot of my bed when anyone has felt something final or first? Do I want anyone to fold and to open, as if an envelope, as if containing blue ink, as if I could taste blue again?

I-40

  1. We told the children

he was fishing.

 

I drove us

to the park, delirious

with morning.

 

The children stomped

& glowed, over

& over

with their pink hands.

 

  1. At the battle of Antietam

there were fluorescent

soldiers.

 

I could have loved

this bacteria – those men,

infected with light.

 

  1. That morning,

the adults drove

to the hospital,

to my sleeping

brother,

 

while at the park

I fed

the children

cheese sandwiches,

& their mouths

shone red

with juice.

 

  1. My brother swelled

and could not speak,

in the bed with his chipped

teeth & the gravel & grass

and brown blood.

 

Posturing – the sign

of his new damage.

 

Was I proud

of the longing

in his room?

 

I lived in my old habits.

Fear made a proud girl of me,

and I began to love

my blind blind

glowing.

 

  1. The children

made a new game

each morning,

& I let them wake me

in my grandmother’s

house, but I was sick

with trembling.

 

The car rolled

off the levee,

five times, over

& over.