Mary M. Brown
In the morning
mother calls to tell us
she’s been bitten in her bed again
by ants, and can’t we come and do
something? And so we come and do
not make the pancake breakfast
we have planned.
Such commotion is routine.
Though we know
it’s no solution, we stop
to buy her lotion for the bites,
to ease the sting. And instead
of hello, she greets us with:
That doesn’t work, you know.
We are relieved
that we have thought
of drive-thru coffee:
it quiets her. She sighs and
lets us teach her again to tear
the tab away. And today
the coffee is not too hot,
not too cold. She holds the cup
in her hands like a warm world.
But between sips
she remembers the ants
and shows us the bites on her thighs
where her skin is thin as the broth
she fixes herself on days
when her teeth don’t fit.
We say how sorry we are
as if we have bitten her ourselves.
Then we begin:
we strip the sheets,
pull out the bed, check the corners
of the room where we have laid the traps,
the poison in the little caps.
Around them lie the victims
of our last revenge: tiny
black beasts, armies slain.
We squint to see a hint
of life: But no, mom, no, they
do not move.
Then we haul out
the vacuum and suck up dead ants
while mother rubs the rude
red blotches on her legs. She
makes it clear the ants can’t
all be dead: I’m telling you
they bite me in my bed.
And we don’t tell her
what we know: that the ants
live only to find her. Only
to find and bite
our old and lonely mother
in the middle of the night.
And it didn’t snow yet, though they promised. And on the distant coast a woman arrived at Emergency with an alien sheen on her body, flecks of white and yellow floating in her blood, and she died there, and a nurse and doctor went down too. We’re still inquiring. We’re troubled.
All week I’ve felt vague and distracted, a little sore throat but that’s not it. What are these phrases that push up and then die like mushrooms? If the sidewalks didn’t fill like ditches in the rainy season, if ice and black sand didn’t grate on me so, I could be happy here. I could get something done.
If I lived on the coast, where the pale walls glowed weirdly as her body found its final, enigmatic twist. If I knew the cancer was at the bone and no God had stepped forth to save my body or my mind. If I lived in Carmel on the blazing shore or Sausalito on the shining hill and rose in winter to bird song and flowers-would the cool jade carvings of the mountain and the temple speak to me then? Would I still take any glimpse of beauty and shame as the sly work of God?
If I lived in California I’d pick oranges today, I’d groan for the lemons rotting on the ground, I’d haul the best ones down to church and find some one to need them, some woman with an odd glow who will show up unannounced and unremembered in a haze of ammonia and need, her blood flecked white and yellow as though she’d mainlined lemons and oranges, craved the great sweet juice of the western shelf, the blood and the navel, the sun going out in the ocean to drown itself again.
After a Photograph by Roy de Carava
It is a privilege of objects
to become invested with light, to shine past
their dull spectrum, as if struck
with small spotlights on a darkened stage.
And then they can recede again
into that country of shadows we all own
the passport to, our blank anonymity
staring back from reflections in plate
glass, from the compound dots forming crowds
in newspaper photographs. But what if they refuse?
What if just once they step forward
into those bright cones and then won’t relinquish
their stunning celebrity? There could be
a music stand in an unpeopled room,
nothing held there but the score for brilliance;
there could be a small table top levitating
within a black pitching space, like a slab
quarried from the slopes of illumination.
Upon it, the remnants of a meal, stacked
white dishes, smeared glass, crumpled
napkin; on all of it a gleaming residue
as if it had served a divinity, some
disguised wanderer in Homer, quietly
feasting at a goatherd’s hearth. And that
could be his coat, left behind and so full
of his presence that it seems
to stay upright by itself, without the backing
of an unseen chair. Meanwhile, the other side
of the table, the part dissolving into
a wellspring of darkness, seems to have been held
for one who never arrived. You can tell
by the way the two ketchup bottles (almost
sinking at the back of the picture)
beam their screw tops like lighthouses
that it would be easy to become lost here,
just within sight of this refuge.
Return to Past Selections