Sometimes when I look at my hands, they don’t seem to belong to anyone I know. My mother called her arm my friend after the stroke, but that’s not what I mean. This evening some people are having a party next door. Maria, her friends from the office. Tents and white tables with big-headed hydrangeas. Thunder, the sky darkening. I don’t know her really and I wish the music would stop. I’ve heard people sitting in front of a Rothko painting have been known to weep. He created work larger than life, whatever that means. And filled with nothing but color so various there hardly seems one you could name with any certainty: Ship Rock Follum Silver Point Bone black Still, I insist on trying. When my mother was ill, she kept checking her vital signs, her color gone nearly to ceruse, the obsolete term for lead white. Plato made here a relative term, our indefinable need for something of substance, something vital: the real limelight hydrangea gracing Maria’s tables. Maria, table, flower. In truth, Plato said, they exist only in the dark cave of the unknowable. Here we’re continually approximate so it’s no wonder I don’t know my neighbor or recognize parts of myself meant to act definitively. Soon it will rain and the music will stop. Soon what I’ve said won’t be a symbol for the end of anything. My mother was a good woman who only seemed bad most of the time. In the dark she loved as devoutly as her bottle of gin I trust she discovered the real world. Who can say otherwise? One March morning I wished someone would stop bringing my mother back to life which the practical repercussions of resuscitation bore little resemblance to. Plato. Rothko. Masters of the impractical. The word abstract also means concentrated; in action, something at remove which is why Rothko’s paintings move us— finally at remove, the recognizable: how we abstract our sorrow.
All the places things are not. That empty inlaid box, absent the purple heart I gave back. A mind’s eye snapshot—you on the beach with that small boy, I forgot his name was Johnny. All that sun. You reminded me, on the phone—it was Johnny, just now released. I forget what he did time for. I sent your purple heart back in the mail, so you called. On the day Pat Nicholaison died in a mangle of stunned metal and fire on her way to the lake—would have been 1965, and Jackie Odessa’s bike took that turn on Old Watson too fast for the last time, downtown at 1:35 am, Wyvonne Hornburg, jailed for a jade heist, conned the part-time sheriff’s guard into leaving. You went to Viet Nam. There are holes in the world —whole geographies missing. I wanted to know— when that car backfired and you hit the ground. Now you say so many years the nightmares, how your hands clench and you can’t control anything anymore. Wyvonne Hornburg was stabbed and even the sheriff said they were out to get him. Don’t we all want to disappear a little? You in the car, it was just last month. The bottles of merlot lined up at the table’s edge, the white cloth dropping off. In the jungle it’s difficult to see, all that steam and green, an impenetrable density. The damp blond at your neck—I remember those nights by the feel of your body. That morning, just back from your road trip, I opened my eyes—all we had was a bed on the floor— you there suddenly over me. I don’t know why only some of us come back. Your friend’s leg shot off. It was one time you were out on patrol alone. Ahead—your job to see disguised absence, the enemy you missed just that once. We’re losing something unseen, all the time. I want to make sense of why Pat Nicholaison is here, though she hasn’t existed for half a century. Or why we’re always taking turns a little too fast. Is it important to know what happened? You got sick. I always thought it was unbearably hot, close, cacophonous but how violently you shivered in the mountains, the air so cold and they couldn’t build a fire. The men laid on you by turns. You said it in the car, cried. I have no idea where Wyvonne Hornburg went that night he walked out into all that darkness or why I still press against you, though it was decades ago. All those spaces not filled in. That empty box, you pushing my hands away—Keep it. All that emptiness, and I do.
I don’t know why all the bricks on my block are stamped with the word Hydraulics. If it had been me at the turn of the century before this one, I would have impressed something, say from Keats: Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, for example, so people with heavy burdens staring at the sidewalk would have something to think about. Months later I find his glasses stuck above the driver’s side visor. In the car my father wrecked twice after he stopped believing in stop signs. I look at them and think myopic, also muein to close the eyes, though he was farsighted. I detest fruitlessness. Hyperopia—what my father had, is a defect rendering the sufferer unable to focus on near objects. An inability, perhaps, to see signs. Images, like notes on an old piano, won’t stay in tune on the retina. Of course myopic also means improvident. Or maybe something from Heidegger: Why are there beings at all, instead of Nothing? Ideas like that to last a lifetime. I’m not sure why he drove right through all the signs. Something I think he might have passed on to me. Sometimes I watch the ducks on Lafayette pond for a long time. There’s a lot I don’t understand. They never swim in circles. Not one fruitless motion. In fact you can’t see them moving at all—it’s all below the surface, out of sight. Did you know that if two swans are female, one assumes the role of the male for their mating dance? Suffering from hyperopia often means things right in front of you appear blurred. The obvious becoming thereby mysterious. My father was an engineer who understood hydraulic fluidics—the movement of pressurized water. Pascal’s law, for instance, which states if you increase pressure at any point in a confined liquid, there is equal pressure at every other point. What’s so amazing about the mating dance is how the swans perfectly mirror each other—facing each other, arching their necks in unison, they assemble themselves into a heart absent its center. All that emptiness pressing in equally. Then they cross necks, dip their heads past the pond’s surface, out of view. I’m told the dead might be like birds flown out of sight. A sign easily missed. Maybe the truth is this beautiful and quiet flight. Maybe it really is that simple. When I watch the swans rising, lifting their wings, I’m still not quite convinced. I’m not asking for much: if we could remain, for example, improvident or out of tune, I’d take that. I just want to believe the laws of science discover something of substance, discernible objects—as light and flight are not. A sign of something I can believe in rather than nothing in a disguise.
Maybe this is the way it ends—things scattered on desks, chairs, whatever’s close. How sycamore trees were so perfectly caught in river water, reflected, spans big as your hand. Those hands, the oars a little splintered. I could say it was a still evening, silvery blue. And that the river was so clear the mottled river rocks stirred to visibility. It’s nearly a prayer, how quiet my mind gets. Jesse had big farmer hands, showed us where the morels grew under May apples. Black and white cows lined up at milking time down the lime-green pasture each dusk. At the end of his life Keats held out his hand and that’s how the poem ends —a thing alive, undone, a fragment of himself extended to us. How do cicadas know when to start and when to finish? I think of their sound as a song sung by one voice I’ll never use. I learned yesterday that priests are required to have two sets of thumbs and forefingers in order to properly offer the host. I’m not loved anymore, if I’m being honest. Maybe it’s good to let go of things a little. The gaps between spring when the dogwoods came on in the dark woods and fall when the leaves burned in the far field, they’ve increased. I don’t see you any longer completely. The smooth skin over muscle, eyes like sky. Properly speaking, the host is Christ’s body. I don’t recall if we’re taught to think of it that way, literally. I do remember your actual body and mine and that once we were one hard truth. I’m amazed at what I remember about Keats. Of all the things he did with that hand to make beauty literal. So maybe this is the way things end—dragging them all out again, setting them up on desks, chairs, whatever keeps them close, makes them nearly whole.
Virginia Slachman is the author of two poetry collections. Her latest book, Inside Such Darkness, was released in June 2010. Slachman, former poetry editor of Aspen Magazine and associate director of the Aspen Writers Conference, publishes in such literary magazines as Salmagundi, River Styx, and The Cincinnati Review. Recipient of a $5,000 fellowship award in poetry from the Ohio Arts Council, Slachman’s memoir, Many Brave Hearts, is presently offered to the market via the Amanda Mecke Literary Agency. She teaches at Principia College.