Mudlark Poster No. 89 (2010)

Four Poems by Virginia Slachman

Vital Signs | Missing Geographies
Hyperopia | One Hard Truth

Vital Signs

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.

Missing Geographies

                                          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.

One Hard Truth

                           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.

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