After Ben Lerner
It’s 2011. I think stating the year is important although it’s often omitted. February flight from Seattle to Boston: snow strewn across the belly of a nation, geography dotted with symbols, jotting short in-flight word-strings on college-lined pages in a composition notebook with marble-blue cover. B says (2010): don’t take my voice, or some such. Maybe: hold these thoughts like cupcakes. Time feels virtual, but my heart is corporeal. So I go back to the foreword to find: don’t throw my voice away. Not a womanly idiom, although B has sampled the contour and clothing of a woman. Shall I surmise: a man throws, a woman takes? Still, I prefer stillness. Until she strapped it on and entered me (1978) I couldn’t predicate, although I dreamt (and this is a point— on my actual birthday—but which one?) that she dumped me down a garbage chute, walking arm-in-arm with another. That summer, my heart could pump, and I felt nothing, puppy love. Compare it to the awful love that weighs me now. Sorry I didn’t care about your orgasm and couldn’t fake it. B, thank God you have your A. I’ve told anyone who would listen. I was born sanguine, what year did I turn liverish? When did my heart congest? I opt to live alone. You don’t believe it when I tell you my life is drawing to a close. Even those who long to believe in an afterlife know it’s only a wild card. I recognize dust when it settles on furniture. What can it mean that I fell in love with a lean volume of poems? How to express gratitude to a font of intertextuality? That I felt its wind enter my anima and cause my veneer to burst open? Can we ever wholly stake our claims to each other? What sort of mother wants to make her daughter feel inadequate? She insisted to have said nothing of the sort. Perhaps I misconstrued and turned left instead of right, stumbled upon a life I never should have known. Now I take medicine apart and find its wings, hidden under the carapace thorax. The group interview for the PhD program @ NYU (1997), when my mother’s illness beckoned like a siren, my heart blocked, these deans and professors an anchor to the city. What did the question signify? I wore a dress, the next-to-last time. Could you unpack it please? Winds blew me up and down the I-95 corridor from NYC to Silver Spring every weekend, but I forged my way back. I never could arrive because distance cannot be reduced by more than half. On my 50th birthday (2000) I wore an ankle-length Chinese shift, having dinner with 8 friends at a place in the East Village called But this was a short smoky A-line jersey from the GAP, worn with a fetching red sweater. One professor asked, Isn’t this a bit like War and Peace? And because I had never read W&P, I hung my hat, gathered my books, and retreated from delusions of academia. I wore black silk to my mother’s funeral (2001); that was the last time. It’s just that my heart is bigger now, flabbier, and I look lousy in dresses. Do not bury me in a gown, please. Do not bury me at all, leave me on a rock for the vultures, burn me in the pyre, eat my ash-torn flesh with your hands. Do what you wish with the body, me being the dead. Make me your home, turtle-shell. I’ve told anyone who would listen. After the third breakup, you don’t show your face. Standing at the front of the room with the women at ACT UP NY meetings at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, 14th Street, Monday nights (1987-1994), those lesbians and gay boys sleeping together—what moxie! I came to New York (1988) seeking sex and left celibate (2006). My best friend J died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village (1993). Before he stopped speaking he was light enough to carry from bed to bath. His last words to me were: Shut up R. Some said we were like an old married couple. But we weren’t old and the bitterness of his dying shrouded everything. Now (2011) my heart is weak and my aging ugliness appalls me, I don’t wish to look. He repeatedly instructed us to burn his body in the street and eat his flesh. I put a bit of his ashes in the coleslaw, six of us reciting Mourner’s Kaddish one year later (1994) on the beach at Cherry Grove—N, C, J, B, & It’s hard to remember names if you don’t write them down. Location is also relevant. The spaces we can’t see, tiny metrics between electrons, their loneliness, our distance. I can’t imagine the heart that once loved him. We fear what is unknown: cloudy eyes that see but do not see; hair so dry, so oily; strange food, unfamiliar textures, wanton taste, odorless gases. A boy sitting next to you on the school bus slyly inserting finger, where? Did it happen in the bathroom? Was it a short story? I have not forgotten B or J or any of my infatuations, not even my first boyfriend D (1964) who years later (2004) told me I reminded him of a cat—amusing and fickle. My first woman-lover L (1975) committed suicide. I want you to know how much this means to me, but have no way to tell you. I’m afraid I will die without discovering how it plays out, without remembering to burn my journals. We are in such a hurry, running out of time, snacking on seed corn. From the periodic table I take carbon, oxygen, nephron. I have a poet friend who is blind but reads via absence of vision, substance of clouds or cloudy lenses sharpening her lens to foveal pointillism. Everything arises from the uncertain arrangement of electrons, their locations—undisturbed, unseen. Everything we know is matter, everything we feel is light waves. All the words are wrong, they are fictions, sucking the core, leaving the skin dry, lizard-like. Although I never meant to tell you, when the leaves turn next time, I will leave you. Although I tell you often, you don’t listen. Although you don’t believe in God or angels, the blank of blanks, I will leave you. I never asked your permission. I have forgotten my hungers, I am dry now, prepared for the suffering and the emptying. I have made certain promises, but only to myself. You’ve asked for my story, and I shan’t disclose puny miracles. Why start with birth when death is so much more captivating? I delivered my son (1969), squatting on a sleeping bag at the Noor Hotel, Kabul, Afghanistan. There, now I’ve said it. Make of it what you will. If you are seeking your one-and-only, I don’t think you will ever be sure. There will always be a nugget of doubt. Biological tickles, mutations, gingivitis. Is there something beneath the pattern? Could you remove the patina, unearth the primal cave drawings? We mean nothing if not what we mean. The old are young forever, learning the longhand view of epochs and dynasties, dinosaurs and the Garden of E. Flashes of insight like hydrogen bombs, craters of nameless damage reaching the surface breath by breath, floating bodies dying. Already dead. Time does not reverse for them. I didn’t know you would not hang around while I waited for someone else. I begged you not to lead me on, if you weren’t going to stop seeing her. Then you said: I haven’t stopped. I won’t. Time is coming fast. Hard to ignore relativity. It’s noon in Seattle, 3 in Boston. View from the train window, roaming on the Amtrak Downeaster, Boston to Portland, trees fly by at different speeds depending on their distance. Time is space, I can see this with my own eyes, even at this age of failing sight, even with hearing loss, I try to hear between the lines. A quarter-century of hypertension. My father’s mother’s apoplexy (1935). Four drugs. Will it work? Incant: Please, please, please. There are mending words in the air. They are free. Clip them like coupons. I should plant cornrows of hair before I die, leave something for my grandsons, my brother’s children, that future we hate to acknowledge—the one without us. I can see how this is going, read the handwritten progress notes, taste the stale bread, smell the twice-brewed coffee. I’ll need to hurry if I’m to get all the chores done. It’s 2011. When will I have the stroke?
Risa Denenberg is an itinerant aging hippy currently living a solitary life in Tacoma, Washington. She earns her keep as a nurse practitioner and freelance medical writer. She has written poems since childhood, some of which have been published here and there. More importantly, she reads poetry ravenously. She is drawn to themes of suffering and death and their intersections with medicine, art and religion. Risa blogs about poetry, aging, death and other matters at risaden: a piece a day and posts a daily poem at Word Poems.