copyright © 2014 by Joan M. Hofmann
April is the cruelest month - T. S. Eliot
That April afternoon while Southern sunlight
streamed down into the backyard, it was just
weeks before she passed. Knowing she’d be leaving,
in that light my son and I hung prayer flags in
evergreens by stalks of iris and mounds of pale pansies.
We strung colored squares—red, emerald, canary, royal blue
—with hope. Promise even. Buddha, we called,
bless our family, and give Colette a peaceful passing.
We roped the prayer cloths aloft to catch the faint breeze,
to waft gentle blessed air toward her bed to sweetly
take her last breath away.
Barely smiling, thin-lipped and long-faced, we hugged
as mother and son to bargain a deal with Buddha,
confident our call would be heard and heeded.
Dying can take a long time. Though her passing neared,
she weakened into May, waiting as the bright flags
waved on. We wondered: Where was Buddha’s hand?
We asked: Why a deaf ear to us? To her?—a woman who
pleaded, Why is this taking so long? I was a good girl.
Below the Surface
The side unseen is the show. Common enough,
the black cormorant draws little attention on the waterfront.
If we notice, it’s its preening or strange stance
with wonky wings awry drying symmetrically
that catch the eye. Without the waterproofing oil of other seabirds,
it stands long times drying its wings in air and sun, in between acts.
Or it displays its talent of dipping into water in one place
and emerging seconds later at a distance unsuspected.
An oddity as much as anything,
a cormorant spends its time in the water
or around it, whether fresh or salt.
I remember, sitting together, my mother said
I was beautiful on the inside and the outside. It’s funny
what you think of and hold onto. Her words stay
in my pocket where I finger them for warmth.
It’s what’s under that matters: underwater, a cormorant
bursts a display of oily bubbles rushing into a rainbow,
its buoyant self seen by the looking few—something some
can only imagine, lacking the sight of a heron who, like
my mother, sees at the waterline, above and below the surface.
Standing in the Bonaventure River is no mean feat
if you have no shoes on: this gin-clear water
stings to soothe. Cold laps toes to claw-clench,
joints strain to marbles unfeeling as I peer down
transfixed, look beside and between ten numbed nubs
into steady eyes of smooth oracle-pebbles where
silenced truth rests near salmon pools dark and mysterious.
I recall yesterday’s cast brought one to surface.
A lip-hook from a former fisher hung like a sneer:
a mark of near-miss, like the skin mass by my right ear.
In bed I hear day’s early light
through bird song.
Wind-sung promise translates
to my half-pillowed ear:
Would, would, would ya?
Would, would would ya?
Treat, treat, treat me
To a, to a, to a
Hey, sweet sweet sweet,
Hey, sweetie, sweetie, hey
how special you felt in pale perfection
eyelet white over pink blinking through
your one-piece bathing suit lifting up
your budding breasts the summer
of their blossom, your twelfth, as you
walked long thin legs to the pool out front
your week at the oceanfront hotel spanning sands,
dunes, boardwalk, with its elegant high ceilings,
porches a block long with rockers where
hats and shoes held proper even in heat of day
where folks were announced entering
the dining room, waiters awaited eye calls.
There, in the back staircase in the shadow
of the porch connector you smiled back
at the unexpected man who trafficked
the quiet innards of the behemoth hotel
thought to be your playground for skipping,
jumping free from the protocol of formality—
there he paused, asked my name in one breath
said he’d watched me lapping the pool,
cupped my right peach for a jiggle-bounce:
You’ll model well, sweetheart!
then walked casually on, leaving me bruised
and his hand imprinted in eyelet white.
Over and Gone
Having already taken the beloved Jacobean desk,
antique Colonial lowboy from the top of the stairs,
your grandfather’s plane, ginger jar lamp, and green
Inuit soapstone fish carving, treasures yours always,
next to go was the Chinese chest with the hundred-
year-old handmade pottery basket and strawberry jar.
When you asked for return of the sterling I winced.
On a good day I took it from its maple burl chest,
sorted it into a soft satchel, gently placing each piece,
stroking the fork shafts and fondling the spoons,
hollowing their cupped bowls with my thumbs,
wishing to hold back just one for tea, but not.
Then you said the fine Wedgewood was yours—
what you brought to the marriage—so it too
would be packed into a tower of dinner plates
white on blue stacked next to a white-on-white
set of four, holding back replacement pieces—
gifts from my parents to complete the set proper.
And too, you maintain the Pennell and Whistler prints,
your parents’ gifts for our wedding and first anniversary,
are yours alone to own. And no, I can’t have the walnut
tables made in your 20’s tendered instead of an engagement
ring, nor the burl walnut map cabinet given in lieu of
a honeymoon, unmovable on those you say via your lawyer.
The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before
I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea. –Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Having followed the recipe to get the ingredients measured just right
so the scalloped sweets looked like the cookbook’s photograph,
we checked and re-checked every step sometimes twice, memory being
what it is in the stir of it and the space of steps between table and oven,
then waited for the heat to bake the elegant sweets, to gently puff creams
of Genoise batter to lofted buttery tongues ambered to golden confections.
It being four o’clock, we set up tea, cucumber slices on wheat wedges,
creamed cheese on nut bread squares with bowled cherries in cut glass
next to an heirloom china tea set with dainty silver spoons to complete
the setting with the precious warm shells plated in the center.
You poured, wondering if I wanted brewed black tea into the cream or
cream into tea following British tradition, as we toasted with bone china
cups, warming into conversation about the summer’s comings and goings
and the celebrations and ills of loved ones before coming around
to your volunteering, my work with hospice patients, and the challenge
of end of life when stories came to life so that with each cup of tea
and the loosening that accompanies the taste of petite sponge madeleines,
we volleyed memories of loss, senility and faith, recalled how caretaking
months to days to hours before a passing tenders more than mortality—
a memory waning then clarion, allowing word-floods to surface
or the quiet of a final thought to simply pass on, leaving us
life force and hushed humility and sometimes a recipe.
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