FROM THE BOOK
Copyright © 2020 by Rennie McQuilkin
for Betsy and Ursula
How husbands, long dead, live on
in this place where wives so often
survive them. Memorials rise up
outside doorways. In one of them,
happily home in an umbrella stand,
a man’s canes and walking sticks
with straight and rounded grips
of all sorts – ivory, bronze, wood –
cozy up to his wife’s yard sticks
that once measured spurts of children
and the appointments of home,
charting its harmonious dimensions.
In another nook, two gourds,
long-necked, are posed as courting
cranes, she with her head coyly turned
aside, his thrust lovingly toward her.
My oncologist says I am at Stage Four
and assures me that my current treatment
will work for only so long. The cancer
has an agenda and will have its way.
What my oncologist doesn’t know
is that my current stage is the dessert table
in the First Congregational Church’s
Saturday food pantry.
I’m the guy handing out the good stuff,
the cake and pie, Danish and brownies,
all that comes after the chow-down.
The world has gone all to hell,
but where I am is the joy that passeth
understanding of rogue cells, bill collection,
utilities turned off, and for many here,
defending a safe doorway out of the wind.
Our eyes meet close over the sweets
I hand out, and now I have for this child
a favor that comes with party cake
from a local bakery –
a glittering space traveler’s ring to take her
anywhere she wants to go. She puts it on
and smiles so hugely it takes me anywhere
but where the oncologist thinks I am.
Beside me, Mother was deep in Endurance,
Shackleton and his men stranded on ice floes,
when I began to feel an animal insistence –
though it was late at night – to go
to my stranded father, who’d lost his and our
names. At his bedside, I held his cold hand
and waited for his breaths. It seemed forever
between them, but slowly they continued,
more slowly as time went on. Then I waited
too long, too long before I heard another,
deeper, different, and after that a silent space
too empty, too vast . . .
The light was still on when I returned to Mother.
Her head was lowered, her book on the floor,
foundered. She seemed to know, said nothing,
shuddered like Shackleton’s ship going under.
Next day she read to me from Endurance –
how after the boat went down, the crew
manned salvaged lifeboats, pushed past the ice,
reached Elephant Island, came through . . .
Oh, oh was all I could say, my breath stopped
as caravans of cars to the north and south
stopped, headlights on in the grey gloaming
while a moose gangled back and forth
like a crossing guard,
head up as if to say to the cars “Stay back,
let him cross.” The small calf, wobbling
on the far side of the road, advanced and fell
back, unsure its mother’s repeated crossings
promised safe passage.
Finally, the moose, shaking her head,
moved toward the nearest car
as if to charge it, then returned to the calf
and once more cleared the way, like a tackle
blocking for the runner, which the calf now
became, racing across the divide and into
underbrush on the other side. The cars,
blinking lights, sounded like New Year’s Eve.
Stark, this first Sunday in Lent 2020
starting with news the Virus is spreading
medievally – too like the other Plague.
A home for elders like my own is a target.
At church today, 700 years disappear.
Stark, the choir circling the nave
thrice, silent but for its soft Lord deliver us,
the Crucifix going before it for protection
like the arms I cross across my chest
at the rail, fearing infection in the wafer
and the wine, though it is a strong Port,
the Rector says – proof against the Virus.
If that weren’t so funny . . . Trust Mondavi
to protect us?
Are the ashes still smudged on our heads kin
to the ashes ashes of the chant from those dire
days of yore telling us we all fall down?
We pray to rise from this occasion.
in a Time of Plague
The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
W. H. Auden
In the hall I hear the clock counting
on the ravaging of Time, whose ally,
Covid, camps close by,
biding, invisible in its camouflage,
its scouts already in, loosening locks,
knowing victory is a matter of time.
Meanwhile it’s time for tea. I look
at leaves in the bottom of the cup,
see a hairline crack in the bone china,
think of Auden’s Staffordshire service
rattling, the poet following a crack
in his cup to Underworld circles,
his face reflecting in amber
like mine as I trace a line of thought
to my mother, teetering on the brink
during the Spanish Flu pandemic.
She was ten and I minus eighteen
close to not becoming – then
the miracle. Now I listen for scouts
within. Are two miracles too much?
The latest plague is lively, spores of infection
rolling about down in the courtyard below
like pinballs at a penny arcade
searching for an opening to drop in.
I am waiting for a ruby-throated hummingbird
to appear at the flowered feeder attached
to my window. I am sitting by a white orchid
on a heart-shaped trellis in its pot, the last
of eight from Saint Valentine’s Day,
two of its petals folded demurely like wings
about its hidden parts. I am nursing it
with small sips of water.
Outside, white spores float by, cottonwood seed
looking for a place to lodge? Across the way
two of my friends are sick with the Pestilence,
their window closed. An “air-scrubber” is at work,
cleansing their world. Near them, a white-haired
elder, bright as a bird, opens a window.
At her distance, she seems to float above the globe
of my feeder. The woman is cleaning her window.
It shines. Next to her a sign reads BLESS.
I half expect her to dart into the sky.
a Naval Man Safely Home
for Bob and Nan Skeele
I am placing a stone for you, my friend,
on one of the posts along the waving sea
of a meadow full of song and livelihood.
Your stone bears the swells on which
you made your way
to port. Centered on it is an anchor,
sign you will always rest in the haven
of the heart of the woman who held you
when you arrived at your destination.
5.25.20 (Memorial Day)
I suppose mystery is good for me
but how much? Under this sky full
of fireflies, I wonder
if they always light up as they fly
and how with such small wings they fly
so fast, and what it is like for a body
to light up so entirely – not just itself
but everything around it.
(Once, when one got into my bedroom
that small a thing lit the whole room.)
I am distracted from my wondering by
a cricket, wanting to know how it feels
to scrape one leg (upper or lower?) over
the jagged teeth of the other leg.
So much distancing between me and them.
Couldn’t I, just for a while, try out
as a firefly or a cricket? These plague-ridden
days of aloofing, I have a need
to be less distant from my fellow creatures.
I wanted it as it had always been –
when the light from outside turned gold
next to the round thing on the wall
and the small hand on the thing
pointed straight down and the big hand
straight up, he would come in the door
and stroke my fur the color of the light.
But now he was always home, moping,
except when he took me out,
and then he was even less himself –
his face disappeared behind blue cloth.
This terrified me. Everyone I passed
looked much the same, not human at all.
It was time for me to leave.
The place I had lived so many years
was where his real self would surely be.
So on my next walk I slipped my leash,
headed for the woods. There was a smell,
a faint one the wind picked up at times
but one I knew, different from the smell
of this foreign place which wasn’t my place.
I set out to follow it, crossing meadows,
streams, wooded places, yards of strangers
where I found food in large green cans
I tipped over in the dark of night.
Once I swam an enormous river, head up,
always following that growing scent,
dodging cars when I had to cross highways.
When I got there – oh blessèd sight
I knew so well, the sight of all my youth,
I drank water from the pool and lay down
on the front porch, waiting for the gold light
and his return. It would be as it had been.
Finally, a car. But not the one I wanted.
And the strangers who emerged wore masks . . .
When my people came to take me back,
they tore off their masks and buried their faces
in my fur. This was the joy I’d missed so long.
Postscript: According to the AP, in July of 2020
a Golden Lab named Cleo traveled sixty miles
from Kansas to the home in Missouri where she
had lived two years earlier. She was returned,
thanks to a microchip embedded in her fur.