I am running down a bridge
About to be dynamited
It seems suspended, green steel
Like the bridge over Eggemoggin Reach
From Sargentville to Deer Isle
That goes on and on almost a mile.
A bridge like a ridge,
The ridge of an ancient skeletal spine,
Beginning low and then rising up into the sky,
A rocky incline.
Frequented almost half a dozen years,
By May Sarton at eighty
The madness of some foolhardy woman
Wanting more, wanting the impossible.
Still attempting to reach others, to comprehend
Across the vastness that is sometimes you and I
To read her poems in this place,
This place away from home.
It plays over and over in my mind:
Somewhere along the eastern seaboard
A coastal night fog dense as black oxide,
This literary giant, ablaze, a controlled burn,
Cultivated, ripened and ready to fall
Embodied in the flesh and bones of an old woman, dying
Although she didn’t know it then
Not until the very end
After they prescribed the Prozac, Zoloft
The banality of an old woman, motel room,
The other woman in flight.
I’ve finally decided,
I just don’t believe a word of it.
I finally decided. I just don’t.
Believe. A word. Of it.
Not reducing aging to infancy or infamy
Instead in the collapsing of passion and ration I am
Casting away the constrained being rarely
Immured in the body of desire
In the body of the dying.
My mother chased me ‘round the table
Which sits now in the dining room, scratched and
On humid summer days, sticky and
Across from my grandmother’s mahogany hutch,
I found in my parents’ basement
Chipped, filled with castoffs
Cracked ceramic cups from turn-of- the-century Italy, Japan,
They gave most all her antiques to Hadassah who sold them
And sent cash to plant trees in some far away land
I could not comprehend
Then, when she moved from her spacious Brookline apartment into
Her daughter’s house. Too old to live alone any longer.
It will happen to us all.
Keeping my mother’s pink painted childhood bedroom set,
A couple of perfect pieces, some mauled ones.
Mahogany living and dining room furniture all gone now. I bet
My self I will trudge into an antique store one sunny day
Come upon my grandmother’s furniture, fighting bitterly
With uncomprehending entrepreneurs over the law of return: I say
“Stolen things, stolen from my childhood,”
Knowing all the while
They were not stolen at all but given away
From necessity and shock and grieving
But mostly lack of space, foresight, say.
At night I fly like a barn swallow into rooms of furniture,
Heavy wooden pieces, locked away underneath
In the dungeon, the bowels, the basement of my unconscious psyche.
My grandmother’s furniture, it’s not clear which
Grand mother, my father’s mother,
“Little Nana,” too poor
To have more than a couch and bed in that tiny musty flat
In Brookline, where the shades were always pulled.
We try over and over to find the key, to find
Someone to open the heavy wooden door,
My father and I,
But we never make it down.
The door never opens
I will never ever not ever get that furniture back.
Instead I sit at this sticky maple table and
I remember like yesterday my mother in pursuit.
I was only six years old in 1961, singing “Love, love me do, You know I’ll love you, but Please love me do” and screaming “Fuckkkkkk,
Fuckkkkkk, fuckkkkkk, fuckkkkkk” at the top of my lungs
I raced around this table squealing, laughter pealing.
No idea of the meaning of the word fuckkkkkk,
Except my brother, my older brother, that boy of nine,
Taught me a new word and younger sister I will always be, I wielded, wheeled
Propelled myself around this table like there was no tomorrow.
And soon after my troubles began,
A long slow descent into the madness of no woman’s land.
Suddenly I was like a crab spider in winter
Stuffed into a nook on the siding of a camouflaged brown house
Not knowing when spring would come or if in the meanwhile I would be eaten
By a yellow finch, a tiny white-throated sparrow, or turn up a splinter in some kid’s finger.
Invisible. Erased. Locked in a jar in some stuffy tower.
I did not come up to the top of the ridge where I now live,
Bobcats, bears, rocks, rivers,
To feast my eyes on this expanse of forest greens and browns,
Toward the humpback mountain,
Melville’s winter white whale in the western sky
That land of Thoreau, Bryant, Holmes and Hawthorne,
Or down into the watery marsh,
Aggregate fruits ascending axil
Buttressed deciduous pinnately compound
Obtuse orbicular reflex maple a few remaining feeble oaks, maple
Apple, water beech, box elder, brittle willow, brown ash
Butterball butternut buttonwood
The neighbor’s rough-barked black cherry
American holly, hemlock, honeysuckle, hornbeam, ironwood,
My ten-inch baby
It was not even like scrambling an egg
On the street, in the heat,
Of some city miles away
From that bridge
Spanning the dark waters of Eggemoggin Reach in the East.
But darkness, total darkness
As black as the woods in a new moon.
As quiet as the moment before calamity strikes, that strange stillness
Before a bomb drops or the tornado comes down the highway
Headed directly toward you. The sky darkens. The soul weeps and bleaches.
Manganese black. Utter aloneness.
Oh there is so much to try to see through, still.
They always thought I knew, still do,
What I was awash by.
Knew what I was saying, every word, my action,
What it meant, every feeling, thought.
Is is really true? Is anybody really like this?
He thought I was awake,
After sticking a pencil in the door jam, awake
As he disassembled the handle.
I still don’t know myself how I could have slumbered
Through the entire painstaking dismantle. But
I was only a sleeping child,
Not yet his rebellious daughter or dutiful son
Although I think I said the word “no” in the womb
And I would have held my breath until I died
In order not to do something I did not want.
There is so much I don’t know
About how we know what we do
Or don’t know what we do
Or what difference it all makes
Anyway, to know, not know
To live or die.
Logic and reason rarely rule the heart or the mind and
He even forgets how he beat me with that leather belt,
Forced my pants down, threw me over his lap. He forgets the beatings altogether.
I love him so much, my soon to be eighty-year-old father, who just survived a brainstem stroke,
(i sigh/ i wail/i cry/i moan/imagining/my father/in/his tomb.)
Who even knew, who ever knows before the body yowls and sputters?
I have just discovered the brain stem.
Not the stem of a flower, not a gladiola
Or a peony fallen over.
There is really nothing to forgive
Memory is like that
And he was doing what he was told
Boldly going where many men before him had trodden
Before the path least traveled
Became an option
For a man like my father
Who knew of Frost but thought him less poet
And more in terms of weather conditions
On his long daily drive north to work
Up Route 128 to Haverhill.
I’ve never thought much of obliterating
Books, the sacred text, before now,
Never totally understood, viscerally,
The power reach influence command of the written word,
To alter, shift, radically, change,
Defer one’s cause, one’s heart, no matter truth or lies.
But this woman did it for me.
Portraying Sarton after a stroke,
Insistent on putting flowers into a vase of water,
As the emergency medical technician stood standing staring stunned
At such impudence.
The audacity of an old toothless drooling
Never, able, to move beyond body.
Even after death, reduced, in entirety, woman, to the world of flesh.
Her sacred muse trampled
Again and again.
Squashed like a mosquito,
The boundless urge to be loved
To manifest the afflicted dolorous soul
In reverent language.
I long to gather up Sarton’s ghost in my arms
Like a baby seal layered in crude oil
And lick her clean, return her
To her vibrant graceful vigor.
Two weeks later it happens again,
In my own soft downy bed, sheets like leaves
Here on this ridge, this ridge
Where I live in the forest, far from the edge
Of the sea.
Away from blue lapping
Distant sounds of motorboats on the wake.
Soft rain falling and only green,
Green, those verdant greens and velvet browns I so adore,
As far as the eye can see.
No Prussian blue, the Antwerp faded blue of my girlhood, but
Egyptian green, raw/ burnt/ chestnut/ umber, brown ochre,
Burnt green earth
And inland songbirds
Sounds you hear upon summer’s dawn
Phoebes, brown creepers, wren, bluebird, thrush, American
Their voices only drowned by a fierce wind.
This time she is an ancient woman
Clothes soaked with urine, unwashed, unkempt, gumming words.
That smell of rotting flesh from tumors unchecked
A swelling belly.
She has almost fully left that body
Devoured by the inevitable incompressible monster of mortality.
I am with her; we are walking together, side by side.
She, both her and her and her and her
All the women I have ever loved and love
All the old women I have ever known
The smell of the spring in New Hampshire
When I first began to long for another woman.
We shuffle along
In a slow
Down the dark hallway.
The place is empty, save us.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, In Maine with May Sarton