I have lived my whole life with death, said William Maxwell,
aetat 91, and haven't we all. Amen to that.
It's all right to gutter out like a candle but the odds are better
for succumbing to a stroke or pancreatic cancer.
I'm not being gloomy, this bright September
when everything around me shines with being:
hummingbirds still raptured in the jewelweed,
puffballs humping up out of the forest duff
and the whole voluptuous garden still putting forth
bright yellow pole beans, deep-pleated purple cauliflowers,
to say nothing of regal white corn that feeds us
night after gluttonous night, with a slobber of butter.
Nevertheless, what Maxwell said speaks to my body's core,
this old body I trouble to keep up the way
I keep up my two old horses, wiping insect deterrent
on their ears, cleaning the corners of their eyes,
spraying their legs to defeat the gnats, currying burrs
out of their thickening coats. They go on grazing thoughtlessly
while winter is gathering in the wings. But it is not given
to us to travel blindly, all the pasture bars down,
to seek out the juiciest grasses, nor to predict
which of these two will predecease the other or to anticipate
the desperate whinnies for the missing that will ensue.
Which of us will go down first is also not given,
a subject that hangs unspoken between us
as with Oedipus, who begs Jocasta not to inquire further.
Meanwhile, it is pleasant to share opinions and mealtimes,
to swim together daily, I with my long slow back and forths,
he with his hundred freestyle strokes that wind him alarmingly.
A sinker, he would drown if he did not flail like this.
We have put behind us the State Department tour
of Egypt, Israel, Thailand, Japan that ended badly
as we leapt down the yellow chutes to safety after a botched takeoff.
We have been made at home in Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland,
narrow, xenophobic Switzerland of clean bathrooms and much butter.
We have travelled by Tube and Metro o'er the realms of gold
paid obeisance to the Wingèd Victory and the dreaded Tower,
but now it is time to settle as the earth itself settles
in season, exhaling, dozing a little before the fall rains come.
Every August when the family gathers, we pose
under the ancient willow for a series of snapshots,
the same willow, its lumpish trunk sheathed in winking aluminum
that so perplexed us forty years ago, before we understood
the voracity of porcupines. Now hollowed by age and marauders,
its aluminum girdle painted dull brown, it is still leafing
out at the top, still housing a tumult of goldfinches. We try to hold still
and smile, squinting into the brilliance, the middleaged children,
the grown grandsons, the dogs of each era, always a pair
of grinning shelter dogs whose long lives are but as grasshoppers
compared to our own. We try to live gracefully
and at peace with our imagined deaths but in truth we go forward
stumbling, afraid of the dark,
of the cold, and of the great overwhelming
loneliness of being last.
Alaska Quarterly Review
Volume 22, Numbers 1 & 2
Spring & Summer 2005
Copyright © 2005 Alaska Quarterly Review.
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.