A woman dead in her forties

Your breasts/—sliced-off—The scars
dimmed—as they would have to be
years later
All the women I grew up with are sitting
half-naked on rocks—in sun
we look at each other and
are not ashamed
and you too have taken off your blouse
but this was not what you wanted:
to show your scarred, deleted torso
I barely glance at you
as if my look could scald you
though I’m the one who loved you
I want to touch my fingers
to where your breasts had been
but we never did such things
You hadn’t thought everyone
would look so perfect
you pull on
your blouse again:—stern statement:
There are things I will not share
with everyone
You send me back to share
my own scars—first of all
with myself
What did I hide from her
what have I denied her
what losses suffered
how in this ignorant body
did she hide
waiting for her release
till uncontrollable light began to pour
from every wound and suture
and all the sacred openings
Wartime.—We sit on warm
weathered, softening grey boards
the ladder glimmers where you told me
the leeches swim
I smell the flame
of kerosene—the pine
boards where we sleep side by side
in narrow cots
the night-meadow exhaling
its darkness—calling
child into woman
child into woman
Most of our love from the age of nine
took the form of jokes and mute
loyalty:—you fought a girl
who said she’d knock me down
we did each other’s homework
wrote letters—kept in touch, untouching
lied about our lives:—I wearing
the face of the proper marriage
you the face of the independent woman
We cleaved to each other across that space
fingering webs
of love and estrangement—till the day
the gynecologist touched your breast
and found a palpable hardness
You played heroic, necessary
games with death
since in your neo-protestant tribe the void
was supposed not to exist
except as a fashionable concept
you had no traffic with
I wish you were here tonight—I want
to yell at you
Don’t accept
Don’t give in
But would I be meaning your brave
irreproachable life, you dean of women, or
your unfair, unfashionable, unforgivable
woman’s death?
You are every woman I ever loved
and disavowed
a bloody incandescent chord strung out
across years, tracts of space
How can I reconcile this passion
with our modesty
your calvinist heritage
my girlhood frozen into forms
how can I go on this mission
without you
you, who might have told me
everything you feel is true?
Time after time in dreams you rise
once from a wheelchair pushed by your father
across a lethal expressway
Of all my dead it’s you
who come to me unfinished
You left me amber beads
strung with turquoise from an Egyptian grave
I wear them wondering
How am I true to you?
I’m half-afraid to write poetry
for you—who never read it much
and I’m left laboring
with the secrets and the silence
In plain language:—I never told you how I loved you
we never talked at your deathbed of your death
One autumn evening in a train
catching the diamond-flash of sunset
in puddles along the Hudson
I thought:—I understand
life and death now, the choices
I didn’t know your choice
or how by then you had no choice
how the body tells the truth in its rush of cells
Most of our love took the form
of mute loyalty
we never spoke at your deathbed of your death
but from here on
I want more crazy mourning, more howl, more keening
We stayed mute and disloyal
because we were afraid
I would have touched my fingers
to where your breasts had been
but we never did such things

1974 – 1977


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