|Jan/Feb 2003 • Poetry • Special Feature|
"I know what I know, says the almanac."
—Elizabeth Bishop, "Sestina"
That she will be leaving soon hangs in the air—
twilight husk of the reading lamp over her
shoulder. But flip of a switch, light
fills shade and page: she's practical about knowing,
about small escapes from whatever zero heritage
night spools before us all at each days end.
My mother at Christmas, staying the ends
of her certain truth—dying—breathing sober air
and reading (Reading is learning faith, a heritage
of knowing: an honor). Though no Bible now, only her
romance novels, hothouse girl plots of unknowing,
weedy Eros—escapism tyrannical—now softer in this light.
If afraid, she doesn't say so. Her talk is light,
all talk stays light as the lone skater at the far end
of the frozen television pond, circling in, out—the knowing
figure eights never letting on—what else to do in camera air,
night's fleshy gold city of snow on snow? Once, her
hands led me, skating (Remember?). Heritage
(Once you know, you just know). Not the hothouse heritage—
mantel of poinsettia, spider chrysanthemum—forced by light
to know only so much can be known. But wanting, as her
hands turn pages—wanting more—even while nodding at the end
of dreams, mid-chapter. I save her page, cover her hands from the air:
the window leaks what cold will want of her. I dial a friend, knowing
nothing can help this. I know nothing, I say, if knowing
I can't also do: change this truth of zero heritage—
and I whisper so my mother won't hear what impossible airs
life and the living press on the dying. Then she reaches to her light,
waking in Christmas parti-lights, pushing off the ends
of her wrap, asking where her book has gone, her
page, her place. Ah, I (coward: can't ask what dreams her
sleep brought), I chatter of New Year's Eve, not knowing
what else can be said about this coming year, the end
of her life appointed somewhere in its almanac, her heritage
alone. Alone, she'd watch the Times Square ball of light
ascend, and Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, dancing in gala, video air.
At the end of New Year's Eve, she said that's all she'd wanted: her
light to read by, television on mute, the air not cold, not too cold—
even knowing a heritage of zero—to read in, to want to know more.