16.7.08

waiting for a sign...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Felicia Mitchell

Album


1.

In the photograph I do not take,
my father’s feeding tube
feeds itself on his body:
the body that he has willed to outlast
every possible medical intervention.
And though he is not underground,
or lying in a wooden coffin,
there are flowers around his remains:
the Judas branch I snapped out front,
the hotel’s daffodils, azalea blooms
from my mother’s garden.
All of these fit in a Styrofoam cup.
All of my father fits in one bed.

2.

In the photograph I do not take,
my father is not smiling
but his hand is waving,
its bandages white like flags of surrender.
He is waving at his grandson
whose yo-yo is a pendulum,
whose eyes are very sad,
whose note to his grandpa
written so precisely in a schoolboy’s hand
is answered with the truth
by a man who cannot hear himself speak it:
“Not so good, Guy, not so good.”

3.

In the photograph I do not take,
my mother is out of the picture.
As much as she has seen, she has never seen this.
She has never seen quite this.

4.

In the photograph I do not take,
nobody can see my cousin Walter
seated at the foot of the bed.
My father’s companion since his death,
Walter takes up so little room
not even the night nurse mentions him
to her supervisor, or turns him in to God
for being AWOL from the hereafter.
Walter the politician has no pull now,
but he lets my father in on little secrets
and pulls the blanket over his toes.

5.

In the photograph I do not take,
all my father’s children are standing by
at the same time in the same room.
The black hair John pulled from our father’s head
to mantle his own bald head is long.
Of all of us, he knows the most.
He knows how veins burn out and needles hurt
and nights are long when your roommate sleeps.
He knows how handicapped the healthy are,
how hard it is for them to focus
when they pass through the door downstairs
to halls that smell of old urine.
Our father knows that John knows the most
and holds the hand whose last pulse he counted.
The rest of us fan out like angel wings
on either side, waiting for a sign.

6.

In the photograph I do not take,
I am crying tears like baroque pearls
in different, scattered sizes,
and the miracle is that they fall
painlessly from my tear ducts.
The camera is not on a tripod.
My arm is long enough, my fingers deft.
I can capture myself in time.
Later, I will string the pearls with silk thread
that looks nothing like a feeding tube.
I will wear them to my father’s grave.
Another daughter might bury them.
I will wear them to my father’s funeral
every day I wear them
and I will wear them every day.


             – published in Blood Orange Review

*

The form of Mitchell’s poem is marvelous, each section exhibiting the extreme value placed on what is not there, what does not happen, what is not said. That is a powerful and disturbing theme. “Album” possesses a thread of ache that connects the reader with all those moments of loss that life must present. In the opening section, the waiting for silence in the hospital room – such a universal moment of living death – amid flowers … the Judas branch, daffodils, azalea blooms … gives way to the devastating lines that show Mitchell’s mastery of her craft:

All of these fit in a Styrofoam cup.
All of my father fits in one bed.

Presented with such an image, the reader cannot escape the poem.

The poet is relentless in penetrating the tiny details of life – as in the closing section:
Later, I will string the pearls with silk thread
that looks nothing like a feeding tube.
I will wear them to my father’s grave.
Another daughter might bury them.

In four brief lines, the poem, presenting an emotionally charged setting with clarity, reveals the speaker on an intimate level. The lines show hurt and loss with as great a depth as is possible.

Mitchell, however, does not intend the poem to finalize itself with release. She is writing about the Sisyphusian experience of loss – no easy answers ... no getting over. The poetry shows a surrendering to the necessity of continuance – the poem’s speaker wearing tears like pearls:
every day I wear them
and I will wear them every day.

After reading this poem, I am forced to inventory my own experience. This is a poetry not easily shaken – if at all. Am I jealous of the work – as Seamus Heaney would say? Most certainly. “Album” is a poem I would give anything to experience in the creative act – ink being scratched over the infinite blank of the page.

3 comments:

Felicia Mitchell said...

Thanks you for all of it, and for this: "Most certainly. 'Album' is a poem I would give anything to experience in the creative act – ink being scratched over the infinite blank of the page." It is true that this is a poem whose creation remains with me in such vivid memories. I began it in the Tri-Cities Airport and finished it in en route to Austin. In Austin, I mailed it to myself in an envelope after making a copy at Fresh Plus. The act of writing came between two significant moments in my life with my father: that weekend of the "scenes" in the poem (including the last stanza written before he died) and that weekend in Texas, when I was completing some of his unfinished business so he could let go and go--which he did, shortly after he got the message that I had spent the afternoon with his long-lost first son.

Lisa Allender said...

To both Sam and Ms. Mitchell, And how even small details, like "the Judas branch" lend itself to an, uh, unwitting, an unintended foreshadowing, of the ultimate betrayal--that of a loved one leaving us... how even in the small, fragile detail of what type of plant it was, how such words move us. Thank you both. And I am deeply sorry for your loss,Ms. Mitchell.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

The act of writing, Felicia, is such an important aspect of this piece. I really like the fact that you mailed a copy to yourself. Impressive work.

And Lisa, that's a great and true point, I think, about the imagery of the Judas branch - the notion of love and betrayal.