Thursday, December 21, 2006

Two Poems: Maureen Tolman Flannery

Snow Shrouds His Ground

Now that the raging windstorm
and vengeful cold have passed,
an other-worldly whiteness descends
upon the place of our waiting.

In the old log cabin
we attend impending death
as our western forbears must have done.

Dispersing the dense mountain dark,
a candle burns on the doily on the table
beside his bed, beside the frost-ferned window.
Outside, beneath squirrel-busy trees,
the deer come daily to eat
dry remains of what he planted last spring.

Somewhere beyond the wall--
out by the root cellar
ivy holds ice around the frozen pipes,
but we don’t mind carrying water to wash him.

We have draped lavender cloth
upon the plank ceiling above his bed
for the times he still,
at some inexplicable call to presence,
opens unfocused eyes to its delicate hue.

We swab his tongue with a wet sponge,
for the air is dry
and his shallow breaths
do not absorb the moisture of our tears.

Today, if he stays,
we will build a fire in the stone fireplace
to welcome visitors
and warm us as we work
on the fine, pine coffin in the big room.

* * * * *


Those old Roman bone-throwers
listened to the rattle of remains,
knew how the dead make different sounds
to speak from the ground around them.
Diviners tossed knuckle bones from a former battle
to predict a victory
or caution a general that he might forestall his fate.
They sensed how the dead,
being themselves so reconfigured,
effect the arrangement of parts,
write in designs of their cast-off hardness
clues to the nether-world’s whimsy.

When death parked her painted wagon by our grove,
she sparked my wonder at her comings and goings.
A dark gypsy beauty admired from afar,
her darting gem-eyes almost flirt, luring with their implied promises.
This curandera-midwife gyrates the journey that is her dance.
Her bell-ribboned ankles tap exotic rhythms
as she clanks worn cedar castanets absent-mindedly at her side.
With intimate secrets of every client, she keeps herself aloof.
I long to be inside her confidence,
to see her by the campfire in a nightgown
and her face scrubbed clean.

Like a child on tiptoe,
my ear pressed to the keyhole of the great unknown,
I catch snippets of conversations with the silence.
I hang around the hospice listening,
sharing the gurgle of moist air that churns with yearnings
of mothers or wives who went before.
All have something helpful or important to convey
to the loved-ones they await.

The dying themselves, like newborns,
know more than they let on.
There are folk-tales they pass among themselves.
Some, having heard from the other side,
do not know what to make of it. I try,
study expressions of the dying
the way a pregnant woman stares at babies
in a shopping mall, compile and collate messages,
distill the acrid wisdom.

Some nights I sleep in graveyards,
sheltered by the interest of the dead,
hoping to be trusted with their truth.
It’s not their being gone I covet,
but their having learned life’s ultimate response;
not silence, but their ear for sweeter music.
I snack on pan muerto and sugar-candy skulls,
devour banquets left on the Day of the Dead.

Outside Ixtamal the Yucatan sun bleaches
blue and fuchsia tombs, hornitos
where flesh-clean skeletons are crouched in stucco shrines
adorned with decorations as distinctive
as each bus driver’s tribute to his girl and Guadalupe.
Fetal, barely fitting, I huddle in these graves respectfully
with the bent-down bones of someone else’s loved ones,
breathing musty air of burnt-out vigil lights
and dust on plastic roses,
always asking.

~ Maureen Tolman Flannery's Ancestors in the Landscape: Poems of a Rancher's Daughter was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Other books include A Fine Line, Secret of the Rising Up: Poems of Mexico, and Knowing Stones. Her work has appeared in fifty anthologies and over a hundred literary reviews, recently including Birmingham Poetry Review, Pedestal, Calyx, Atlanta Review, Xavier Review, and North American Review. She is winner of the 2006 JoAnne Hirschfield Poetry Award.

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