Friday, 17 August 2012

There are things one does not write
(remark attributed to Napoleon by Stendhal, in The Red and the Black)
Detail of APOLLO REVEALING HIS DIVINITY by Boucher, 1750.  

The apollonion messenger stood us up...
part five of World'sEnd Garden

Please don't tell me how to feel.
I was prepared, trained in grief,
from years before, the first death,
the sword that the old woman stole.
My only thought was to honour you.
I had vowed aged eleven to protect you.
My eighteen months’ prevarication,
a gardener in winter shielding an exotic bloom,
keeping your hope flowering
because to be merry best became you.
Glad to be alive in spite of life,
undaunted by adversity,
untouched by jealousy,
richly gifted, unrewarded,
shining ore inviolable,
your ownership of unembittered self.

At last abashed by your body’s weakness,
help me, help me, your incantation
meant for god or me, I didn’t know,
but no god answering left only me.
Cleaving and tottering, our united effort,
a dead weight still craving life
and I, not strength nor breath enough to save you,
our last embrace the consummation 
of a life-cycle, dying mother now my child.
I’ll always be with you, I said,
holding your hand
while you crossed the dark,
trying to follow you, take your place.
I thought I spoke too late,
I’m sure you did not hear me.
Neither of us cried,.
determined not to hurt
the other;
my excess of grief locked up
so she would not suffer twice -
was that right?

Platitudes scorned by us both then
I need for subsistence now.
Tendrils reach out for consolation
into unremitting empty space.
Omissions gape,
heavier in matter than spoken words
I should have said/
I should not have said,
tears torn off a daisy head.
Partings are not as hard to bear
as misunderstandings left behind.

We’d had a silent pact
since my father’s death,
a ballet of what was admitted and
what was not.
Complicity in illusion
gave no closure, then, for either.
not a thing you rated,
secret heart to the end,
self-explanations never given
nor demanded by you.
Startled by death,
eyes wide open, staring
(they did not close, though I tried -
sentimental movies have lied -
so soon after death,
at a touch, the lids spring back).
What you had feared more than surgeon’s knife
was dreaming
and never waking up again. 

My mission: to defend her vital hope,
play along that we'd get through,
deceive her into unconsciousness,
peaceful drift that people dying in their beds 
naturally are supposed to have.
Home death once attended by pompous quacks
with biting leeches, piercing lancets,
red-hot pokers, bladed scarificators,
fresh pigeon blood or dung -
now a district nurse blows in
brisk and chatty
("How are you today?")
eyes wary as a wolf's,
shop talks loudly with the doctor on our sofa
while measuring morphine for the pump
slapped on the dying woman's arm -
mercy comes with lèse majesté
to rob the humblest of ownership of their goodbye -
the bedroom now a torture chamber,
not the hallowed scented bower I had planned.

You would never acquiesce to death;

my fragile plot that you’d be slipped away gently 
while you slept, unawares,
ruptured by last eight days of siege
and separation,
the fight to get you home.
Not everyone dies in resignation, 
all passion spent.
No fading out in self-indulging banalities for some.
Elizabeth the First,
lying on her cushions,
refusing to go to sleep,
the power
of a hundred dresses in her wardrobe,
and a hundred death signatures in her hand,
was affronted by mortality like you.
There are no comforting answers, only extinction.
“Mummy, don’t be frightened.”
What were you seeing that horrified you?
The bed a battlefield, a great queen fighting.
“I’m not frightened”
things invisible to me that hovered or crawled -
 - your hand flicking them off your shoulder -
“Mummy, you don’t have to fight anymore.”

No surrender in your final gesture,
arm flung back, thrashing like a swan;
eyes and mouth gaping
at what had come, and had been,  
an agonizing death before she died,   
disillusion being a death itself,
the death of her lovely hope -
the look on her face while she lived through death
of her lifelong joy,
her face displaced
by yellow stretch of skin
over chasmic eyes and contorted mouth,
her last face not her face
- the look of horror that leaves no peace for me.
Mummy, are you dead?  
You should not have died like this.

The last secret I tried to keep from her,
filial duty of an only child,
was that this was my death, too.
Earlier, our doctor visiting us observed,
“It's like looking at the same person”.
“We’re dying now”,  I said.
Later, “Did she go peacefully?” 
asked another young doctor, 
come to certify death,
then looking at her face -
not her face -
caught his breath, said to himself,
“Ah, no, I see she didn't” -
her face -

Sword is part five of Re-Begot
go to part six BESIEGED 
1 Bitter Garden
8 Yearning Garden

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours.Image source: Web Gallery of Art