Bending over her bed, I saw the smile
I must have seen when I looked up from the crib.
Knowing death comes, imagining it, smelling it,
may be a fair price for consciousness.
But looking at my sister lying there, I wished
she could have been snatched up from behind
to die by surprise, without ever knowing about death.
Too late. Wendy said, “I am in three parts.
Here on the left is red. That is pain.
On the right is yellow. That is exhaustion.
The rest is white. I don’t know yet what white is.”
For most people. one day everything is OK.
The next, the limbic node catches fire. The day after,
the malleus in one ear starts missing the incus.
Then the arthritic opposable thumb no longer opposes
whoever screwed the top onto the jam jar.
Then the coraco-humeral ligament frizzles apart,
the liver speckles, the kidneys dent,
two toes lose their souls. Of course,
before things get worse, a person could run.
I could take off right now, climb the pure forms
that surmount time and death, follow a line
drawn along Avenue D, make a 90° turn right on 8th Street,
90° left on C, right on 7th, left on B, then cross
to Sixth Avenue, catch the A train to Nassau,
the station where the A pulls up beside the Z,
get off and hop on the Z and hurtle under the river
and rise on Euclid under the stars and taste,
with a woman, in perfectly circular kisses,
the actual honey of paradise.
Then, as if Wendy suddenly understood
this flaw in me, that I could die
still wanting what is not to be had here, drink
and drink and yet have most of my thirst
intact for the water table, she opened her eyes.
"I want you to know I’m not afraid of dying,"
she said. “I only wish it didn’t take so long.”
Seeing her look so young and begin to die
all on her own, I wanted to whisk her off.
Quickly she said, “Let’s go home.” From outside
in the driveway came the gargling noise
of a starter motor, and a low steady rumbling, as if
my car had turned itself on and was warming up the engine.
She said this as if we had gone over to visit
a friend, to sign our names on the plaster cast
on her leg, broken on the swing in our backyard,
and some awful indoor game had gone wrong,
and Wendy had turned to me and said, “Let’s go home.”
She had closed her eyes. She looked entirely white.
Her hair had been white for years; in her illness
her skin was as if powdered with twice-bleached flour;
now her lips seemed to have given up their blood.
Color flashed only when she opened her eyes.
Snow will come down next winter, in the woods;
the fallen trees will have that flesh on their bones.
When the eyes of the woods open, a bluejay shuttles.
Outside, suddenly, all was quiet, and
I realized my car had shut off its engine.
And now she felt hot to the touch, as if
an almost immaterial fat were still clinging,
like a lining, to the inside of her skin,
burning. There was a looseness to her flesh.
A translucency came into it, as had happened
with our mother when she was about to die.
At last a spot of rosiness showed in each cheek;
blushes, perhaps, at a joy she had kept from us,
from somewhere in her life, perhaps two mouths,
hers and a beloved’s, near each other, like roses
sticking out of a bottle of invisible water.
She was losing the half-given, half-learned
art of speech, and it became a struggle for her
to find the words, to form them, to position them,
and then quickly utter them. After much effort
she said to me, “Now is when the point of the story
After that, one eye at a time, the left listened,
and drifted, the right focused, gleamed
meanings at me, drifted. Stalwart,
the halves of the brain, especially the right.
Now, as they rachet the box holding
her body into the earth, I hear her voice,
calling back across the region she passes through,
in prolonged, even notes, which swell and diminish,
a far landscape I seem to see as if from above,
much light, much darkness, tumbling clouds,
sounding back to us from its farthest edge.
Now her voice comes from under the horizon,
and now it grows faint, and now I cannot hear it.