Traces

by Janet I. Buck


I hurt with what I’ve lost and look for everywhere, like wallets dropped
between two cushions on a couch, which hold the cash I sorely need
to pay the rent for living on a perfect planet full of paintings someone tossed.
I’m looking for the twiggy nests of Mourning Doves she left in place,
under eaves to keep them safe from wind and rain. This poem is meant
to move like feet approaching graves, with deep respect and cautiousness;
it’s meant to droop, then come to life as daffodils
that find clean water and some light even under heaving clouds.

She left her notes inside a book, always with a pencil’s tip,
in case she changed her lucid mind, read some passage differently.
When I was seven, we threw away my Barbie dolls and rubber trolls,
read Wordsworth on a messy beach among the driftwood and the ants;
sounds of every rolling wave would interfere with syllables.
This only made her raise her voice, so we could hear the music and the song itself.

She taught me that a diamond shines, but isn’t really valuable,
compared to castles built with sand an ocean flattens as it rolls.
She saw the dust on dresser tops as mere excuse to touch
the ancient, cracking wood surviving distant centuries.
So what if drawers were always stuck; so what
if slivers poked the sweaters folded there. We could wash them later on,
if there was time enough for that, which never happened anyway.

She architected everything, moved furniture around the house
no differently than neighbors changed their clothes for church—
again, again because an outfit wasn’t right or had some lipstick
on a sleeve. Ripping out a wall or two or three or four
to make more rooms for window glass—drew her to a pick
and axe, smashing things until the dust replaced the air.
The bigger the mess, the more we laughed
like rowdy kids, bored in some old schoolhouse,
wanting content flying by between the stuffy lecture notes.
This would be the sight of eagles miles away, featuring their 6 foot wings.

At cocktail time, I brought her gin in tumblers of her Waterford,
got to pour my coke in mine, though she knew a fall or two
would shatter crystal on cement. We always sat upon the porch,
even when the seasons changed and sunlight was a rusty penny
lost in shaggy carpet hair. The more she drank, the stories grew as high
as Rhodies by the fence, took their shapes with every leaf and blossom real.
Her husband’s flawless heritage spoke volumes of his character,
a heart as soft as cotton balls, arms strong enough to mow the fields.

A lawyer in a three-piece suit working seven days a week,
standing up for drivers of the railways cars,
who filled their lungs with poison smoke, pushed hard
to feed their families. He could have spent the midnight hours
counting up his salary, but numbers weren’t of consequence
unless he witnessed masses and their suffering.
All these decades come and gone; just weeks ago, I Googled his name,
steeped myself in heated pride; he wrapped the cold impoverished kids
with blankets from their modest farm.
Aunt Florence had to be upstairs, basking in the evidence.

Words and books were everything. The fact of 1st edition runs impressed me more
than presidents who uttered speeches on TV. She bound them
with her own bare hands in a room no bigger than closets for towels.
I’d sneak in there, late at night, just to smell the leather hides upon a bench,
run my fingers down the inside cover art she painted with a tiny brush,
the pale skies, the gilded dots that came from beaks of hummingbirds.

At 90 years, when she began the great collapse, the kind no hands can ever stop,
I propped up pillows, lay in bed beside her bony, shrinking frame, beneath the sheets
that smelled of days without perfume, read her “Dover Beach” aloud to ears now deaf
but there in place, the circles of a crescent moon. I read this poem a dozen times—
a needle on a phonograph stuck with glue that I could taste: the wind, the rain,
the darkness rolling in on us.

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