I don’t know if my dead cousin can get tired.
I know I can. There was a time, the act
of remembering him was pure energy, joyous
riot of senses, the wind in his hair, in mine. His face
breaking apart into a smile. But no more. Now
I am just tired. Of remembering, imagining. Summoning
the past onto the page. And in this state of things
I must accept that we are now the same, my dead
cousin and I.
The poem cannot find the end
of this night, of the cold fog outside my window,
of the lake he drowned in. The worst truth:
that the mortgaged heart the dead demands
isn’t so different from the solvent one, eventually.
And still, somewhere in this town three sullen teens
are sulking between the stones of the old cemetery
just past the new dormitories. But there’s no story,
no taking the bait.
My cousin used to keep me company nights
when he couldn’t get back in the lake he drowned in,
back when I was lonely. Parking lots used to look
like water to me, back then, in my fatigue.
It’s true I got his name tattooed below my collarbone,
wanting and not wanting to be haunted.
If only this could be the unending chorus, if only
I could be a requiem or corral the stars into a hymn.
But there is none of that, only tired me pressing
for an ending, only the night, my dead cousin, a neighbor’s dog
howling at the nothingness he makes and unmakes
and is made of too.
I could’ve been eaten by a lion
as I hop-skipped back to the compound’s gates.
I could’ve tripped from the face of Table Mountain,
lost my body in the glimmering light thrown
by the sea. And I suppose there’s not all that much
special about my collected deaths that weren’t. Except
that I heard the cry of the illegal immigrant killed
that night in Kenya as he raced through the night’s brush
towards the border. Or I thought I did. And I’ve seen
carabineers anchored to the stone face, invisible ropes
that didn’t exist trailing down into the fog until even
their insubstantiality disappeared.
There’s lots more, of course. Whole worlds of death
statistics breaking themselves over me, and you. But
what, really, is the point? There are always those immune,
always the improbable survivor. The ones who didn’t
go blind, or eat the crippling meat. I collapsed
in a snow-bank once, dangerously drunk, night in Iowa,
thirty below. Alone. There are some who do not rise.
I am meant to always be returning, this is my dark labor.
Like that night, when I arrived at the girl’s dorm room
doorway, my head still back with the others gathering
in the welcoming cold—my drowned cousin, my crushed friend,
a wounded boy I hardly knew. The girl of course was only glad
that I made it safely, and wondered aloud into my silence
how I couldn’t feel the blood as it poured from my nose
into my broken mouth.
Now the construction of burial tunnels between us.
Sitting in a room of night years past the moment.
Was it like: up, up, up. Was it like the first time
learning the word for blackberry. Was it by fire.
Was it by tide. Was it the brief office of lightning.
Now the burial, now the tunnel, now between us.
Was the rain a blue fugue, after. Had you ever fought
with a good woman. Were you briefly a tree,
the wind’s stark choreography over water, the fall
of a loon’s keening in the dark, the smell of shit
beneath the bathhouses, the cordite waft
of the rifles. You once climbed a mast, hugged
the aluminum, looped your legs impossibly, tacked
your hips with the wind. As the other boys cheered
or were silent. Was the forest brooding, would you
have called it that, did it change as it rose
Now the failing tunnels of syntax, the sentence buries
the construction between us. The light’s cut
in the morning. The lake was wounded. Is the after
an erasing just as this living is a helpless, shameful
creating. Is there time kept. Is there enough time
for you to do all that erasing. Is there time at all.
Are you lost in it. Are you the king of the un-sentences.
Do you want it. Do you even know how to stop it.. Can
you stop it. Can you ever ever stop.
What elegy now for my poor dead cousin? What thrift of language can cleave the air
as his bony chest once did, diving fantastically into the steely waters of the lake. What
is there to speak into such a tired absence? My cousin, hair long and wild, body thrown
to the wind as we sailed our small boat, carving circles into waters that held
the sky, waiting for the noon light to divide the storm clouds with its purity,
its raucous sundering.
What elegy now for my poor dead friend? What resistance can one muster
against the self examination; memory at this distance of years no more than
the guess at overgrown neural positioning; the warm weight of his feet
on your shoulders as he climbed to the mast, the burning slap snapped across
your back during a scuffle. These electric paths reappointed into wind,
the coldness of lake-water as my stroke now ruins the silent morning. No permit
for protest, either, no choice, no stopping. Just the world made unintelligible,
untranslatable cuneiform figures made from drain excavated swirls of hair, of unstilled
water, a heron troubling a once familiar pond.
What elegy, unnatured? What reverse language possible, what words are these to draw
themselves out of sound into nothing, lips drawing closed, breath given back its dark
and empty birth?
Cantos for the Dead