I.

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.

 

XIII.

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.

 

CIII.

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

over you.

 

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.

 

XXXI.

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?

 

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© 2009

Cantos for the Dead

Arna Hemenway