- The River, and: Unfinished
This is the way it starts: her sonstretched out under a white sheet on the morgue's steel table.For one second, two thoughts: Not him:he sleeps on his side, and then,What can that sheet be hiding? Closer, she seesit is her son, same son in his same skin,unbroken, unmarred. Un Un Undo this.But what becomes undone, she thinks, is that which isstill becoming, because to live is alwaysan act of becoming, an act of change.He passed, she says, the words a damholding it back. Now months have given way.Without storm, no visible unmooring,she finds that she is on a river, caught and carried.Some days sweeping her under,she wakes to fight the current; a dizzinesssends her flying across the surface,slams her flat. Other times, the roilingwell beneath, she floats in a kind of calm,buoyed by the grace of strangers who knew him,and goes about the details of keepingher son's life as if he still lived it.The river moves on, insistent on its coursethrough the highs and lows of the delta,taking all the little tributaries with it, the bayous,every waterway opening and closing—unceasing, breathing secret of the river.And she has come back from there, radiant companionto everything she will never know—I was lucky:I saw my son and he was beautiful. [End Page 339]
No death like the death you do not see, that momentinhabiting the stilled body. Better to have a body to bury,the young man who comes backhammered shut in a box, the stony-eyed familytelling his last stories. Parts of stories, carried forward,
the way we repeat my brother's last good-bye,walking out the door on a warm November night,our mother in the kitchen. I'll just be gone awhile …And so the nightmare of the missing begins, so the mindneeds to invent an answer. Years we keepgoing back, looking until absencehas become my brother's name, and in his placea certain repetition: swamp and quicksand,a sinkhole for easy dumping, ugly wordsthat won't sing like bayou. "Blue Bayou"—my brother when I last saw himon the back porch, picking out the tune. Th e mind keepstrying to fool itself, as if there is no real death
but the one we can see coming, the one that gathersthe family together, the peaceoffered by the very old, who lies there, accepting,while we wait and hold the hand, then let it go.But I was not there to see my mother in her bedasking only for my brotheras the others stood around her, the ones who saidwhat they needed to say. Blessed ones,you who knew what there was to sayand said it. [End Page 340]
Cleopatra Mathis's eighth book of poems, After the Body: Poems New and Selected, will be published by Sarabande this July.