By Phyllis Brotherton
Inspired by Wallace Stevens
I take my backpack and travel across town,
knock on my son’s door and ask to enter.
We sit on his immaculate floor, our voices echoing
through order, white t-shirts and blue jeans in the open
closet, standing guard.
He asks, “Why are you here?”
The distance between a mother and a son, at this point, may be insurmountable, irreducible.
Distance – A matter of not many miles, no more than ten. Though I’ve driven this distance a number of times, I never actually looked at the odometer. I once sat outside the apartment complex gates and texted him – I think. This image is vivid in my mind, yet I’m foggy as to why I sat there. It may have been to deliver Christmas presents, which I clearly see myself handing to him from the trunk of my car (inside the gates by then), and his “Thanks, Mom”, but I can’t recall what happened after that. Did he invite me in? I don’t think so, not that time.
Insurmountable – Implies a mountain, as in Wallace Steven’s “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain.” It seems unnecessary to further elucidate.
Irreducible – Beyond further reduction, as in a fraction, or a sauce, without burning it. Something subject to further reduction can be an invitation, an incentive, to try. Here, the reference is to a geographic or metaphorical distance, the referent plural: a mother and a son. The distance is open to being traversed, like a mountain, which we’ve already established is insurmountable. The mother and son: a fraction, with a numerator and denominator. If the mother is the former and the son, the latter, this implies further division or reduction of distance is possible; if the reverse, likely not possible, but open to higher mathematical analysis, possibly trial and error testing. With regard to sauces, potentially the flavor deepens, yet risks bitterness.
Immaculate floor – Vast, with little furniture, which he sold over time, piece by piece. Some years ago, more than I can contemplate or admit, we sat on his beige carpet, he cross-legged in yoga fashion, me with my legs in a kind of wrenched, awkward side-saddle position. Earlier, I had opened the vertical blinds hung across his patio door. He moved silently, but deliberately, across the living room, cranked the handle closing them again, shutting out all natural light.
Open closet – I could see, over his right shoulder, his clothes neatly washed and hung; the strict organization of it all, for some reason, painful to me. He had already pointed out the empty cupboards and fridge. I could see on my own the pictureless white walls. Everything seemed destined to stab me in the heart, but this could have been my own self-inflicted guilt. For what? For everything on my part that caused disappointment, failed expectations.
The question, “Why are you here?” – He never asked it, nor would he. He’s not cruel. A poem can be a fabrication, an imaginative construction, something a mother designs, a form of self-punishment typical of religious fanatics or every day, lay humans in the practice of self-flagellation.
I take my backpack and pass through the mirror,
back through years and misty forests, trees traveling
backwards, too, turning to saplings before me.
At the border I stop, watch my own head crowning
in the passenger seat, sleet freezing on the windshield.
My mother wedges her hand between her legs. “Hurry, Charlie.”
Traveling in the mind back through time might illuminate an innocence.
If all I needed were a backpack and a mirror, I’d take advantage of the opportunity to enter and travel back in time, to re-examine the past, as far back as birth and, ideally, even farther back, to see my mother and father, Velma and Charlie, each an Okie child, then teenagers, then adults, before the responsibilities of a daughter and son to raise, before a World War. From this vantage point, I can blame my father’s bad temper on that war. I can excuse my mother’s insecurities, knowing as I do now that her mother called her lazy, and Mom’s hypervigilance over me, the result of something possibly untold between her and my step-grandfather. I can see now that frequently a reason emerges for everything. It takes looking hard and long. The reasons may be valid or nonsensical, or possibly both, an unanalyzable paradox.
The same step-grandfather, whom I vaguely suspect approached in some way my mother as a girl (“approach” being a euphemistically vague word in itself), carried pint jars of my mother’s expressed breast milk in each winter-coat pocket through the freezing sleet to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City, where his premature granddaughter, a whole four lbs. and twelve ounces, slumbered in her toasty incubator. When you time-travel in your mind, you tend to see yourself in the third person. And remember, this is an imaginary exercise allowed by the poetic form, but also dangerous, as in the veiled accusation or suspicion of wrongdoing by my grandfather. There has to be some explanation for my mother’s disdain for him, but I will never know. Does art pay the price of integrity?
Three things are certain: the blizzard, the crowning, the relative innocence and striving of everyone.
I take my backpack and travel across the bed,
over pillow terrain to an elevation of 700 count sheets.
Feeling my way now, muscle of stone, warm to the touch,
in spite of a fan above, one blowing from the floor
and an open window. A cool wind swirls all around us.
My mouth opens, then closes. I begin the tricky descent.
Our murky combination of seeming opposites is our lived human experience; comforting and daunting at the same time.
Backpack – Full of books, notepad and pencils, considerable emotional baggage, a desire to understand and articulate everything, as Louise Gluck describes in Proofs & Theories, “to be heeded.”
Elevation – A body (and a poem by Wallace Stevens) can take the place of a mountain. Two bodies can jointly desire to be heeded, not a physical, but an existential reference, as an aging lesbian couple, together for nearly 20 years, begin to slide from the future into the past, somewhere along a measured and uncertain timeline. The physicality of Denise’s honed muscles are juxtaposed with my cerebral quest, which might enable us to travel farther with our bodies or in our minds, though this is not a contest to see who outlasts whom, but a blatant, human desire to just last.
Wind – Not a metaphor. The swirling wind is actual or a concept, as in Wallace Steven’s poem, “Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination.” Denise’s ever-present bodily warmth necessitates lowered room temperatures or a stiff breeze, both artificially generated (by a fan) and what wind might naturally blow in through the open window. An ancillary benefit for her is the drowning out of ambient noise, even that which one, me, for example, might, at times, want to hear, as in raindrops on the roof. Yet, I am so used to the din, that when she is out of town and I am sleeping alone, I find the silence disconcerting and, grumbling to myself, rise and turn on the fans, creating the illusion that she is back in her place, nestled next to me.
Descent – Whimsical, yet foreshadowing the possibly dire, since, as someone once said, all literature is about loss and death.
The mouth opens to speak to the other, closes to listen. We all need more of both.
End of Analysis.
Copyright Brotherton 2015