Once, Preparation, Appeal to the Self, Anesthesia, Twenty-first Century Fireworks, My Life as a Ruler

Meghan O'Rourke

Once

A girl ate ices
in the red summer. Bees
buzzed among the hydrangea,

heavy as plums.
Summer widened
its lens.

You would not believe
how happy she was;
her mother pulled her

through the pool till her hair
went soft. Below,
cracks spread in the vinyl

where her mother’s long legs
scissored; above, wet faces
in the sun smiled . . .

The home, adrift in sun,
was square and clean
with wine and apple pie;

at dusk, lamps were lit,
Vs of geese swept past,
fresh sheets shivered

on the laundry line,
and as the nights grew crisp
our souls unfolded.

Then winter arrived.
The parents bent over the daughter
tucked in her bed . . . .

Creaking under the cold,
the old black walnut’s roots
spread beneath the snow.

When spring came, the home
had tilted into the tree’s
long, cool shadow. Nothing

was the same again.

Preparation

1.

I walk though the house, turning off the lights.
The lamps in the living room, where my mother and father read;
the lamp in the dining room, by the table where they eat,
the kitchen light, by the wheezing yellow Kelvinator,
the pantry light, the last lighthouse in the dark,
moths capsizing against it. . . . The farmhouse creaks,
and summer storms flicker at the horizon—
electricity over the trees, an EKG.
In the field, the horses sleep on their feet.
What is the grass to them?
What makes them startle as we approach in the morning,
bearing fallen apples?

2.

When I was a girl we went every summer
to a house on a dirt road by a thawing mountain river
and a culvert where the water roared . . .
My brother and I waded all day in that stream,
pulling up rocks and building a dam,
chasing the dog away from our work,
till the water pooled and we could dunk ourselves,
cold chalice, breaking the boundary
between outside and in.
—As if we could breathe underwater,
our bodies subject to our will . . . sky, water, skin.
We wanted to see if we could
change the river, stop it
from pressing through the culvert
and pouring down the hill
into the shadowy pine forest.

3.

Sick mother, greener world.
The filter over our eyes shifts—the white manes
of the clouds, the chlorine of the pool,
fewer words, more to be described.
The horses, the field, the house,
the Adirondack chairs where she and I slept one afternoon,
the pool, the sun that burnt our skin, the laundry
my father hadn’t done for a month,
the couch on which she slept all day, then
the other couch on which she slept all day,
the umbilical IV, the bathroom
where she got sick, the hall where he listened.
I sat in the grass all afternoon, the dogs nosing
my legs, licking my toes, running off to roll in the dirt.
Ants crawled over my legs, tickling me.
The lacquer-blue day hurt my eyes. Half-asleep,
I began to float into the sky.
A shirt came flapping off the laundry line
like a sail or a shroud.

4.

I climb on a black-sailed boat
and sail into the lake
beside the undependable farmhouse.
In the middle of the lake, an island;
On the island, a hospital bed,
and a woman laboring to breathe.
Hydrangeas shiver in the wind.
Sometimes she moans
and I step forward
to press the morphine pump.

When I wake, I stand
in the bedroom window,
closing the blinds, opening them,
twitching them wide,
lamp blinking into the dark:
I can see the island from here.

5.

But you have seen nothing.
You turn the lights on and off
and listen to your mother breathe,
asleep beside the Christmas tree
her hands curled up to her face.
Just a week ago she climbed the stairs
to bed, one step at a time,
pausing on the landing where you crossed,
offering up her cheek and that old goodnight:
“I love you to death.”
You are not author of your loss;
You cannot prepare.
In the morning, pasteboard snow,
a masquerade dawn.
The horses startle when you bring
them apples, frost spackling
their white winter coats.

Appeal to the Self

Have the dowagers of delusion visited you again
in their fat pink shoes, creeping softly over the Persian rugs
of your creaking boarded mind?
It’s time to get up and air the room.
Once you were an explorer, now you are Elizabeth Barrett,
only stupider and more prone to TV-watching.
Outside, cell phones buzz like digital cicadas,
and the air green, green. But you have come up here
to rave inside the tower you call a brain.
You might as well be daubed
in mud and growing feathers. No one will ever notice
the difference between what you say and what you mean.
What you lost, as a teenager in America,
schooled to be ambitious,
is what everybody else lost, the boy
who first screwed you on a rug some way
you can’t quite remember. Who are you to mourn it?
There’s the rub: the plain old human emotions
have become “clichéd.”
But they still exist. That boy
is an actor now, proclaiming grief for art and money.
The losses are yours to live with and embrace.
So come sing with me and be my love,
there is no one else but you, the little voices in my head.

Anesthesia

Say I was searching for God.
Say I was in a hospital with an IV in my arm,
brittle plastic stem. Say I put my hand in mouth
and the nurses took it out.
When I woke they said I’d been speaking for hours.
The machines blinked silver around me.
What took place while I was asleep?
Where had I been I couldn’t remember?
The beloved farmhouse shifts in the long-forgotten light . . .

But no cotton drifted through the sun.
No grass turned dun in the shadows.
No cars drove on the road just out of sight
but within earshot. You forgot
who you were. People came to your bed
and told you they loved you.
How could you know? You didn’t remember
the past, you just felt it slipping out of your grasp,
like wheat in the chute of the silo
before you were born to think me, me, me.

Twenty-first Century Fireworks

It is a green landscape, houses stalwart
as circus ponies, American houses, wet
kids moving through them in Spandex bathing suits,
inside, sandwiches with crusts cut off,
windows flung open and striped awnings rolled out;
family portraits on the wall and generic
medicines in the cabinet: the middle classes.

It is a little beach, rocky and ugly, but
it points out into the sapphire-blue water.
The seaweed doesn’t bother the children here.
This is their childhood, which won’t return.
Nothing hangs at the back of their mind
Like a sticky pinecone, a black branch in winter snow.
Instead, there are hot dogs and parties.

It is a rambunctious barbeque,
and the cousins and the uncles do flips
on the trampoline, dancing too close to each other’s wives,
as if they could stop the sun from going down.
Elsewhere, the president rests on a porch with iced tea
daydreaming of the blue sea of Bermuda,
watching his gardener prune the hydrangea . . .

The future hasn’t arrived. It is all still
a dream, a night sweat to be swum off
amidst whirligig pleasure, a wonderland of sand and bread.
When we woke afterward, the houses
were still standing, the green just as green,
but the seaweed had thickened and the light
at the end of the dock had cracked.

My Life as a Ruler

1.

The world, when I met it,
lay about in broken pieces— 
a neglected toy. A red hill
here; a river valley there,
green and languid; a bridge
rusting over an oil-slicked lake.
To the west and south, the tribes
had warred until their cities smoked
and their children faded, wraithed
by whooping cough.

All I did was pick up the pieces.
I caused them to be put together
like the parts of a chair.

2.

When I was young, I often
saw my parents
naked. What a delicate
business they were.
And what was I?
Neither the doctor nor the nurse.
I was the knife.
I caused the injury.

3.

I gave children birds
in their throats. We took
knives and made cuts
where the voice should be,
each cord becoming a song.
Now in the schools we have
red-winged cardinals, bluebirds,
thrashers, yellow-speckled hens,
parakeets, even, now and then,
the nightingale.

4.

When fall begins to glitter
in the green leaves,
I grow anxious. This is when the barbarians
ride out. They love the goldenness
of death, how it grieves
the eye to see such richness
as the river ebbs
and the trees unfleur— 

To Nineveh in the autumn I write:
Bring me forty bushels of wheat,
and forty of rice,
each bushel weighing more than one donkey
can carry, within the fortnight—.
If you do not do this,
you will surely die.

And then I wait.

5.

I grow hungry
to be a knife.

6.

My subject, you
think you have a choice, but
you don’t: you are me,
and I love you as only
a ruler can love— 
unmercifully.
Do not be sentimental
about mercy. It leaves
so much up to choice. . . .

7.

That year was a beautiful lie,
the year my love lived with me
and we spent the summer
wading into the Nile as the floods receded
letting the current carry our bodies
down around the bend— 
the water so strong
you had to dive in before it knocked
you off your feet and pulled you under— 
he showed me how to pick thistle
for tea. We came upon
a leopard in the grass
and she hissed at us—.
No one loves the person who holds power
over his survival.
I saw his eyes when he shook off the water.

8.

I was sad, and I
stuffed your throats
with birds.

9.

I cut the sea
with a knife
because the sea
would not stop for me.
And still it broke but
not as I wished it to.
Not under me, but
over me.

10.

Of course—I hate my power.
Who wouldn’t?
Bored and terrible, I ply lithe men with faience,
I require the dancing girls to moan and plaint.
I lick kohl from the eyelids of whom I want.
I take the gold from the braziers.
None of it satisfies me.
I thought the world’s trouble
lay in its shards. So I resolved to hold
the shards to my heart.
Now I find the trouble is the night,
which keeps coming, though
I command it not to.

11.

Tonight I wash
my hands and sing
old songs. I call my friend,
I love to watch him dance. . . .
He drinks wine impetuously.
He will leave my care
when another’s light kiss
vaccinates him against my illness, some
sweet-tempered almandine thing
lighting firecrackers between her feet
in the summer grass—not one
like me, nearly frozen up with cruelty—

12.

And so I go to work.
My nation is the grass,
These broken bridges,
Men and women burning themselves alive
Beside the crumbling churches.
I keep them alive with my words.
I am vigilant and cruel.
I am the grass and the birds,
And I eat them too.

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