Elizabeth Arnold

 

from THE REEF

He opened the bird and out flew 54 post-mortem bees,
out of a crow's craw, shot and fallen seconds before
during the fatal feeding, steam still rising from the corpse
into the gap of its last flight.

...............................................Where now the bees are,
straggling as before, when eaten, having broken ranks
with home in sight. The gunshot spreading through the woods in rings,
the bees again go staggering up and this time make it.

Hunter/gatherer, farmer in this wilderness,
Crèvecoeur must have smiled as he turned back, the crow
limp on his shoulder--at the wonder of it, the new world's
seemingly endless hoard, its numbers forever self-renewing.
Counting all he saw until his numbers petered out,
he headed home, carrying what he could of the meat,
with the liquid light to come.

»»»

 

The afternoon I learned a close friend's mother,
having fought the thing for months, was close to death
from cancer, five miles away we stood upstairs,
the day's light pulling back behind the leafless trees
to the southwest of our house. You face flat as an owl's--
you'd lost your father just a year before--
you said you thought of dying as a walk through woods,
palmetto, scrub oak, pine, the going getting harder
as the tangle of vines got thicker, brambles grabbing
at your feet, chest, face, the sky almost completely
blocked by branches. You'd keep tugging at the undergrowth,
you said, keep trudging--without spirit but persistent--on,
as if despite your doubt there were an opening
on the other side, though nothing recognizable in sight,
and then the panic--feel it in your gut--then stop
to listen, look, in the middle of this nowhere, lost.

»»»


Vicente Pascual
Pelearon durante muchos soles, muchos soles
1991 Private Collection. Acrylic on canvas,
32" by 51"
see more work by Vicente Pascual

 

 

Here I am a third time, lying on a metal bed in sheets.
The surgeon's tools wink blankly back against the green-tiled windowless walls.
A nurse's hand like ice in mine, I watch the doctor's mouth speak words
while all his other parts--the eyes, the shoulders, hands--say he is sorry,
he the knower, healer, doer, as he tells me it's come back,
"recurred," awakened, de-remissed. But I don't freeze; just when I hear the words
I'm more alert than even in those heady times when nothing hurts:
beginning, middle, end make one clear frame, inside of which I fit.

Back home, outdoors, I sit and stare, hearing in the usual background noise
the whistling of the front-door keyhole tighten to a buzzing moan,
which wakes me up, but this time to a storm, offshore somewhere,
a just-named hurricane spinning at the water underneath,
hurling the sky out from itself in spirals, hundreds of miles beyond
the place it started (which has, with Earth, gone past that point), folding
at higher and higher speeds the raw material, air, into its mass
until great gusts of wind enrage the oaks, send dead leaves scattering,
scuttling up the street, while cloud-bands give and take away light,
turning the world into a carnival no one escapes.

»»»

 

The rails' sound hurt, rasping metal wheels on tracks
against my spine it seemed, the train thundering northbound
through the dark. Sleeping on the shuddering floor,
I dreamed again of the night with all those travelers in Rome,
Chianti cherry-colored drunk, confessing (loudly)
to a stranger in a cheap hotel.

Then the light came, Orkney, bright in the cloud's glare,
the treeless whale's-head bluffs against the sea, with the wind
roaring, whistling...

They told me later I had died, stopped breathing.
You'd think that I'd remember, that whatever's next
would startle even out of anesthesia. But dying
can be quick, I guess, as just before they start to cut
the drug steals voices and the lights before the needle's out.

»»»

 

Shallow-rooted moss-hung water oak, its hollow
limbless trunk, the deep-combed furrows rivering down,
appearing strong it saved me from disintegration once--
the sight of it, its sparkling leaves, the certainty
that it stood just beyond the pane.

»»»

 

A group of Baptists stood knee-deep in the St. Johns River,
their thin white robes ballooning in the wind.
They bent the big man back and pushed him under
the oak-stained water, holding him down for a few long
seemingly endless seconds so that when they let him go,
he popped up like a buoy.

As if he'd died and come again to life,
out of the murk and tangle of the holy robes.
I saw him lean into the thinnest light
that barely held him in relief
against the gray of river, sky, the seagulls
diving, bobbing, flying off.

»»»

 

Black sky grayed in the square of window to my left
as I lay straining at it, and on the other side,
three bars of light through the high-hung door's cracks
spreading barely one foot in. I'd been awake awhile,
I'd never gone to sleep. I moved my legs
against the sheets. For once not startled by the nurses'
middle-of-the-night checks--taking "temp," the pressure
of the blood, the pulse.

.....................................Mine had to be racing--going home
after two long weeks of paling against their white, of losing
thirty pounds, of x-rays, CAT scans, surgery, awake
and while I slept--woke up to find I'd lost a day.
How could I sleep on that last night, anticipating
what I'd do once I was out?

But getting in the car took all my strength,
leaving me limp and sweating in the sun-warmed seat,
wrecked again on the body's shallow reef.

»»»


Elizabeth Arnold is author of The Reef, published by The University of Chicago Press in 1999, and edited Insel, a novel by Mina Loy (for which she also wrote the afterword). She received a Whiting Writers Award this Fall, and has received fellowships from Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. A former teacher in the writing program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, she is now an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maryland.

Published in Volume 4, Number 1, Winter 2003.