David Graham
Cold Stream Elegies

- in memory of Jean Shippey Lyons 1951-2001

1. Good Friday

Five states away and an hour
into the future, Jean is dying:
how can I wake so calmly
this morning? Walking
downstairs barefoot
to fetch a banana, I know
that sleep is a salve. By noon
I'll be criss-crossed with fretfulness,
like a yard full of snow
marked by squirrels, rabbits,
and wind-loosened twigs.
How is it I can relish
this windy day, all blustery
with mischance and doom?
A voice on the phone machine
I do not recognize. It might
be the voice of fate,
but I don't care to listen
just now. I'm going to eat
a banana, then pause to think
about the crickly sound it makes
when peeled, and the feel
of that cool flesh on my tongue
just like yesterday. Good lord,
just like yesterday.

2. Long Distance Death Watch

Skunk cabbage and mayapples
unfurl overnight
into the still-chilly air,

poke through leaf mat, impelled
once again by some darkness
I mar and blur with naming.

A pair of flickers flushes
from a green clearing ahead -
soon these woods will resound

with their peculiar laughter.
It's all on schedule, just right,
this seasonal pageantry

provoking its usual
ideas quick in the blood,
licking my fur with soft wind.

Does she float and drift through
morphine haze on any such
breeze now? Or has she found

the mute will just to lean
like a green stalk in the necessary
way? A thousand miles from her

oxygen and night sweats,
her narcotic murmurs
and breakthrough pain, am I sweetened

or salted by each memory?
And what on earth shall I
hope for now, whose notion

of miracle has long since
dried like a husk cast down
upon fecund ground?

Shall it simply be the dread
relief of that last phone call?
Or is there still chance for a word,

a look that says I am here
in this blooming year and day?
As her pump hums and hisses

its dire inspiration,
my wind freshens. Oak twigs bob,
budded out at last, old leaves

stripped away by last night's storm.
They crackle with running squirrels
and a bluejay flashes

its brilliant jab of light,
escaping me. I have to
believe this day quickened

even with such scattering.

3. May Elegy

Almost a kick in the belly, this lushness,
the heavy sweet greens everywhere
from oak leaf to cattail stalk,
thick scent of pollen and petal
all over town, the lilac and iris
outrageous in their campy dress,
prairie fields nearly monotone
that will later bleach and bake
to the tweedy cacophony of August,
and rippling fields of young corn
all delicate and wind-bemused, maples
closing over the sidewalk
their deep cool-warm shade,
and the red on blackbirds' wings
burning bright as embers
for a season, and the streams
running cold and clear, no silt,
no foam or scum in the eddies,
and even the rumpled, weary crows
glistening from last night's rain
like oiled roads -
and there is no smell,
no gleam, no weedy sweetness to eye
or tongue that does not send us, bewildered,
deeper into the loose earth of our grief.

4. Cold Stream Saturday

That's right, it's not Thursday with its yellow
pollen-light overbrimming the air, rumbles
all day from State Street where they finally finished
the blacktop job that detoured us for weeks,
a day hallowed by nothing much beyond
a wild turkey we flushed from tall prairie grass,
flying with strange power and grace to the top
of an oak at field's edge;

and it's not Wednesday,
either, when we drove six miles past early-season
cornfields surging, we did not say, with the bounty
of life - drove to dinner with an old friend,
admiring his plantings in detail as appetizer:
hothouse perennials and the paler,
more valued blooms he dug up in the woods,
while gradually, neither pushing it nor avoiding
anything, we allowed our chat to drift
into the sorrows and losses of any mid-life,
the vacant crippled parents, a sister unbelievably
dead, and this sadness was very much a part
of the feast, a richness and fine complexity to sip
like the Chianti that went so well with our salad
of fresh greens still warm from his garden;

but it's no longer Wednesday, it's three
kaleidoscopic days on, Saturday, June 2, 2001,
a cold blustery morning, rain steady in the oaks
and running great gritty rivulets down our street,
and because more and more I hunger to nail
each time and place down, I want to find a way
without undue sap or irony to sketch our dog Spim
lying on the carpet always facing me
whichever chair I choose, for I am his North Star,
and when I rise to re-fill my coffee mug,
he snaps to attention: Yes, Mr. President,
are we moving out now?
and somehow
his doggy trust in me and my essential beneficence,
the ever-flourishing possibilities of my
next move, is enough to bring me close to tears.

Which of course I realize is all part
of the great shifting and displacement of grief,
how even sniffing the heavy air today, or seeing
the dark glitter of rain glazing our windows,
or smiling at a goofy spaniel, I am mourning
a sister I knew but never well enough, and without
a blink I am canoeing down last summer's stream -
by then she wasn't paddling much, just steering
a little, pushing away overhung branches
as Cold Stream narrowed to jungle, but, we
told ourselves at the time, in truth she never
paddled much, not an outdoor girl, really,
though it lifted and lifts my heart to see her
in her large straw hat occupying the bow,
a weak and pale Cleopatra, giggling when a turtle
plopped into the water suddenly (yes, the glistening,
sun-dappled turns of routine life),
and though we had no illusions, we all knew
the prognosis, somehow for a day or weekend
we allowed ourselves not to think last time,
final summer -

And as it happens all of this
is gone and not gone today in a rush of rain
and the gaze of a dog examining me
as if surely I will do the exact right thing
any minute now, as though all my feelings
were utterly correct, and it's not important
what day it is, what was said or not said
on the muddy banks of last year's stream
still cold and black as rain-slick asphalt.

5. Grandmother Grief

- Piseco Lake, July 2001

Distant drone of an outboard on the lake,
or hummingbird close but unseen in the garden?
Here we are both near and far, at home
in a borrowed but well-loved house for our month,
house borrowed from my grandmother
and the Adirondack wind, three decades now
since she sank forever into these green waters
to become the flickering ripple of a rising trout,
the mist that lifts, day after day, like the sheets
over a sleeping loved one. Now just a paltry hand
of stories we'll shuffle and re-shuffle
for a generation or two, until finally
she'll be locked in the January ice, mute
as a stone half in, half out of the solid waves.

Grandmother, I've come to love this place
with longing nearly fierce enough to displace you,
even your long gray Victorian hair
released each night like a strange Rapunzel's
as you stood in the bedroom door, brushing
absentmindedly, asking after my bowel habits,
even your jaunty dinner quips or the husky curses
you delivered to the driveway hemlocks
before you got power steering - all vanishing
rapidly, gradually as a head of hair,
all transferred like palmfuls of water,
clumsily, to babies of babies you never knew.
For them one day you'll be a sketch
on the wall, three-tiered name on the family tree,
stripped of all your anecdotes, perhaps,
except whatever made it into the album,
like the straw campaign hat you wore
on your death bed, emblazoned Rockefeller,
just to needle your Nixon-loving son. . . .

There's more to the story than that, of course,
more to any life than the four or five tales
that get burnished and re-made in the telling -
but even they are like boat wakes on the glassy
morning water, spreading wide and eventually
vanishing into the disembodied murmur of wavelets
on stone. Then nothing - as all my proud longing
will also seep into ground, moving by spring or stream
into the lake one day, then rising into morning chill
as fog, to mark my passing and my persistence.

* * * * * * * * * *

Grandmother, I'm telling you these things
because you're the cool wind I believe in
instead of God, the drenching mist
I trust on my face, because you if anyone
will understand the aching displacement
of losses quick and abiding, you who lost son,
husband and more, lost your legs and then your mind
right here in this bumblebee garden, here between
wood thrush and motorboat. I'm telling you this
because I am raw this summer with fresh death,
a sister you never saw, but she knew you
in the album, in stories each raspberry patch
or picnic rock could trigger in me. Every meal
at your long table now conjures her ghost,
and every sun-lashed spruce is a photo
she would have taken. Every time
I settle into the rocking cradle of my kayak
and pull out into open water, I think invariably
of her last summer here and the way her bloated,
weakened body set forth on these nourishing waters.

So the smallest recipe can bring back her voice,
and the chant of waves against the shore, and her laugh
has already merged with yours, Grandmother,
as with the thousand and one summer storms
that have slammed windows here, angers
and betrayals and the long steady leach of time -
and I seem to be waiting for a bell that never rings,
I seem to search the sky for some brilliant bird,
I seem to look into the black mirror of the lake
as it first receives the sun, then suddenly blinds,
giving back nothing but the generous sky.