Poems about The Body – and Dying

November 16th 2014_First snowfall of the season in Toronto

Robert Hass (born 1941)
A Story about The Body
The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity – like music – withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl – she must have swept them from the corners of her studio – was full of dead bees.
. . .
Marie Howe (born 1950)
How some of it happened
My brother was afraid, even as a boy, of going blind – so deeply
that he would turn the dinner knives away from looking at him,
he said, as they lay on the kitchen table.
He would throw a sweatshirt over those knobs that lock the car door
from the inside, and once, he dismantled a chandelier in the middle
of the night when everyone was sleeping.
We found the pile of sharp shining crystals in the upstairs hall.
So you understand, it was terrible
when they clamped his one eye open and put the needle in through
his cheek
and up into his eye from underneath
and left it there for a full minute before they drew it slowly out
once a week for many weeks. He learned to lean into it,
to settle down, he said, and still the eye went dead, ulcerated,
breaking up green in his head, as the other eye, still blue
and wide open, looked and looked at the clock.
My brother promised me he wouldn’t die after our father died.
He shook my hand on a train going home one Christmas and gave me
five years,
as clearly as he promised he’d be home for breakfast when I watched him
walk into that New York City autumn night. By nine, I promise,
and he was – he did come back. And five years later he promised
five years more.
So much for the brave pride of premonition,
the worry that won’t let it happen.
You know, he said, I always knew I would die young.
And then I got sober and I thought, OK, I’m not.
I’m going to see thirty and live to be an old man.
And now it turns out that I am going to die – isn’t that funny?
One day it happens: what you have feared all your life,
the unendurably specific, the exact thing. No matter what you say or do.
This is what my brother said:
Here, sit closer to the bed so I can see you.
. . .
Marie Howe
Just Now
My brother opens his eyes when he hears the door click
open downstairs and Joe’s steps walking up past the meowing cat
and the second click of the upstairs door, and then he lifts
his face so that Joe can kiss him. Joe has brought armfuls
of broken magnolia branches in full blossom, and he putters
in the kitchen looking for a big jar to put them in and finds it.
And now they tower in the living room, white and sweet, where
John can see them if he leans out from his bed which
he can’t do just now, and now Joe is cleaning. What a mess
you’ve left me, he says, and John is smiling, almost asleep again.
. . .
Both the above Howe poems are from the collection What the Living Do © 1998 Marie Howe.
From Wikipedia:
Howe’s brother John died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. “John’s living and dying changed my aesthetic entirely,” she has said. In 1995, Howe co-edited, with Michael Klein, a collection of essays, letters, and stories entitled In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic.