The Weight of Lilies

Each year, right about this time, I tell you that fall comes to the desert in begrudging ways, that the plants in the garden continue to thrive but seem to be in a place of transition, as unsure as I am about when the break between too hot and cool might actually occur. Our winter vegetables are in, but the rest of the garden’s chemical processes seem to be waiting–just as mine are–for the world to go dormant around them.

And each year I allow that the desert fights for every hour of its beloved heat. Fight or not, fall is when the world disappears, and the desert will finally have to give in and go. Experience, however, reminds us that the world always promises to return by spring.

My upcoming collection began as a study of disappearance. It’s a word I parsed in various ways as I decided whether it should even be used in a poem. Some told me it’s too much of an abstract notion, that it can’t be touched or held, that all it can do is provide its vague allegiance to emotional sorrow, which is also abstract. I decided to go with the vaguely powerful: that disappearance is a force of mystery, at times the one small thing we’re able to hold onto in our lives. “How do I prepare,” one of the collection’s poems asks at its final line, “for disappearance?”

Many of these poems were written during a period of upheaval in my life: my mother’s passing in 2011; my father’s sudden illness and eventual passing in 2014; and my brother’s cancer and passing seven months after my father. It was a heavy time, a lot of it spent on the road between Tucson and Phoenix in some sort of vain attempt at fixing that which was impossible to fix. Unlike fall time, there were no promised springs. This was disappearance as permanency.

The collection was originally titled, appropriately enough, Unusual Sorrows, because by October 2014 sorrow was the one constant emotion in my life. It had become a way of being. A practice.

Ah, but life moves, as does poetry along with it. There is hope, after all, and redemption, and love. Sorrow is like a hot rock inside me whose heat rises and falls, a necessity (as I’ve learned) that exists to remind me just how wild and alive and thriving I really can be and mostly am. At it’s apex, sorrow has a depth of being that allows me to love that much more deeply once it has gone dormant.

Themes, in poetry, rise and fall as well. The finished collection still contains its sorrow, but with time other themes emerged: hope, redemption, family and love. Perhaps readers of the collection will be as confused as our garden is now as it waits for winter. Perhaps not. Maybe sorrow, hope, redemption and love are too wide a spectrum for a singular collection of poems. But I don’t think so.

The title of the collection is and will be The Weight of Lilies, which I extracted from a poem for my mother in my first collection (I’ll add the full poem at the end of this post):

When it’s time,
I want to fall with the weight
of lilies, streaked in grace,

wide-eyed and thriving.

Each year I tell you that fall comes to the desert in begrudging ways. And each year, right about now, I watch the 10-day forecast a bit more closely, waiting for the break between too hot and cool to occur. The vegetables in the backyard are thriving, despite the last of this year’s heat, and tomorrow I’m leaving to visit my daughter in upstate New York.

Sorrow is, first and foremost, the way we repaint our souls. Ah, but that love thing . . . that’s the conquerer.

r

Autopsis

For my mother

I.

In the geography of this world, I am barefoot in sand
with a cup of tea steeped in ritual ways, mixed

with cream that swirls amid the rich herbs to form
a favorite shade, an earthy tone of lean clay.

This morning’s wind trusses beach to ocean, ocean
to globe, globe to the tattered path we spin upon.

Still, today tides rise, crabs skittle across the beach,
a white mass floats in the sky that is not a moon

or a school of flying fish, but a flock of gulls that hovers
near a fisher’s fantail, beyond the waves

as equal to this morning as my tea. The surf blends
with sun, the horizon is gray, the angels perch like

pelicans on the rotted wood of docks. This morning,
the world is as hopeless as a poem.

II.

I have been to Lake Ladoga
near the Baltic Sea, where a fisherman
led me to his bucket of silvery smelt,
their pneumatic gills gasping
like piston engines in pinkish oil.

When beggar gypsies jumped upon
a subway train, I turned to read
the city maps, to sip more tea, to watch
the hooded babushkas inspect their
darkly rolled umbrellas.

Digression: Once, as we drank whiskey on a rooftop in Baltimore, I found myself counting stars that floated like packs of burnt balloons. That night, the sky spoke from between two clouds: there are only moments, it said, before bowing to whiskey and winter.

The Atlantic is still dark,
it burdens itself and moves,
and soon will turn plum-purple.

The gulls hover at the fantail,
as a crewman pitches baitfish
into the struggling sky,
and still they cry for more.

III.

Sometimes, a poem of lilies
streaked in gold and thriving
in a blue vase can be
a simple poem of lilies
streaked in gold and thriving.

When I was four, leaves fell
mid-air between branch and earth,
as did I, from the branch,
afraid to let go, to fall.

My mother came and said:
open wide your eyes and palms.

Sometimes, a poem of lilies
streaked in gold and thriving
in a blue vase can be
a prescription for grace.

I see the tired beach and fear
the fall. I think I may forget
to open wide my eyes and palms,

afraid of the angels perched
on rotted logs, the silvery smelt
sucking air, even the lilies
she bought in Amsterdam
when I was a boy.

The waves that round me
become the open eyes and palms,
the coastal beacons begging ships
to clear this craggy shore,

and when it’s time, I want
to let go into the crèche of leaves
below, to open wide
my eyes and palms. I want

to remember the prescription.

Sometimes, a poem of lilies
streaked in gold and thriving
in a blue vase is as graceful
as a mother’s quiet smile,

and as a last light dances
across the Atlantic’s dark face,
the sun narrows to its
final filament, faint and full.

Open wide your eyes and palms.

When it’s time,
I want to fall with the weight
of lilies, streaked in grace,

wide-eyed and thriving.