—Domine, labia mea aperies
Within the symphony Mahler died writing—
a Tenth alive in its ghost—a riddling
four minute section called Purgatorio pulses,
oscillates between grim tones & euphoric trills,
underscored with a perpetuum mobile
accompaniment. Four minutes, the time
you can go without air before you die,
or so it says on the Heimlich diagram
on the wall. Four minutes, which is forever
if it’s four minutes waiting for breakfast.
But what does four minutes of regret
look like? Is it time enough to play
the film of your life, or at least the moments
you would take back? To walk the hallways
of every place you’ve ever lived? Returned
as a stranger to your homes, to a life
that resembles this unfinished symphony—
so much in it a mystery, so much mere gesture—
tinning from the cheap speakers.
The good life has always seemed so near.
Wasn’t it the sixth terrace of Purgatory
that had the just-out-of-reach fruit,
the beautiful fruit, & the clear pure water?
The mountain would shake each time
a soul completed a level, the way the very air
of Dallas is shaking with explosions
thirty-nine miles up: the unfinished symphony
will stay unfinished, as a news update
reports the disaster: ion & smoke contrails
streak the sky, as debris begins to rain
down, their trails the threads that tie us to the other
side, to whatever’s above us, or beyond us.
All across northeast Texas they will keep finding
them: a helmet, a sole of a boot, skull,
even a vertebrate the size of a spindle,
even a heart that fell thirty-nine miles.
Later we will mourn those we lost.
Later the testimonies of the lives that left
this earth, our earth, but for now we join
the crowd on the sidewalk, the business crowd,
the breakfast crowd, even a street preacher
carrying a REPENT sign, & today I repent
of all my cheap regrets, Lord, open my lips—
today wasn’t even promised me, today
I repent of the things I asked for, I ask for
you to guide them to a familiar place,
the lost, the dead in freefall all around us.
Nocturne with Moon Song
A coyote lopes through a meadow
a field away, a black-spotted silver quickening,
high noon longing & ragged spell.
The cries it slings up at the sky
return as shades, as ashes drifting down—
confetti for a parade
of the departed. Sundog salute:
lunar tracings in a high plains send-off.
The Book of the Dead has each of our hearts weighed
against a feather
in the hereafter:
the guiltless heart on the top scale,
a ticket to the good path.
For the rest of us, there’s the hope that the faces we remember
will each give us an ounce of lift,
there’s the hope that the heart will outweigh
at least the ashes it’s given off,
like those from the wildfire
in the next canyon, hushing in an early November dark
even earlier, settling with the falling leaves,
the season pulled down by its hair.
Somewhere in the dark another coyote answers.
We hold distances full of the same keening,
& remember them as the voices
of those who have gone ahead of us,
as another answers, then another,
until there’s one on every side of you—
you’re only a dream in the middle of the cry-stringed catcher.
Above the concrete spillway birds fall
into their cries & rise from their own
reflections in the water, out of the sousreal
world that looks so much like this one.
Here, an open-beaked grackle, more hunger
than wing, lurches on top of a wall stained
with graffiti: names that must last longer
than their utterance. The wall’s a palimpsest
of the missing, names that unwrite other
names when written. Each word speaks flesh,
& like a body, these have become ruin,
a mesh of cracks & chips in the neon, a fluoresced
weave that shimmers like damascene
blades. Blues, greens & pinks, even a yellow
that is brighter than the black-eyed Susans
crowding the spillway edge. Yet it’s their halos
that keep your eye as you perch on the wall:
revenant daisies hammered from shadow
& cinders—3-D negatives of daisies, the ineffable
corollaed for a few days, half sun & half ashes.
An otherworldly fragrance rises from their petals,
fletched embers, a bouquet for Paolo & Francesca’s
last day together. You know the story—
swept up in a whirlwind that leaves them bodiless,
hell’s second circle. Their voices must be soft by
now—& voice is all that binds the lovers.
One version has the circle as perfect, so they
will never draw any closer. Another
has them oblivious to their surroundings,
so all they know is the distance to the other,
translucent shrouds adrift above the ground,
more desire than voice, more voice than body,
their calling constant as the spillway’s water sound,
swelled with a night’s worth of rain, the history
of last night. Not the birds, nor the high noon
radiance can reach them, when its once-a-day
brilliance brims the irises of the wells, the rain-
& wind-battered words on the wall a little fainter
each day. But the flowers’ roots might reach down
far enough, the ends of the white roots, like stars
in the dark earth. And they might look up, as we do
at the night sky, to trace a figure, & remember
the other half of their body, body of air & ember.
Quiz: After Loss
1. Thistleberry most nearly means
a) chandelier hung with rivers
b) hollow on your body she last left her lipstick
c) impossible body silhouetted by rain
d) shadow pulled from the Styx
2. Longing is to hell as
a) crushed violets to eyelid
b) the thumbs of the Taj Mahal’s twenty-two thousand laborers—cut off
to ensure there would never be another like it—to palace
c) nakedness to ghost walking the winter woods
d) hell to longing
3. Last words are to inaudible as
a) impassable to stairway of cinders
b) girandole to dancer
c) rattle to snake
d) welt to flesh
4. The pale arches of her feet are to trail of ashes as
a) horse statue is to the marble flinders that surround it
b) the unwritten passage of the Tenth
is to the rest of the symphony Mahler died writing
c) orange tree is to museum of cobwebs
d) harp to shiver of leaves
5. The antonym of living shadow is most nearly
b) de Chirico’s charcoal outline of his father
on his final night on the earth
c) cartography of drowned horses
d) butcher’s window strung with bones
6. When you turned you saw
a) forty-four thousand blue phlox petals on the air
b) the empty hallways in your house
c) a world that does not yield to song
d) the teeth of everyone who once sang with you
7. She was
a) never there
b) taken when you looked back
d) speaking your name
to the nape of your neck
for the rest of your life
8. She is
b) the shaded area on a Venn diagram where four circles called
everafter and disappeared and God and hibiscus petals meet
c) a handful of dead bees
d) a half turn that divides the living & dead
Biscayne Bay Sandbar with Baby Grand
From the beach the baby grand on the sandbar
in the middle of the bay
is only a small speck the size of a tinderbox,
dark lunula of a hand held out at arm’s length—
Practical joke? Installation art?
Or a means to an arrangement, the sea’s spill & wash
to edge a moonshot nocturne
for all the cannibal rats aboard the tsunami-freed ghost ships drifting out there.
Or a memorial, left there by Scriabin
for his son Julian, who drowned in Dnieper River
when he was eleven—
has anyone written the right movement for his limbs?
It’s only the wind & tides that still shake the joints, the wires,
half-hollowed by the silence
that followed the storm two nights ago,
a note for each sea & one
for the body of the Hunter Gracchus,
forever drifting port to port, face to the stars
that once guided him…
Sometimes any little piece of eternity,
whatever we can beg or borrow,
is enough, or has to be—
star drift & bone shard,
deep pulse & deep prayer,
the body’s Thirteen Ghost Points—
some nothing that remains
after something’s created out of it.
Little eternities. The endlessly circling,
Hunter & raven.
No one ever tells you what these little pieces will be.
No one ever tells you what to remember
or what to hold on to,
what to listen for in the dissolving scrawls
of smugglers’ & fishers’ wakes,
or just what we can make do with.
And as taut as the wires are
inside the mahogany,
if memory’s hooks are half-sunk in us,
how many vessels sail through us,
urged on by their own emptiness?
MARK WAGENAAR's books are Voodoo Inverso, and most recently, The Body Distances, winner of the Pollak Prize & the Juniper Prize, respectively. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Valparaiso University.