The dead man’s house clatters into mine. To reach anything, I must pass through him, knee deep in turbid ghost-waters, his artifacts threatening to upend me. Here his framed face as a boy, here his diploma, here the image of his once-young wife, here a book given him at five by a doting auntie, here a painting, provenance carefully documented on its reverse, here his music, boxes and boxes. Currently, he stands closer to me than my father. I wear his shirts. I drink what remains of his booze. As in a fairy tale, a spirit overmastered me along the road and set me this task, to shepherd him beyond the grave. What of my life? I asked. But the beldam had already disappeared, her palm-print burned into my forearm.
Daily, the dead man sings to me of dying. Not of death itself, but of the slow slog towards it, the sloughing off. First the body’s agility, then the pastimes, then the friends, the world shrinking to a house, a single floor, a room. Then, the smell of urine.
The dead man points out the elderly. That person, he indicates. And that one there. Bus, bank, parkbench, street. I am to notice them, like a grad student doing field research. Who were they? Who are they still? I awaken nightly to the thumps of a walker making its slow approach.
In a circle of deadfall and nightshade, the dead man’s ashes collect rainwater. Worn beach stones barrow him round. Each time I visit, I check to see how much of him remains and how much Pacific storms have carried away. Even when the last fleck can no longer be seen, he remains, a genius loci.
I’m only a poet, I protest to the dead man. He holds my gaze, so many of the dead are.
You Say Europe
You say Europe, you say university,
as if answers awaited you on plinths.
I can assure you, instead,
of misdirection, the cageyness
of such. I anticipate catchments
brimming tears, remember
circling roommates like a gladiator,
the serpents of high school asleep
in the next bed, thoughts of suicide
purring on my lap, the petting of them,
and their arching, the boys,
like stud bulls, eager to mount,
the flare of their nostrils as they sniffed
out the cows in season. The corridors
rang with bravado, no adult
saying how to arrive
unscathed. There I was, scribbling,
a de-miner holding multiple fuses,
trying to render each benign.
You are entering the years I’ve worked
to forget, the journals heaved in a dumpster,
the flare of a match feeding, the flame
of forty proof, the numbness. Better was later,
the fourth decade, the fifth. And even this,
not intentional, a falling into grace like a
sinner. I want you on the other side,
to greet you, dockside, after your journey,
then burn the clothes you traveled in.
Devon Balwit teaches in Portland, OR. She has six chapbooks and three collections out or forthcoming, among them: We are Procession, Seismograph (Nixes Mate Books); Risk Being/Complicated (A collaboration with Canadian artist Lorette C. Luzajic); Where You Were Going Never Was (Grey Borders); and Motes at Play in the Halls of Light (Kelsay Books). Her individual poems can be found in The Cincinnati Review, apt, Posit, The Carolina Quarterly, The Aeolian Harp Folio, The Turnip Truck(s), Eclectica, SWWIM, and more.