“Self-Portraits from the Widow House”
Grief comes to eat without a mouth.
1 Self-Portrait as the Scavenger GullHere at the quiet limit of the world, a white-haired shadow roaming emptied rooms, the house where my body is ash, the earth’s core still burning. I chart the ruins daily, tread worn boards, each step, charred, compromised. The scavenger gull, hollow-boned and turning, squawks its gyre. I sort the rubble, a toaster, a key chain, your La-Z-Boy chair, its slats sprung and laddering up like car-struck ribs: a deer carcass disarticulated in the purple nap of crown vetch wild along the interstate. The body’s rank conversion to gone. In the aftermath I never return. I salvage what I can. I lose everything.
2 Self-Portrait as the Reluctant SurvivorHauling light through the morose veil of drapes at dawn, I imagine Tithonus nailed in his dark box. Its cheap pine planks knotted with shiners and areolas, the hybrid corpse zippered in the taut sack of rigor mortis. I am the reluctant survivor babbling our broken parable. Unable to resist the scene of the crime, I mingle like an arsonist, incognito, pace the twisted-yellow garland of police-tape strung between saplings. I’m the trench coat, gray tails flapping. I’m first light’s sad throb: night-fog hunkered in the orchard. To remember, I finger the wound, draw air across the cracked tooth, wince. To forget, I take the scenic route everywhere, avert my eyes, whistle—
3 Self-Portrait as the Emptied ClosetI fan a stack of Manila folders across our bed, warranties the deed to the house. I remove your suit coats, ties— the shoebox of letters home. I am the emptied closet, the archeologist unearthing my own past. In the widow house everything is boxed. Moth balls in lace satchels swing from their hangers and I hear your impossible footsteps echo across the hardwood. Recollection is a treasure map, the fool’s errand, it’s flawed, encoded and incomplete. I write history here on the floor. I still lose. I must.
4 Self-Portrait as the Last Person LivingAlone in every room, I kiss the plump cheeks of strangers pawning casseroles in CorningWare dishes. They wear crocheted oven mitts and stare through walls. I am blind with grief: a heart molten beneath a cataract of cheeses. In the widow house I see people clearly, see, through two milky eyes, history and tea cups tremble in the hand, the pages of a book turn to ash. I gather baubles in the hammock of my blouse, they are precious, destroyed. I’ll keep them forever. Processions of cars crowd the street. At the widow house the streets are barren. I am the last person living. I learn how little I need. I need everything, always. Everywhere.
5 Self-Portrait as ScarecrowA heavy recitation of wood smoke cakes like funeral lime in the mouth. I breathe shallow breaths, breathe deeply. I forget how to breathe. My ancestors swoop, like crows, the fields. I’m fixed to a cross, waving— waving, my overalls stuffed with straw. I carry my house keys for years, refuse to set them down. In the widow house door keys grow huge as axes and the Berber carpet crackles at the weight of my feet like straw. The world covered in straw. A vision of spring water cascades down stairwells and the faces of loved ones disintegrate like ash. They return in sleep, on bicycles, wearing moth-eaten hats. This is a blessing. A kind of prayer.
6 Self-Portrait as Carrier of the EarthSplayed as a sulfur moth under glass, sunrise is pinned to the sky, and the loam has finally reached its thaw. Today, I am strong again. I carry the earth beneath my nails, watch the spiders return to their spun scaffolds. They are the first to rebuild, to stake their claim, to hang their laundry out to dry. Snails decorate the brickwork with their slow tinseled tracks. Airplanes keen like thunderous toys overhead, their contrails dissecting the sky. And everywhere termites scrimshaw the dead branches beneath sleeves of bark. Weeds sprout the cracked pavement, the magnolia tree flowers from only one side, one side is stripped black with fire. I understand this as a kind of mourning.
7 Self-Portrait as a Walking MonumentMy heart grown heavy, I become a bronzed statue in a park. Pigeons preen themselves on my head. A thousand feathers zipped and unzipped, flutter from my rusted cap. I am martyred, mourned. S**t upon. I wear a white tear on my cheek, mourn for what I have lost, for what I never had. I become a walking monument. A tribute to loss. A world champion. I begin to sing folk songs about myself, take a vow of silence. In the widow house I stay up through the night talking and weeping. This is a kind of mourning. A prayer. I write a book, a song, the Song of Songs. It is riddled with lies. It’s my true story. I burn the book. Ashes rise through air: a flurry of black snow returning. This is a kind of mourning. I never write again. My life becomes the poem. It is fragmented. Beautiful. Flawed.
8 Self-Portrait as One Who Sleeps Through the NightI lift bowls of tomato soup to my lips, drink loudly, crumble saltines through the dark. I’m warmed. I burn my morning eggs like two ruined eyes, leave the bathwater running for days. I cry with the walls, lose my keys, my glasses. I step from the shower, a lather of soap still in the pit of an arm. I stand outside in the cold, bicker with the silence then welcome it. I lie awake in the cricket chatter, listen like a lonely dog to the cars turn into the gravel drive, watch headlights climb the walls like time-lapsed days. There are no cars. I sleep through the night. This is a kind of mourning.
9 Self-Portrait as DisasterI have taken to sleeping in the centers of beds, I wear, on my wrist, a dab of kerosene and swoon at the pulse in my ear. It becomes a flint, an anthem, a funeral parade, a message pounded between hilltops, a folk song, prayer. It keeps its time. This is a kind of mourning. In the widow house I live in exile. I’m banished from the past, the present. I’m smuggled back in a wagonload of straw. I’m honored, welcomed with a parade, an oompah-pah band, beer and dancing. I’m remembered, overlooked, betrayed. I’m home free, sunk, cherished, sung about, persecuted, loved. This is a kind of praise and still, I remain flammable, highly combustible in public places and all alone. I’m disaster— the billion sleeper cells ticking, I’m TNT walking. Volatile— this widowheart wired to blow.
(© 2008 by Sean Nevin. Reprinted from Oblivio Gate with permission from Southern Illinois University Press.)