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The On Being Project

“Self-Portraits from the Widow House”

Grief comes to eat without a mouth.

—William Matthews

1   Self-Portrait as the Scavenger Gull

Here 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 Survivor

Hauling 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,


3   Self-Portrait as the Emptied Closet

I 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 Living

                  Alone 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 Scarecrow

A 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 Earth

                              Splayed 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 Monument

My heart grown heavy, I become a bronzed statue in a park.     Pigeons 
     preen themselves on my head. A thousand feathers zipped and 
   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 Night

I 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 Disaster

                            I 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.)

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