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.