There is a knocking in the eaves tonight,
an earthly sound that buckles over distance,
echoes through this room of straight-backed
chairs and shadows where I lie atop the blankets,
shoes and glasses on. For I know, outside,
not far beyond the darkened field and sturdy
oaks, the watchman waits, leaning on his spade.
But before he takes me, before the breathing stops
and I lay naked as when mother-born, in the shallow
end of nowhere where nothing blooms or grows
and the water is no longer blue, I tell you I will
have the final say. For these long eighty years of life
rough-cast, what have I now to show? Nothing
but to work and work, to remember what is lost,
the squandered years, the gaps I’ve muscled through.
But I tell you, at this waning hour I would tongue
the devil’s ear to have them back. For here I wait,
night on night, staring at the coal-face
of another hundred midnights, maybe more,
and I am tired. I have seen decay, the way a thing
grows fallow, goes yellow in the margins,
closing in its grief of memory, fingerprints
and breath caught between the pages and yes,
this too shall pass, they say, but what of what remains?
Am I to offer up this body, wings outstretched
and pinned, in hopes that it goes quick? Or
should I wait, and in so waiting thus prolong
the stuttering decay? I ask each sly,
unticking moment just how much more
this life can take from me—this slow
unravelling, the body doing what it will,
beginning with the hands then moving
inward, and what goes next? The eyes,
the hair and teeth and then the heart,
the lungs no longer whistling mighty sleep,
and next the mind, a’slur with words unmoored,
sounds drifting, sliding in the one good ear.
The vision blurs, fingers swell, a damp cloud
settles in the bones until at last the pulse is dimmed,
flesh chewed to pulpy marrow and flayed remains.
What more is there to say? No belligerent madness,
no crying out will stop these hours driving forward
to an elsewhere I can neither cheat nor comprehend.
And so I pour a shot, and then two more, and raise my glass,
a toast to words remembered—The cup unfilled is of no use!
because tonight it is the whiskey chorus that will turn
this grief to gladness, lift rage to exaltation—
what relief it is to slip aside this pain!
by Sally Houtman
Editor’s Note: Contemplating death in poetry can often be overly melodramatic, but this poem’s delicious imagery slides the reader along through what remains of life. The speaker is still vibrant. Still defiant.
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