What Do We Have Here?

Posted by on Jul 4, 2012 | 10 comments

Notes for an Unwritten Poem


The kinds of suffering are intricately dissimilar and require different visitations.


At the hospital, the few are coming in early, hopeful in this air, not yet hot. Nothing is looked at directly.
Floor mopping and empty-wheelchair pushing are available to watch instead.


It is an Edward Hopper painting, all these doorways and rooms, no stories visible. I buy coffee as if I were on another continent. I nod at the man pushing an empty bed. Two days ago he had a ponytail but since for some reason has cut it off.


I was thinking about D—‘s death which means I was thinking about his life, his rare life, like the poet James Merrill’s, whose father co-founded Merrill Lynch. D—‘s father had a diamond mine. D invested wisely and had enough money to live on until he couldn’t live on anything.


But not that. The way he organized his days, a couple hours for reading, same for writing, then playing the piano and composing, then painting: a privileged life, you might say. But I was thinking if you’re not pushed by the need for money, how difficult it must be to keep true to the work, to give form to the work.


And then I was thinking about my sister’s post-brain-tumor life, the simple acts of standing and walking, of preparing dinner, the expansion of the whole personality at the age of 65 into the lone, immediate act, the complete obliteration of metaphor.  And at the nursing home where she’s recovering from the back surgery, wheeled along hallways with old white heads nodding from their chairs, bodies strapped in. One stubble-faced man plants himself in front of the reception desk to say “God bless you” to all who pass. I am thinking of D–‘s music again, and art, and the intimacy of death, and the squeamishness involved in switching over to symbolism.


Shall this be quatrains, not like Emily Dickinson’s or the hymnbook? Will the back heal with not too much pain? Quatrain/pain.

Pain has an Element of Blank —
It cannot recollect
When it began — or if there were
A time when it was not —

What is the difference between the quatrain and the sand dune? Between the sand dune and what is scraped out by a glacier? To what extent is form meaning? What is that noise in the trees? It seems too loud for squirrels, but I think that’s what it is. Yelling at each other.


Thick unstirred stars, and the light across the lake that dulls them. In the dark, the ducks come by, the mother and her ducklings, nearly grown, black movements skirting the shore. How did these get in here?


Now I am turning toward her room, now I am at her door where I can see the flowers lined up on her sill, the delicately pink roses now collapsed. Now I am standing by her bed, healthy animal that I am. If I am an animal, she is a bird flown against a window in a dream, waking to the results.

Those of us who arrive at this hour have reason to come before the usual time. There is at this hour a relaxation of life and death into its natural movements, its unpretentious eating and eliminating. The body is at home at this hour, these bones where we live, that wear themselves thin.


Wallace Stevens says, about a Hopper painting, “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.”


I do not know the stories, although I can see patients in bed, in wheelchairs and carrying their poles affixed with various tubes and drips into the body. Every time the nurse enters to give my sister pills, she asks her name and birthdate. It is always the same.


Hopper would have left all that out, or Vermeer. As Updike said somewhere, when there’s nothing to say, it gets said over and over.


“The loneliness thing is overdone” Hopper says, about responses to his work. I wrote a Hopper poem, myself, years ago about a woman who could leap out into anything, but lets the brush paint her down. B– asked, “Is this you in the poem?” This is long before I left my second husband. Leap, entanglement, all the poems are that. Speculation! As if there were clock-truths behind it all.  Someone might be yelling or it could be squirrels.


“A lighthouse has its limits as an image of loneliness.” Who said that?





  1. This is particularly beautiful.

  2. Since my youngest sister Carol’s death two weeks ago at the fairly young age of 65, for the past week or so I have been having many dreams of our young lives when we lived in NYC in Yorkville in our 4th floor walk-up.

    The dreams I have remind me of times past and of times that never really happened. Events that seem to have happened long past the time when we were forced to move due to an eviction notice. Living in my dreams of times that never happened, things that never happened nor things that were said…only in my dreams. Did I unknowingly wish we were still all together, although things were not always as I had wished, nor were they always good. Time has a way of erasing the past, bad as well as good. Notice I didn’t say healing.

    Why this now? Since I am the last of my siblings is this what happens when you wake up and your past life no longer has a direct connection to someone who shared your life growing up together?

    I’m not a very good interpreter of dreams, so I can’t really put my finger on what they mean, or is it the loneliness of being alone that I feel.

  3. Fleda, these notes are lovely. So many evocative images, connections, thoughts, questions, concerns. Thank you. -Patty

    • Thanks, Patty. Some are awfully tenuously connected. I don’t know how far I can go in that direction.

  4. Once again, your words move me. Thank you! Yes, those beautiful perfect fragments. Lately, there have been fragmented ghosts in and out of my days too. Is it where we are in this sad strange time? Drifts of thought like a poem, yes, but I’m not good, as you are, at seeing the potential, getting them down. And they wouldn’t have the resonance yours do. But yesterday, I sat for a few moments in my father’s old chair at the house my mother left a year ago. Drifts of thought in the now stuffy room. Drifts. I lean back in the heat and let them melt. Thank you my friend, for putting me in the poem frame of mind.

    • I’m going to see if they want to stay fragments or make something else of them. I am not sure . . . .

  5. Thank you Fleda for sharing your morning meditation! When I am visiting a long term care facility I see not only the ghosts of my past, but the sweetness of what may be my future.

    • Well, it doesn’t feel sweet from here, but it seems doable, when necessary. I suppose neither sweet nor sour. Just the way it is.

  6. Fleda
    sickness isolates each and everyone of us but also as in the case of you and your sister, it brings forth care and compassion.
    You write – we read – we too can feel the love.
    Sickness is a ‘terrible’ gift.
    My best wishes to all concerned.

    • Thank you, Martina. Yes, the isolation is quite true.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *