Say I had no choice, this weightless finger touched my tongue and told me to, it taught me; when kinder and more subtle methods failed, it put a gun to my head, a zero seared coldly in one temple, electrode glued chill to the other, the sniffer dogs rooting and snuffling in my crotch, the small white doorless room, the laser flashlight in one eye. You can’t hear the voice when it utters let there be speech, yet I faithfully spoke what I thought I was supposed to, inspired idiot, or dummy on that lap of language, the words themselves more real than I, words here before we were and when we are not again. So I blurted it out, my initial soliloquies, what I could catch through the static, giving my head a good thump now and then like one of those black-and-white tv sets, and projecting, those were some vast stadiums, the first row of faces as far as near stars if there at all, never having the faintest idea what it meant, the microphone dead, I did my best, tell them. Inch-thick rope for ascot, eyes put out, chained to my oars, all the others long vanished: the first minute of death is so long, like the first minute of consciousness there in the infinite darkness of somebody weeping, you never arrive, never reach shore, never mind with what clarity you seem to hear with your lips distant roar of surf breaking. I pulled too for those who’d come later, I’m guessing, singing in their names as well, sort of lip-synching but singing twice as loud, strapped to the mast, earways cleared, though I heard nothing but nothing, blue. Making up what I couldn’t make out, and all that uproarious and pitiless derision I had to raise my voice above, I mere link—out on that unknown ocean beating at my ears, just as at the beginning, the mother’s heart booming softly; from nowhere it came, like me, months before I arrived to take up the sorry job of being me, whatever a month was, whatever I was then, blind little dolphin with a thumb in its mouth, whatever a mouth was; poor mother mourning her own mother’s dying, over the actual ocean she lay, a strong stone’s throw from the Ohio or that poisoned ghost of it. Mother of my mother dying away from this world just as I was about to die into it. I see them there, up to their knees, gathered as for a baptism, cross traced in hydrochloric acid on a tiny forehead, right there at the dead water’s edge a scythe of moon, a meteor in arc of falling axe of gold for the severing of hairy umbilical rope, hear me out! I saw they were standing watch over her, and my mother’s conspicuous absence, wincing at the constant cough; and I saw her whom I would never meet, nearing peace in the scarlet Magdalenean cerements, clenching lightly between thumb and skeletal forefinger the scarlet egg, and the wide river’s sundering undertow sucking to its breast her shrunken body, fetal in her narrow bed, nothing but a huckleberry craft by now just vanishing around the first bend, more and more lost from sight by my mother, twenty-two, unaided by lunatic male she’d been sentenced to, from Goethe-phase to Trakl-phase. And she breaks down in her hotel room, in bullet-pocked Vienna, helplessly swept down the blind unwept current still flowing, sadness’s chemistry, horror’s and guilt’s, to this day through my veins. Months before we met, I listening to her crying, it went on forever, how not hear it, how not be fed it, in a shoreless darkness of sorrowing I listened, still listen, now watch this and pay close attention: nothing else there, only a listening called me, no name even, till they grave it in stone. Until we finally met, I watched her face rise on the horizon. Then there was some loud mutual screaming in the even more terrible blindness called light. Long before I invented the first word it taught me, it told me the others, so many. So only what was never mine is mine; and when no one is listening I sing what it means to me, even now, hearing my voice through my own disappearing, farther away every day, my mother’s mother’s fate and mine now one as I board the ocean liner at three months of age and arrive in New York, filled with space and time.
Source: Poetry (January 2011).
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This poem originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Poetry magazine