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White Chrysanthemums

This morning the cherries like sullen juveniles

        in the orchard amid the cries of other people’s children,

but why should that be a sad way to begin? I don’t care—

         why not admit the sun flatly shone with a too-early

intensity troubling every shadow like a doubted fact?

         Look at me, mimicking you. I cast my eyes around,

recalling yesterday, floating descriptions. What other way is there

         to begin when you’re flawed in the ways we are? The lull

of morning, the lapse of afternoon, the throb of the day

         receding into the bath of evening, that sort of ache

I’m always proud of, but still—not a word written and nothing

         much accomplished. It is June, after all, with its heat

and persistent tart stain, its overhyped and rhyming supermoon

         I went out to see anyway, onto the county road

in my pajamas, where another woman in her pajamas

         had come out too, amid the glowing ghosts of moonlit

houses to see what all the fuss was about. It would make

         a good story to say we stopped and talked but

all we said was hello, then I came inside again, back

         to the small circle we make, like always. It must be true,

and it must be personal, I’m thinking, if I’m going

         to dedicate it. I can stall a bit and talk about how 

it’s the wettest June on record, how when we drive along the river

         the gold-green blur of trees feels even better than

the water feels and how I pretend (or mistake) all sorts

         of small unhearable sounds (a slow hiss of air released

as skin cools) are audible to me now with my bionic

         enhancements and poet’s attention, though nothing

special is needed to detect his sighs as he drives,

         the kind I worry about, or to recognize a few minutes

later the laughter, bursting mostly from the chest, a peculiar

         exhalation, hard and sudden. I love this new-to-me

soundtrack and I suppose it’s a bit mournful to think

         about all the years I missed it. Except maybe 

I’d never have noticed, had it not been revealed again after

         a gradually accruing absence, in the same way the river

creeps lower week after week until stunned to roaring in a flash

         flood that we pull over to watch for a while. Despite

the flashing alerts, there was no tornado, by the way,

         and in fact it hardly seemed to rain at all last night. I slept

through it, rain being a different sort of soundtrack altogether.

         Earlier I was reading back over the unfinished poems

collected in a folder, mostly half-starts and interrupted

         sessions and noticed that I am somewhat stuck

on the yellow blazing of forsythia, letting it in every April

         and every next April forgetting I’ve already said

whatever there is to say about the almost violent way it slashes

         into the gray tail-end of winter. But then! 

the book falls open to “April and Its Forsythia” and I feel

         not just forgetful but like a knockoff as well. 

Anyway, the weather trouble never manifested

         and the peppers and tomatoes will be fine so I 

am relieved (or deprived) of the regret I’d planned to feel

         for not covering them before I went upstairs to bed. 

I’ve also been reading your diaries. We go to Maine 

         every summer too, in fact the same vicinity, 

without bothering to own an island. Oh let me

         dig: you’re dead and so is everyone else. It’s just

the envy talking. I wish I’d been there or could somehow

         visit now. Like our forsythia (but it is so yellow)

it’s not a coincidence, the Blue Hill Peninsula, Penobscot Bay,

         memorizing views from Old Town kayaks (you said canoes). 

I can see from the receipt I found tucked into the book 

         that I bought it in 1998 so probably you did plant

the idea, because a year or two later I (lazy gardener) decided

         we had to go and we did go and keep going back. 

Here’s the brutal part about Frank, “the dead best friend”

         that wrenches but also makes me defensive (I’ll get to why),

reaching to say something about my own friends who have died—

         and there are a few, but most of the ones I mean

are still alive, just no longer with us. Or I with them. 

         So maybe it’s me who died, back there in Texas

before we moved to New York, and then again in Brooklyn

         before coming here, and also all the practice I got

dying as a child, a darling Dear Departed, “oh look

         at those dimples, will you?” I’m so good at it! A sucker

for all the flowers I imagine they’d bring. Really though,

         proper death seems way too blank and pointless, 

so I’ll never do it: I’ll publish COLLECTED POEMS and throw

         a party on my one-hundredth birthday instead, a sucker

for the flowers I imagine they’ll all bring. Turns out

         following your lead isn’t as simple (I didn’t say easy)

as I hoped, despite the way I feel as soon as I open 

         your COLLECTED POEMS and start reading, sliding off

the pages into my own: for instance, if I had syphilis

         I’d definitely not put that in a poem so matter-

of-factly, not that either is anything to feel virtuous about. 

         That’s why those of us who are drawn to oceans and woods

are drawn to woods and oceans: we can be both intimate

         and at-large at once. Yes, and islands. Just last week

a man in a magazine lamented that poets were too much

         involved in themselves vs. the larger concerns of the world, 

while here I have been sitting for years lamenting maybe

         my poems are not personal enough! It’s a bit like your theory

(hypothesis, more accurately), that déjà vu is the lag 

         of one half of the brain behind the other. Instead of 

a schizophrenic tendency (as your friends suggested), 

         just a simple synaptic delay or something—

you didn’t explain by what mechanism—one half of every poem

         can’t wait to divulge everything while the other half

not only lags behind but never even plans to arrive.

         Once when I went home to take care of my mother, 

who they thought at first had a stroke but hadn’t, my sister

         said (my mother told me) she hadn’t realized

I was so caring. As if there’s any other reason to pull so

         hard, away! Here, I’ll tell a story about when S and I 

were first together, long enough for him to find my push-pull style

         of love vexatious: he ran across some pages in a notebook

for keeping phone numbers that I’d incongruously used

         to write a partial journal entry about another boyfriend. 

He said he was hooked, entranced, a bit shocked too 

         (all flattering to hear), and since I was at work

scoured the house for more of the diary. I wrote a lot of them

         back then and never thought to hide them

despite the dozens of people tromping through my house

         each week, a risky parade. He found the box

in the living room closet and read every word

         in all of them, probably thirty notebooks, going back

to the ones I wrote as a teenager, the ones I still haven’t 

         worked up the nerve to revisit but also can’t burn. 

Before I got home he put them back in the box and didn’t say

         a word. He felt guilty, but also better. I’d been unbricked

a bit and didn’t even know it. A week or so later we got into it,

         such an argument, when we were still learning how! And he

said something he couldn’t have known, no one could have,

         and my guts shot into space where I felt them float

gravityless and black-cold for about a minute before

         they slammed hot back into my core. I boiled the fuck

over then, didn’t I? And I tried to stay mad, put on 

         a convincing performance and hollered as long

as we needed to, to make our fledgling headway.

         After that there was no chance I’d let him go: 

he knew too much and I’d learned a different kind of fear:

         not that of being revealed or judged but of the relief

I felt at being exposed. Oh vomitous intimacy! 

         There’s your Baudelaire’s skull, I guess. 

A constant ugly healing picked-at wound.

Posted 12/29/14
This poem originally appeared in the James Schuyler tribute issue of Court Green (Spring 2014). When given as a gift, white chrysanthemums supposedly compel the receiver to tell the truth. They are also a traditional flower for funerals and memorials. In "The Morning of the Poem," Schuyler asks Bob "why did / You keep saying no to a big clump of white chrysanthemums?"
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