Monday, December 05, 2005

In the Late-Night Mirror

Wallpaper begins to peel
back at the corners of the
room, these garish patterns
now undermined by time,
stained, with condensation
runs down the wall because
of the single pane windows
there was never enough
money to improve,

And this good, thick linoleum
still bears up under the slow
tread of the few who remain,
worn down so that it will never
take a wax and shine as it
did, but still better than bare
board, and kept as clean as
the joints in Mary’s elbows
will stand, and apart from
those weeks when her back
feels like deep needles are
being pushed, hot and poisoned,
into the bones and muscle,
she runs the mop across to
wash it,

And James squints his eyes,
laying hand to heart in an
unknowing gesture, that
nervous tick he’s picked up
since the second heart attack,
the bad one, and he sits back
from the morning paper he
can hardly stand to read,
lamenting the burnt place up
the wall where Mary forgot
to turn off the flame last year,
and he reaches almost the level
of smiling to himself over her
protestation that it was him,
though he’s never cooked anything
more complex than a bacon sandwich
in a solid thirty years, and those only
on the days she goes out to do her
volunteer work each Wednesday,

And he’s unaware of the smell, that
old house smell, that scent of old
people growing stationary and
inert one day upon the other, that
mélange of stale cigarettes from
the habit Mary can’t quite kick,
those long, thin More 120s, and
onions, and cinnamon and overcooked
coffee, and tissue breaking down,
DNA strands fraying at the edges,
muscle and bone cooking down to
their constituent parts,

And it’s only late in the evenings,
after the television programs are
over, and the cars with the loud
music have stopped going by
this old house that used to be
so silent on a street so little used
that children could play games
on the tarmac—it’s only when
the evening’s stealthy progress
has muted the surface sounds
and daily minutia that these
unwholesome wisdoms become

And as James looks at
Mary, so much a different
person to the one he knew
as a boy, and the wrinkled
skin hiding that thin, hard
veneer of dignity that keeps
tears from her eyes when
the arthritis hurts her so
badly, he can see the
reflections of death in
her eyes, liver spots like
holes in the universe,
like dry rot inside the
boards of the house they’ve
lived in and seen children
come and go, seen them
grow into late adulthood

And she can tell he sees it,
and she moves as quick
as her bad hips will allow,
not wanting to see it, and
she sits by the window,
between the dusty sewing
machine and the clothes
hamper, next to the window
she cracks open despite the
cold, and with unsteady hands,
she fishes in her cigarette purse
and lights one, holding it
next to the bottom of the
window so the smoke will exit,

So James doesn’t watch her
as she does this, gripping her
habit like a talisman against
that look in his eyes, and
he goes to the mirror, his
evening beard growth now
all salt and not a single kernel
of pepper, and death lingers
in the gleam of his own
myopic eyes when he draws
the glasses down his nose to

But he doesn’t look long and
focuses on other things altogether,
like what they’ll need from the
supermarket come Friday, and
if he’s had the oil changed in the
Buick, and when his next trip
to the Veteran’s hospital to see
the doctor who never remembers
his name might be.

James picks up the mouthwash and
moves it over his few remaining
real teeth, pulling the fake ones
out and setting them in the jar
with the Efferdent, and before
he’s tempted to meet his own
eyes in the mirror once more,
he flicks the lights off and
closes the bathroom door tight,

And he stands in the hall, thinking
of calling out to his wife to ask if she’s
coming to bed, but the way her back
is held, the movement of old age palsy
dancing the flame of her smoke around
in the gloom near the window—these things
forswear him somehow, and he walks to
the bed alone.

James draws back the covers and considers
the fact that he no longer wonders what
life is for, or why he’s here, even though
no solid answers have ever satisfied,
but he doesn’t consider it very long,
because his night clothes don’t warm him
as they used to, and he lies on his back,
covered by the heavy bedding, as if
covered by soil, and remembers the days
when he saw only himself in the mirror,
not the quickling shadow of his own
ghost trying to escape the sinking
vessel of his flesh, remembers what
Mary’s smooth skin felt like the
first time he dared enough to slide
his work-calloused hand inside
her bright sweater and along the
angle of her lower back, and
that memory brings little enough
solace now, but it slowly leads
him down the tricky path to sleep.

By the time Mary nerves herself
up to face him, or anyone, and
blunts out her smoke, he is long,
long gone.


drthunder said...

Ah, Firehawk. I was surprised to see another entry so soon, and what an entry it is, too. Wow! You certainly do have a way of telling it like it is, that's for sure. This is a wonderfully confrontational, yet sensitive piece of work.

MB said...

Damn, this is good. Hard, sad, complicated, and good.

I wonder what you mean by "quickling?"

Mushster said...

Wow. What a story teller you are. I didn't want this to end.

Firehawk said...


Idle hands are tools of the Poet.


Glad you liked it. I'm afraid it did get rather lenghty and convoluted, but I suppose I was wearing my poet's armband and my fiction writer's beret at the same time.

Quickling? I suppose I may have made the word up for the way it sounded. It seemed right at the moment, some sudden impulse that comes from nowhere.


There was a time, when I was writing, it, where I wondered if it would! I kept getting interrupted, and it took me longer than I generally require to finish this one. I hope there's no disjunction because of having to space it out into multiple sittings.

MB said...

Mmm, by complicated I meant emotionally complicated, nuanced, layered, complex. (It was not intended as a criticism.) Though I don't find this a comfortable poem to read, it's not the poem's fault. It's my wish that life were less difficult. But this poem tends to the fine layers of wounds and difficulties and loves and sorrows and fears with sensitivity.

I like the word quickling. It should be a word, I think. It seems to turn an adjective into a verb that suggests quickness, but also evasiveness, and smallness. I think of "-ling" as a diminutive ending, almost affectionate, which gives an interesting twist. So I still wonder what you meant? (If you know or can articulate it...)

I don't sense any disjunction. Do you usually write your poems all in one sitting? They tend to be so long that would surprise me, if it's true. (But then, if I had the time, perhaps I would, too?)

Stranger Ken said...

The stealthy progress of time as well of as the evening, the doctor who never remembers, because age and poverty reduce people to anonymity, the quickling shadow of his own ghost. I wondered if you might have meant "quickening", to express the notion of the shadow of his ghost, maybe an image of death, gaining strength as his flesh "sinks", grows weaker?

Such a moving poem. A couple, lives as played out as the home they've always shared, hanging on to self-respect and dignity, staying silent about pain and disappointment, getting through it courageously, day by day, even though they understand the futility of the notion that life still has a meaning. This is a world I recognise all right. No question. It's Beckettian, brilliant and couldn't have been shorter, could it?

I admire the way you mesh together the local, physical details and the philosophical overview, the one substantiating the other inseparably. These long prose poems of yours are unlike anything else I read.

Firehawk said...


I think, with the quickling issue, it was just me trying to impose form on a formless thing. I trust the words that come to me and write them down, so sometimes I don't have a solid rationale for why I chose them. Maybe I didn't, and they chose me, if that makes any sense.

As to timescale when I'm writing, I try to finish poems in one sitting, if possible. For me, they usually come as a string of thoughts and images, and I just try to get them written while they're fresh in my mind. If I get too analytical during the initial process, it usually ruins my flow. I can fiddle a word or phrase afterward, but that's just being an editor. I have to get the real work done with my brain "turned off".


Your comment made my week. I'm at a loss for words, really. Thank you.

Bill said...

I, like Mushter, didn't want this one to end. You had me wrapped up in the story, there lives, interactions, the whole tactile feel of the words.

Mushster said...

None at all Firehawk, loved it. :)

Anonymous said...

A voice from the Outside! I just wanted to drop in and say thanks for all your massive support over the months and to apologize for my precipitate goodbye, which, having been brooding over it for weeks, suddenly demanded to happen over the weekend. I hope you won't mind my dropping to read and enjoy every now and then.


Firehawk said...


Thanks a lot. I felt like it went pretty quickly for a big one, once I read through it a few times. I'm glad that you felt the same.


I'm glad that you felt it stayed together over the many stanzas. Thanks for coming by!

Firehawk said...


It happened fast, that's true, but you'd mentioned stopping before, so it wasn't altogether unheralded. Still, the departure was sudden, and I sulked a bit for a few days.

I'd love to have you continue to come over and say hello. The last thing I'd want to do would be to make you feel uncomfortable doing so.

Again, I'll miss coming to your site a great deal, and I hope you find that you miss it after a while. That's selfish, of course, but I felt like your site enriched the blogsphere, and my own time in it.

Good luck in all your ventures, and I hope to see your comments when you're in the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

That's very kind of you, Firehawk. As you see, I'm still out here, spending a lot more time reading these days, which is no bad thing. I'm doing some writing, too, although I've no one to test it out on these days, which I miss. I tend to find myself asking questions lie "How would Firehawk read that?"!!

Have a great Christmas and a happy New Year.


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