To be dead grows on one, sweetly. Not knowing what time it is. —Alice Notley
Call these notes. Half notes. Grace notes. I can only speak with small sharp breaths that hurt my lungs, small bursts of paragraphs and lines. Half notes for knowing. Call them the voices that are in me. In these ragged months of global ache, death is one of the many inevitable(s), closer than my heartbeat. We all know this, but I’ve had a personal mantra for years, I am the woman who asks how close is death, how near is God. The subject is not new to me. A haunting tune. I used to be afraid to come too close to an accident in the street, or a lover who was too much older than me. That changed. I attended disasters. Touched hurt bodies. I began to think about healing. Touching. And honesty. I once admitted to an older lover as we lay naked and pleasured, that I was afraid to catch his age. Fortunately, he was compassionate. I asked if he minded my question.
When I was younger I used to have a practice, before I went to sleep each night I would curl myself in and say, all right, this is the end of my life—this life—I’m dying now. (A carryover from the now I lay me down to sleep prayer I used to whisper as a little girl). I’d say to myself, I’m dying now, and if I wake tomorrow, it will be another life, and I will see if I have learned anything from this one to carry forward. It was an exercise. I was trying to teach myself about reincarnation. Learning something is the only existential reason I’ve ever found. I did the same thing at the end of a marriage. Lay all night in the empty grass and said, over and over, when I rise, it will be the next life.
But our collective terrible illness of 2020-21 has changed all I thought I believed. It hovers, angel or vulture, how can I know? I’m one of millions, daring to ask without answers.
And the great unknowing sits on my shoulders, yours, without wings. In our solos. No honey in sight. Mice have found the seeds I scattered. Offered to blackbirds, let them come to my window sill, I who cannot fly. Brave little wings, be my hum in the drone of morning. Again, as in another odd story, my left hand curls in like a bird’s claw, nails becoming talons now, sharper than before. I don’t know who I am becoming. And the great unknowing sits on my shoulders—yours—ours—without wings. Enlightenment is the acceptance of the unacceptable, my old friend said and said as he was dying and dying … May we all shine brilliantly, I couldn’t say.
This day the latest devil’s story in Paris is about prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne: young young young girls from the Eastern European borders brought when they were just old enough to menstruate or not even. Now in Paris, their mecs all have disappeared for fear of the great illness, left them in tents hidden in the branches, still busy as hell opening their legs for men in the 16ème, descending under cover of midnight. Some bring them bottles of whisky, the story says. Under the branches. Under the static of missing wings. And the infected coughing girls are dying in the woods one by one, a call on a nearly expired phone card to anyone, someone, to say goodbye. Someone heard and wrote the story. Is that all? Yes. No word if their Johns have died? No.
One blackbird returns to my sill to see how my claw is progressing. And to cry that mice have stolen my offered gift. Yes, I nod through the closed glass. Yes. She lands on the nodding branch of last year’s boxed geranium, again, dry now but sturdy enough for her landing. Glint-winged, black winged, she’s considering my eyes. Are they berries? Could she eat them? If I were you, she clicks her beak against the glass, compassionate, even so, I’d learn today how to fly. It will be useful in time to come. My heart stammers at her rhythm and I think I hear her sentences, even so. She shows me her claw. I show her mine. Angry at loss and dying and the devil’s will that stalks our days. Is that who is near? Philosophy 101 will do us no good today. No honey in sight.
Unknowing weighs—on our necks, on our shoulders. Can break our wings if we have any, break our hearts that beat together out of sync, stuttering with few syllables left. If we have voice, at least that, let us sound. We raise our sounds. Like fists. Through the skies. Through the glass I tell her about the girls in the Bois de Boulogne. Might she who can fly visit ones who still live and bring a morning air of comfort? No, she cries, We are beyond that now. You read that story in Le Monde, didn’t you? We lower our heads. No, I say, in L’Observateur. She nods. The world is observed, she says. Yes, I say. Yes. The world is observed. With and without wings.
Another fact of life and dying has insisted I pay attention. I have been outliving my lovers, husbands, friends, one by one by one. I can count them all. One died at the beginning of the Covid 19 lockdown. I still don’t know exactly how. We were estranged. I learned of it on the internet. Someone thought I should know. I am neither young enough nor old enough to be immune. Neither was he. Wise women of the world, we whisper, drink whisky and honey, avoid kisses or caresses, you cannot know where the viral zoo hides its toy animals, or humans, or dolls.
But refugee children are still crying for any life and their mamas in America’s cruelest cages, aren’t they? So how dare I complain? Maybe this is the sci fi film that will no longer end when the theatre lights come up. Dark star, I whisper in the frequency of solitudes, lift me. You look like you must be mourning’s love, despite the next poem I have no heart to write…
I am the woman who asks how
close is a death, how near is a god.
I am the woman who
asks does order, or its shattered
window—shout? Asks what can
the scholar cry? Is there a scientist
in our house (for nothing left…)
Sparrow, eye on a god with no name
for us, what did you find?
I used to visit with old women. I thought I needed to learn how to become one. I photographed their spotted hands, their see-through veins, their milk-stained wide eyes. I was very often a vagrant, a traveler needing to know how to age, and yes, how to die. I prayed when I knew how, and then I forgot how. I told myself, I have two legs. My wings are not broken. I’d tell myself, Ok, blonde. Ok, sixty plus. Ok, an emotional centipede, a poet, a vagabond. Ok, she drinks tea with milk, café au lait, when it doesn’t make her breasts ache. Ok, is homeless in spirit and had a house for a long time—between a sleeping volcano and the wind-slapped sea and nowhere—now she has a pied à terre in Paris. Lucky bitch. Scared. Suckles love like every other human flesh. Fat. Thin. Needless. Meditative. Scared.
Can sing in an alto-husk sort of a way. Can climb hills. Can speak French very well, Russian very badly, can say good night in Indonesian, good morning in Tagalog. Can dance a tango, barefoot, worries about her shape, waltzes clumsily. But a survivor. Likes nakedness, Renoir, early Picasso, late Pinter, late Shakespeare, early W.S. Merwin, nature, beauty, sex, cognac, museums, cello, empty space, solid oak tables, old torqued trees with twisted fattened trunks and dwarf red birds fighting over high notes. The taste of rain, the taste of sperm, the smell of Eau Sauvage Cologne for men splashed on her own skin, Fragonard perfume, the smell of darkest red, the smell of praise, bundled wheat, mountains, the cry that might be love, kissing, white silk, walking-boots. There are much wiser women. The tests of faith are like that fairy tale: spin flax into gold, empty thimblefuls of lakes into thirsty canyons. But I try, in the face of finality and endings.
I don’t know how to control my universe. I’ve tried magicians. They disappointed me. Controlled me. Rejected me. I’ve been lost, often. But I’m a woman who asks. I’m the woman who asks how close is death, how near is God. Soul in a see-through shift. I listen and listen for my own late birth-cry and nod to the hands of the dead and the dear. I am the woman who cannot remember her own father’s face in his coffin, winters and winters gone—no matter how many times she tries, there is no face. I’m the woman who’s walking. Even when she is in confinement. Even in the days of new lockdown, not knowing if or how long they must last.
There Will. We Will. Then.
“Locust crisis poses a danger to millions, forecasters warn—”
The Guardian/March 20, 2020
They say do not speak of it. Do not say that there are locusts.
Or that your walls are fever tight as a size 6 dress
when your breasts are growing into sassy women. Do not say you fear the sun, or hands. Watch the blood geraniums. They may not enter your room because the window is afraid of the rasp of
pestilence. Its fire. That its vow will not bring spring, but rather hoods, blocked breath, dead. Hold your black cat like a lover. He is not your lover. Your lover may not enter. But bow to
yesterday’s ash because its grief was there to read. Bow to crows. Will they dive into a highest nest to devour its infant starlings. Your neighbors watch, their tongues darting like flies.
How to save a bird-ling or a world? How to save a springtime? Prisoned for our own sakes—we cry, we are not allowed to leave our rooms. One banal visiting pigeon lands, climbs the not yet
budded vine that scales our courtyard walls. A pigeon. An observer. Not a savior. But it must be dawn. It must be this day’s Equinox that will balance daylight and night, this time—. It’s promised.
They say do not speak of it. Do not jinx it. We will speak of it. Even of locusts. And there will be breath. There will. We will. Then.
Ask, does order or its shattered
window—shout? Ask what can
the scholar cry? Is there a scientist
in our house, for nothing left.
Because tidal waves emptied again
last night, because islands of the land of the rising
sun, spun to corpse pieces, house pieces,
Because grandmothers who ran in village
lanes, burning, once before, aged
to what the day gorged, then sent back,
Ready to burn again sons,
without children, lost,
but their radiant chimneys,
Because on the same earth I hold the crow-
born dawn, hold swift-songed morning’s fresh
milk, ask, if I cry, who can
translate? Are there
alchemists in our house? I am
the woman who asks, after.
Sparrow, eye on a god with no name
for us, what did you find?
Raising her eyelids. Without eyes. Who are you, she whispers. Waiters at the local cafe know her and shake her hand. Am the woman who cannot remember a face in his coffin. She tries. She loves small animals, tall blonde grass. And the largest rocks. I am the woman who cannot remember his face in his casket, there is no face. I am the woman who wears black clothing and picks cat hairs from her sleeves. Who are you. I am the woman, stone in the winter, stone in the summer, a flower in her bed. She lights blood-colored candles. The woman who wears her best dress, early in the morning, no one watching. Am the woman who is beginning to—I am the woman who asks, how close is death, how near is God. There is an answer.
When she raises her eyelids, it’s as if she were taking off all her clothes. —Colette
I am still eager, I said.
I have questions. I have more than questions.
Sometimes I speak a single psalm, a nod to my father’s demand that I learn the Old Testament before he died. For He shall give his angels charge over thee … to keep thee in all of thy ways. I always want to know: How close … how near.
Everybody wanted a world that would remember, and heal. “But first you have to agree to do the soul’s work.” An ex-priest told me that. “Do your soul’s work.” What am I, then, allowed to forget?
I was scraping my knees on the edges of my aging and doing it well, and not doing it well. Scraping my knees on fame and doing nothing more about it, facing its own fears, when I met one woman, an old actress who said she’d been planning her last performance. For when the time came. Her husband wanted southern hymns, white flowers, she, a eulogy—to be admired, the actress, the mother, the wife, hostess, mentor, artist, healer, lover. Until she knew all she wanted was to learn a little humility before it was late, to come to an ending and not as a stranger, to wait in a garden and wait in a wilderness, needless, and to be listening.
As I become less, she said, something else can become more. I listened very carefully. A eulogy can be a graven image, she said, and I would like not to need one. But that would require humility, she said. What is that, I said. Do I even know? A thank you to who names all the sharp stones on my path to break my spiritual neck on. Thank you for the urge to find a self who can rest in the garden of humility and to know how hard I’ve curried favor all my days, need for recognition all my days, what I’ve been, as a talent and a woman. To find the aging woman lovely, result of all she’s lived and smiled and softened and wept and needed and tried. Even now, when I have no idea if this is the end.
I heard the old actress once more speaking for something I know—or don’t: I will take you into the desert and there I will speak to you in the depths of your heart. Hands open, without any more words, I remembered how often friends and strangers have told me, love. And that is all, and that is all.
The streets were dark with something more than night
The first leaf of the death of summer had floated down my courtyard walls leaving its tribe of vines to cling and wait. A pigeon had found her perch, witness to dawn as it lifted its shadows. Me in my white lace peignoir at the window, remembering yesterday afternoon’s rendezvous. I’d been so in love with him, last year. Now he arrived when he decided and called to offer, if I agreed, sent texts from the metro to say I was completely naked in front of your door but I got dressed to not upset the gardienne … and what are you wearing? So we’d ended. Grinned. Evolved. Surrendering to what is and what was murdered, last year when it ended but didn’t quite, a simple not at all simple change of season while my heart cracked the way hearts do, at any age. I liked my lace peignoir. I had a French landlady many years ago who also counseled, a woman needs to be watered like a plant in summer. Yes. At the window, at dawn in white lace. I suppose. With a sense of so many endings. Which one to believe?
I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years.
And I still don’t know if I am a falcon,
or a storm, or a great song.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
trans. Robert Bly
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About the Author
Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York City, often lives and writes in Paris. Her latest poetry collection, Before The Drought, is from Glass Lyre Press. In an early version, it was finalist for the National Poetry Series. A new poetry collection, It Is Still Beautiful To Hear The Heart Beat is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. A hybrid book, Kneel Said the Night waits at the gate. Berdeshevsky is author as well of Between Soul & Stone, and But a Passage in Wilderness, (Sheep Meadow Press.) Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, received the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award for Fiction Collective Two (University of Alabama Press.) Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her works appear in Poetry International, New Letters, Kenyon Review, Plume, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Southern Humanities Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, The American Journal of Poetry, Jacar—One, Mānoa, Pirene’s Fountain, Big Other, among many others. In Europe and the UK her works have been seen in The Poetry Review, PN Review, Under the Radar, The Wolf, Europe, Siècle 21, Confluences Poétiques, Recours au Poème, Levure Littéraire. She may be found reading from her books in Paris, London, Dublin, New York City, Los Angeles, Honolulu, at literary festivals, and/or somewhere new in the world. Her “Letters from Paris” may be found in Poetry International, here: https://poetryinternationalonline.com/category/letters/letters-from-paris/