To the mercy of the flies (a sestina)

(a percolation through time and mind of the poem, First Death, by Donald Justice)

(this is version #11 of a poem I’ve been working on for about 6 years….this is how poems go for me right now…..slowly… slowly……and it’s probably still not done….I changed it as I posted it….I’m changing it as we speak….)

(and for whatever silly reason, sestinas seem to be the only kind of poem I can work on with any kind of focus these days…I inflict upon myself retrogradatio cruciata)

(but I’ve been feeling like a poem is a thing that has been needing to happen around here…)

(the teleutons [the six repeating end words] are from the final line of First Death)

To the mercy of the flies

Listen— I’ve been wanting to talk to
you about something. Do you remember the
other day when we were talking about mercy?
About the price of
going off in all the
wrong directions at once? How time flies

when you’re fleeing time and how it flies
when you’re trying to
get back the things that the
the life you had took from you and all the
other things that you thought you had but took from yourself? Of
course, I realize sometimes it’s too late for mercy

really, because so often mercy
is just a thing—a too-thin thing—that flies
away from most us of
its own dissonant accord to
somewhere else and leaves the
lot of us standing and blinking in the

brittle light of another day, looking for the
things we lost, as if mercy
could help us find them, as if the
horrors that we find will fly
away from us to
some other place through the act of

our simply staring at them. Of
course this is silly, isn’t it, since the
problem isn’t really whether to
have mercy or not but whether or not mercy
has us, and any lack we may feel just flies
on down the

long halls of our histories and the
merciless missing of
our various mysteries flies
away from our understanding and the
fragile questions of our mercy
end up coming down not to

whether we try and hold these things for ourselves

but to whether we give them, in the end, to the mercy of the flies.

And here, the poem by Donald Justice:

First Death

JUNE 12, 1933

I saw my grandmother grow weak.
When she died, I kissed her cheek.

I remember the new taste—
Powder mixed with a drying paste.

Down the hallway, on the table,
Lay the family’s great bible.

In the dark, by lamplight stirred,
The Void grew pregnant with the Word.

In black ink they wrote it down.
The older ink was turning brown.

From the woods there came a cry,
The hoot owl asking who not why.

The men sat silent on the porch,
Each lighted pipe a friendly torch

Against the unknown and the known.
But the child knew himself alone.

JUNE 13, 1933

The morning sun rose up and struck.
Sunflower strove with hollyhock.

I ran the worn path past the sty.
Nothing was hidden from God’s eye.

The barn door creaked. I walked among
Chaff and wrinkled cakes of dung.

In the dim light I read the dates
On the dusty license plates

Nailed to the wall as souvenirs.
I breathed the dust in of the years.

I circled the abandoned Ford
Before I tried the running board.

At the wheel I felt the heat
Press upward through the springless seat.

And when I pressed the silent horn,
Small mice scattered through the corn.

JUNE 14, 1933

I remember the soprano
Fanning herself at the piano,

And the preacher looming large
Above me in his dark blue serge.

My shoes brought in the smell of clay
To mingle with the faint sachet

Of flowers sweating in their vases.
A stranger showed us to our places.

A stiff fan stirred in mother’s hand.
Air moved, but only when she fanned.

I wondered how could all her grief
Be squeezed into one small handkerchief.

There was a buzzing on the sill.
It stopped, and everything was still.

We bowed our heads, we closed our eyes
To the mercy of the flies.

O.P.P. #8 — Anne’s lament…

Day 8 of National Poetry Month.

And we are saying, “I think…I think I could…”


by Anne Sexton

Someone is dead.
Even the trees know it,
those poor old dancers who come on lewdly,
all pea-green scarfs and spine pole.
I think...
I think I could have stopped it,
if I'd been as firm as a nurse
or noticed the neck of the driver
as he cheated the crosstown lights;
or later in the evening,
if I'd held my napkin over my mouth.
I think I could...
if I'd been different, or wise, or calm,
I think I could have charmed the table,
the stained dish or the hand of the dealer.
But it's done.
It's all used up.
There's no doubt about the trees
spreading their thin feet into the dry grass.
A Canada goose rides up,
spread out like a gray suede shirt,
honking his nose into the March wind.
In the entryway a cat breathes calmly
into her watery blue fur.
The supper dishes are over and the sun
unaccustomed to anything else
goes all the way down.

2020 – 062/366 – Intersections: The Dying Man

or, Notes On The Experience of Reading Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s 
Eye While Watching My Wife’s Father Die And Being Reminded, 
Perhaps Unavoidably, of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy



We arrive to wait and watch.
He lies, gape-mouthed and gasping,
flinching, wincing and moaning


We go and we sit in the room
and we watch the man die
                       the man dying
                       the dying man

We watch him breathe. We
watch him stop breathing.
We watch him start breathing


We watch him wince and
moan and flinch and wheeze
and we listen to his lungs
gurgle and at some point—
as his eyes open less and less,
as the words leave his mouth
for good, as the food and the
water enter his mouth less and
less and eventually stop their
entering entirely—at some point,
watching someone die changes
into something else, changes
into something harder. At some
point—if the dying takes long
enough—watching someone die
becomes watching someone not die.


She says, The end of life is hard for the living.


He says that room back there
(waving towards the bathroom off
his room) must be hotter than this
one because he can see a white…
(gestures—fingers fluttering, hand
moving side to side)…a white…
(mumbles something and…).




“A person can feel the impression of a soft body of air indicating 
presence or further life on her hands or arms or anywhere, sometimes 
in stillness and safety, and understand that the entire universe is held 
against her skin in an equilibrium that holds her steady for her life 
span. Too great a sense of the tremendous explosion of creation in 
which we live would obliterate us. We feel what we can on our skins 
and through its porous cells into the nerves and bones where our 
reckless and pathetic ancestors carry on.”


He says he can see steam
rising from his feet.


“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”


He says there was a woman
in his room wearing a peach dress
(Did you see her?) and holding a
basket in front of her.


“One thing surrounds you in parts, drops of sunshine, or shadows,
and these vaporous gods live on after you are gone.
But wait. Where have I seen that woman’s face before? Why did
she pause at the door as if she knew me?

She is folded in smoke from the crematorium over the hills there.”


She says that her mother's favorite
fragrance, White Shoulders, has been
in the room since the day he arrived.


“ ‘The trick is to follow the clue, to see the chance connection, 
attend to it, and against all reason, follow it to the next clue, 
or coincidence, yes, if the reading at Mass echoes what you were 
thinking about in the night, follow that message out into the 
streets, and the next, follow the coincidences.’ “


I don’t believe that my dreams
are prophetic. I don’t think that
they are trying to tell me anything.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t
listen to what they are saying.


The nurses come and they
moisten his lips and the inside
of his mouth with small disposable
sponges on the end of a stick which
they dip into the cup of ice water
that he is no longer drinking.


His lucidity slips
his slips are lucid

His lucidity is slipping
(t)his slipping is lucid.


A movement catches my eye.
It is his foot twitching, under
the volunteer-crocheted afghan.

But when I look up from my
reading, I see there also the
child’s foot, my daughter’s,
like an echo, she in the recliner
that already he has stopped using
just beyond his bed, the two of them
in the same basic position, her
mother—his daughter—between
them in a chair, the mirror of time
reflecting both ways and al(l-)ways
changing—age and youth, the mother—
his daughter—between them, between
him and his daughter’s daughter.


“She was born on a rise in
time facing two ways.”


A woman—another dying
person’s visitor—sits in one
of the sitting areas reading a
magazine and I notice the
title, “Sophisticated Living.”

She does not look sophisticated.
She mostly just looks like some
thing is being emptied out of her.


Hard shadows and
soft shadows.

Near and far.

Light from the window falls

through the blinds and
across my foot and

onto the corner of the bed

which doubles as a socket

for I.V. poles.


Always there is one thing
ending as another begins.


All positions
are transitions.

All positions
are transpositions.


These things begin to get
as confused as he is.

         but….is he?

Perhaps these things only
begin to sound as confused
as he does/is/seems.

Is he confused or is it his or
our reality that is confused?


Which is harder, watching him die
or watching him not die?





(All quotes are from Fanny Howe's The Needle's Eye, Passing 
Through Youth except for the passage begginning, "Who, 
if I cried out...", which is from Rainer Maria Rilkes First 
Duino Elegy, Stephen Mitchell's translation)

NaPoWriMo / NaPoREADMo — Day 9 — Touching

We do not touch our dead anymore.
I touched my dying mother.
I could not touch my dead 
mother, though I kissed them both.

I turned off that awful pumping machine 
that kept the air in the mattress that kept her 
as close to comfort as one can get 
when one is dying piece-by-piece.

The machine gave its halting rhythm 
to the slap-dash ritual of getting 
her home before it was too late
to get her as home as one can get.

I remember turning off the machine, 
pulling the first wracking sobs, and
welcoming that finality for her.

The machine is dead.
The motor has stopped. 
There is no more.

Now, we cry and drink.

We lost the depth from our bones
we tossed death from our homes.

We lost the power of the touch 
of that darkness-tempered acknowledgement 
of unknowns.

We need those worms in our souls
or we rot, un-composted.