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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 13, Number 2, June 2019
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Gary LeBel
Georgia, USA


A Dresser, A Vase, A Spoon

1. Dressing Him

To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lotus-Eaters

There's a certain quietness around a lake that's unlike any other, and at first light it's especially palpable: how can this be explained or, more importantly, does it need to be?

A light breeze carves a fluttering wake of emerald through the birches, and that soft, sweet sibilance punctured by an occasional crow is all one hears. It's mid-August and already September light is dappling these forest floors with its dust-gray footprints.

Waking before our newborn, I lay awhile in a reverie woven by the cry of a loon from down-lake, rising and falling in pitch and timbre, a wail that seems to come from somewhere outside of time.

But soon he stirs. It's my turn, and rifling through the old dresser's top drawer, I choose an outfit for him. He's all smiles this morning, apparently pleased with things as they are. I laugh as his arms and legs flail happily about like an overturned beetle. I change his diaper, though it's hard to get your hands in gently round those busy limbs.

Slipping on a pale blue onesie, I pull each fat little appendage through, and he seems content with the softness of the fabric, his wide eyes gazing everywhere at once. We go out onto the porch his grandfather built and I can't help but wonder how he sees the world through those bright, devouring eyes. In all his excitement you'd think he could leap out of your arms and run down to the water's edge on his own, as he will years later. . . And now I'm pulling out the same top drawer for clean underwear, socks and a tee for his grandfather. Having heard the squeak of his bed springs, the customary groan as his will wars against his body, I know instinctively that he's trying to pull his jeans on, and when I go into his room, I find him stuffing both slippered feet into one pant leg. I fall to my knees and, with all the gentleness I can muster, help my father into his clothes.

Once noted by Montaigne in one of his longer essays, the musky smell common to the very old permeates the small bedroom, which only multiplies my tenderness. In the middle throes of Alzheimer's, he rarely smiles now except in those unexpected moments when his mood blooms like a rose, and the best part of him returns to us. I've bitten back so many tears that surely by now I'm waterlogged: first on four, then two, then three as the old riddle goes,

and the timeline encircles itself
as memory,
bending its shaft,
blunts the once-keen tip
of time's arrow

. . . along these warm roads back to my heart . . .
—Erinna of Telos, The Distaff

2. A Vase of Lilies

The white clapboards are peeling, the wood beneath has been weathered silver by the breaths of tides and the long unbroken winters. Seen through the uncurtained window and arranged in the center of a plain wooden table, stands a vase of yellow lilies whose boldness swells the small Spartan room by twice, blooms no doubt picked fresh from their beds beneath the window beside the rough-hewn granite stoop; the callas nod and sway from the weight of drunken bees.

And beyond the wooden table, beyond the vase of lilies, there is another window, and through it winds a deep blue river towards its vanishing point; on either shore its marshes glint with the clear, extravagant sunlight of a late-August noon.

I walk through the village for an hour or so without seeing anyone, a vacancy where not even a dog decries its tether. Crickets lighten one's footsteps as seagulls pierce the quiet. Where two rivers braid themselves into one, they leave their silt-laden fragrances behind them as they tumble into the waiting bay; all of what is seen and smelled and heard is but a part of what no poem can pin to the page like the perfect specimen of a swallowtail, moments that cannot decide whether they are the subject, verb or object in Chuang-Tzu's riddle. . .

a dream within a dream
for this is Maine and the last
of their golden summers
blest with Arcadian weather . . .
they'd had fifty here together

3. Her Spoon

We are told of that hard-working soldier Marius that as he grew old he grew fastidious in his drinking out of one particular cup of his. I too indulge my preference for a glass of a certain shape and do not willingly drink from a common glass . . . .

                                  —Translation of Montaigne by Donald M. Frame from Collected Essays

Thus the essayist Michel de Montaigne framed habit. My mother, too, had a favorite spoon and had adopted this practice well into her eighties and would begin no breakfast without it.

I attempted to trick her one morning as she was preparing to eat her usual one-minute oatmeal crammed with fresh strawberries, but to no avail: after the first mouthful, she withdrew the spoon instantly, inspecting it like a scientist in all its rotations and facets. "This isn't my spoon, could you find mine please." I turned from her and chuckled to myself, for I could discern no difference between her spoon and all the others. So I brought her the entire silverware tray to inspect and she chose the one, and promptly began to eat as I returned the tray to its drawer, her mild peevishness cured as quickly.

But it wasn't until I committed this little anecdote to paper today that I realized that her habit had nothing whatsoever to do with spoons.

no screen door slams
that I don't think of you
and of those last blue arduous days,
in ways I had never considered nor thought
at what price a good life is bought

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