Two for Tuesday: Jacqueline Berger
The Failure of Language
First day of class, I ask the students, by way
of introduction, what they believe:
Language is our best tool, or language fails
to express what we know and feel.
We go around the room.
Almost everyone sides with failure.
Is it because they’re young,
still find it hard to say what they mean?
Or are they romantics, holding music and art, the body,
anything wordless as the best way in?
I think about the poet helping his wife to die,
calling his heart helpless as crushed birds
and the soles of her feet the voices of children
calling in the lemon grove, because the tool
must sometimes be bent to work.
Sitting next to my friend in her hospital bed,
she tells me she’s not going to make it,
doesn’t think she wants to,
all year running from the deep she’s now drowning in.
I change the flowers in the vase,
rub cream into her hands and feet.
When I lean down to kiss her goodbye,
I whisper I love you, words that maybe
have lost their meaning, being asked to stand
for so many unspoken particulars.
The sky when I walk to the parking lot
this last weekend of summer
is an opal, the heat pinkening above the trees
which dusk turns the color of ash.
Everything we love fails, I didn’t tell my students,
if by fails we mean ends or changes,
if by love we mean what sustains us.
Language is what honors the vanishing.
Or is language what slows the leaving?
Or does it only deepen what we know of loss?
My students believe it’s important
to get the words right.
Once said, they can never be retrieved.
It takes years to learn to be awkward.
At their age, each word must be carefully chosen
to communicate the yes, but also leave room
for the not really, just kidding, a gateway car
with the engine running.
Inside us, constellations,
bit thread knotted into night’s black drape.
There are no right words,
if by right we mean perfect,
if by perfect we mean able to save us.
Four of us pack up our friend’s apartment.
Suddenly she can’t live unassisted.
I remember this glass, part of a set
I bought her years ago
when she became for a time a scotch drinker.
I bought it for its weight, something
solid to hold, and for the way an inch or two
of amber would look against its etched walls.
I wrap it in newspaper and add it to the box marked Kitchen.
It’s my friend herself who is fragile.
When I take her out to eat, each step is work.
The restaurant is loud and bright.
She wants to know if she looks normal.
I make my words soft. Fine,
which might be the most useless word in English,
everything is going to be fine.
The Routine after Forty
Because my mother doesn’t ask questions,
not the way I would, grilling the oncologist
until she ripped a corner off the examining-table paper
and drew it out, I don’t really understand
what it means to have the markers for cancer.
But later in the week, the technician
giving me a mammogram is surprisingly clear
when I ask her, and reassuring. Everyone’s body
produces cancer cells all the time,
she tells me. She’s blond and ample,
looks like someone who could fix
a leaky sink, then make a pie
to take to a party. But we slough off
the irregular cells, catching early
whatever bad is pitched our way.
Listening to her, I love my body,
its diligence, the work I know nothing about.
Markers in the blood show the body no longer able
to do this. I’ve shed my paper jacket,
the one handed to me so I would feel less naked
as my breasts lay on the glass plate
like fish on ice. When the jacket slipped,
I let it fall, so now I’m standing here
topless with a little sticker like a pasty
on each nipple, a reference point for the radiologist.
The technician and I have passed the formality
of modesty. Bad things bombard us daily
but for years we are stronger than what will kill us.
You can get dressed now
she tells me, but what I want
is to put my head in her lap,
have her stroke my hair while I tell her
how much I will miss my mother
when she is gone.
The markers of grief,
because my body will accommodate
the vast loneliness of my life without my mother.
My head in the technician’s lap,
her fingers lacing my hair,
tell me again about how hard the body tries,
how most of the time it wins.
Music by Gravenhurst, “The Diver”