Scars on Paper

An unwrapped icon, too potent to touch,
She freed my breasts from the camp Empire dress.
Now one of them’s the shadow of a breast
With a lost object’s half-life, with as much
Life as an anecdotal photograph:
Me, Kim and Iva, all stripped to the waist,
Hiking near Russian River on June first
’79: Iva’s five-and-a-half.
While she was almost twenty, wearing black
T-shirts in D. C., where we hadn’t met.
You lay your palm, my love, on my flat chest.
In lines alive with what is not regret,
She takes her own path past, doesn’t turn back.
Persistently, on paper, we exist.

Persistently, on paper, we exist.
You’d touch me if you could, but you’re, in fact,
Three thousand miles away. And my intact
Body is eighteen months paper: the past
A fragile eighteen months regime of trust
In slash-and-burn, in vitamin pills, backed
By no statistics.

Each day I enact
Survivor’s rituals, blessing the crust
I tear from the warm loaf, blessing the hours
In which I didn’t or in which I did
Consider my own death. I am not yet
Statistically a survivor (that
Is sixty months). On paper, someone flowers
And flares alive. I knew her. But she’s dead.

She flares alive. I knew her. But she’s dead.
I flirted with her, might have been her friend,
But transatlantic schedules intervened.
She wrote a book about her Freedom Ride,
The wary elders whom she taught to read,
– herself half-British, twenty-six, white-blonde,
With thirty years to live.
And I happened
To open up The Nation to that bad
News which I otherwise might not have known
(not breast cancer: cancer of the brain).
Words take the absent friend away again.
Alone, I think, she called, alone, upon
Her courage, tried in ways she’d not have wished
By pain and fear: her courage, extinguished.

The pain and fear some courage extinguished
At disaster’s denouement come back
Daily, banal: is that brownish-black
Mole the next chapter? Was the ache enmeshed
Between my chest and armpit when I washed
Rogue cells’ new claw, or just a muscle ache?
I’m not yet desperate enough to take

in being predeceased: the anguish
When the Harlem doctor, the Jewish dancer,
Die of AIDS, the Boston seminary’s
Dean succumbs “after brief illness” to cancer.
I like mossed slabs in country cemeteries
With wide-paced dates, candles in jars, whose tallow
Glows on summer evenings, desk-lamp yellow.

Aglow in summer evening, a desk-lamp’s yellow
Moonlight peruses notebooks, houseplants, texts,
While an aging woman thinks of sex
In the present tense. Desire may follow,
Urgent or elegant, cut raw or mellow
With wine and ripe black figs: a proof, the next
Course, a simple question, the complex
Response, a burning sweetness she will swallow.
The opening mind is sexual and ready
To embrace, incarnate in its prime.
Rippling concentrically from summer’s gold
Disc, desire’s iris expands, steady
With blood beat. Each time implies the next time.
The aging woman hopes she will grow old.

The aging woman hopes she will grow old.
A younger woman has a dazzling vision
Of bleeding wrists, her own, the clean incisions
Suddenly there, two open mouths. They told
Their speechless secrets, witnesses not called
To what occurred with as little volition
Of hers as these phantom wounds.
Intense precision
Of scars, in flesh, in spirit. I’m enrolled
By mine in ranks where now I’m “being brave”
If I take off my shirt in a hot crowd
Sunbathing, or demonstrating for Dyke Pride.
Her bravery counters the kitchen knives’
Insinuation that the scars be made.
With, or despite our scars, we stay alive.

“With, or despite our scars, we stayed alive
Until the Contras or the Government
Or rebel troops came, until we were sent
To ‘relocation camps’ until the archives
Burned, until we dug the ditch, the grave
Beside the aspen grove where adolescent
Boys used to cut class, until we went
To the precinct house, eager to behave
Like citizens…”
I count my hours and days,
Finger for luck the word-scarred table which
Is not my witness, shares all innocent
Objects’ silence: a tin plate, a basement
Door, a spade, barbed wire, a ring of keys,
An unwrapped icon, too potent to touch.

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Scars on Paper