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The Perpetual Light


ISSUE:  Autumn 1983

to my mother, Mary Callahan Fulton

These gates are forever open:
Trees weeping dishevelments
of leaves, Victorian granite
extravagances and sticky

tombstone verse are overruled.
Instead, cinderblock discount outlets
merge with headstones, plain
as ranch houses. The pink and turquoise

all-weather wreaths cloy
like petit fours issued in a famine.
Form following function,
the place is dead. Remember

Daddy’s taphophobia?
His fear of being buried?
He favored mausoleums: air
at all costs. Practicality left him

here, in one of a dozen graves
he bought—the extras for as-yet-unknown
but needy friends. Today you and I
leave the air-conditioned comfort.

of the Olds and get lost
looking for his stone.
The power mower putters round, tidying up
the plot, undermining the mysterious

half-world we know exists
if only we could find it. Here
it’s too easy to feel invincible
as the relics that outlast us:

gold-plated backscratchers, new
wingtip shoes, small planets
of string. As if the dead spent
their lives salvaging and survivors lived

to raffle off the too-steadfast
inanimates. Our family favored
brash plastics to perishable cut glass.
The closets are a ruckus

of color: sturdy permanent
press or furious jersey
that combusts on the retina
and never fades. In your day

it was different. Sundays
your mother packed a hamper
of sandwiches and the family trudged
uphill to the graves.

Then monuments were figurative.
Only James’ stone squatted discreetly,
serviceable as the Callahans’
hard grief: you who never hit

the ground and howled, but squinted
when the dead were mentioned,
like people staring into sun,
recited a few slow anecdotes

and let it go. It is impossible
not to personify: the ash and willow
tore their hair in the breeze,
you chatted with the mighty

gray angels or played in their wings’
gloom: two dark palms pressed to earth.
The family picnicked on a cloth.
No one thought, I’m sure,

to use the white iron seats
that seemed crocheted by fiery-fingered saints
with a saint’s idea of ease.
Later you studied the glitter

in the dull or rosy stones, wondering
was it smidgins of the perpetual
light you prayed to shine upon them.
“The things we survived

or died from!” you exclaim.
“James to pneumonia, as you know.
Fran lay huddled on the sofa
for months with typhoid.

Her hair fell out in hanks
and she never touched milk again.
Mother said it was skunk oil
cured her. Sickness, I remember,

had a different smell then. After Azalea’s
scarlet fever they fumigated the house.
Harriet breathed some into her lungs
and died at three. As for me,

the walls swelled and burst
when I had mumps. Mother
tied my head in a flannel sling.
I told her that the rain was them,

the dead, shooting pebbles to call me
out to play. When the fever broke, I wanted
a charlotte russe. She took the trolley
to Hardigan’s and bought me two.

Spongy ladyfingers, whipped crearn
and a cherry. It tasted like life
to me.” Today nurses spray the sickroom
with “Glade.” The ill malinger,

treating us to chocolates
they can’t stomach. Gallant
as astronauts, they wink
under the electrodes.

There is no quarantine.
My father’s daughter, I
have nyctophobia. Night fear.
I know the Grand Union’s 24-hour light

scours each no-nonsense stone. I know
I should feel something
like consoled. Oh, Ma
how the world has changed us!

And the dead . . . lets’s hope
they’re different, too.
That they no longer wait with heavy patience
for our arrival at some ever-open gate,

but hotfoot it through the universe
like supple disco stars: their glamor sifting
into our rare, breathtaking dreams, our rarer prayers
mere twinges in their unimaginable limbs.

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