Issue > Poetry
Suzanne Matson

Suzanne Matson

Suzanne Matson's volumes of poetry are Sea Level and Durable Goods, and her poems have appeared in many journals, including American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Poetry, Salamander, Terrain.org and Washington Square. Her three novels, most recently The Tree-Sitter, were published by W. W. Norton. Recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, she teaches at Boston College.

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1.

On your seventh day with no water
I want to know how long you can go,
but stray on my search from How Long,
to How To Find. If the problem were scarcity,
I could follow the tracks of animals or trace the flights
of birds in the morning. I would stay alert
for places of lush green. I'd dig down
to where the seepage is; stay moving
and listen; go striding through long grass just before dawn
until my cuffs sagged from dew that you could nurse
from the soaked cloth.
If I were on a coast I could look for old sea ice,
black or blue, which somehow loses salt as it ages;
in a woods I'd wrap plastic around a leafy branch
and let the tree simply breathe out its moisture—
the way your oxygen tubing breathes its faint mist
into your nasal passages
and the sponge you take between your lips releases
its trickle to your tongue and gums. I know
the sources, could bring you all the water
you need, but cannot stop
your limbs from shrinking,
your body nearly flat now beneath
the sheet. You evaporate in front of me,
spurring my need to keep gathering
information that might save someone—
me, for instance—
How To Start a Fire Without a Match,
How To Sleep Where It Is Freezing.


2.

When we gave you the small stuffed puppy,
black Lab that just fit in the crook of your arm,
and you named him and exclaimed
when you saw him afresh each time—
There you are, Larry!—
the aides and nurses called you
adorable in your childish belief.
But I thought you raised an eyebrow at me
to show you were in on it, the make-believe.
You said only true things about your pet:
how he stayed right with you,
how he was always quiet,
how he was no trouble at all.
We were doing the pretending, while you
had managed to find the essence
of what could apply equally to the real
and the imagined, the alive and the inanimate, proving
that the line between
was not always so important.
Up to the moment you were unconscious
you held him close, little dog
Platonic in virtue, true presence to you,
mirrored on either side of the divide.


3.

For days I have thought of nothing
except the work of survival,
learning that its tools are everywhere—
the clear slice of lake ice you can smooth to a disk
to magnify sunlight into flame;
the pocket twine you can untwist to tinder,
each filament kinked like human hair;
and canopy shelters of low hanging branches.
Almost anything, it turns out, can be turned to
the service of life—even, or especially, the earth itself,
which you can dig out with your hands,
making a pit large enough to house
your unprotected body from wind and rain,
pulling the fir boughs over you
as you lay down away from the visible surface
in snug, safe, disappearance.


4.

Suddenly your face is bunched and shining,
your two knees drawing in
while an animal sound delivers you elsewhere
a centimeter at a time, your dying become a labor
obeying some law of conservation: the violence
we do coming in, equal and opposite
to that we must do to leave.


5.

I don't know why, after nine days
of lying fallow, the top of your head,
its white hair swirled like down,
should smell so intoxicating, so clean,
but I can't stop drinking it in
every time I bend to kiss you,
my still living mother—
the same smell my babies
were born with, pure of anything, except the yeast
of rising.


6.

According to the manual of endurance, we come with
built-in grace periods—
three weeks to live without eating,
three days without drinking,
three minutes without breathing.

But people argue limits all the time—
a breath-holder for eight minutes,
a hunger faster for 80 days,
bodies frozen and left out for days then
thawed and revived,
and my mother also, seeing no reason
that ordinary rules should apply to her,
refuses even the moist sponge at 13 days,
clamps her lips
like a vanishing lady act.
See her shimmer at the point
of mirage,
but no, see her reappear
into her dry twitch of limbs
her tissue of skin
her belly of nothing.


7.

If I write you down now, holding
your hand with the one
that's not holding the pen,
then I keep you—
that simple.

I say, in your ear,
that you can go, but here I am
making you stay with every stroke
of crooked penmanship on
the tablet I balance on my knee.
I am on the edge of your bed
the way you are on the edge
of your life, the cliff, really,
waiting to swan dive.

I took a picture of a swan in the Charles
on my walk the other day, spending an hour
away from you, as instructed,
in case my presence was holding
you back. One swan, mateless,
holding the territory. I wanted to show it
to you, but your pupil doesn't track now,
your one open eyelid only slitted, a thin crescent
of dark iris gleaming when I bend
to center myself in what I hope
to be your lens. You are still here,
each small gasp raising
your shoulder in a shrug,
as if to say, what else can I do? Today
I have you propped toward the window
to rest the skin on your back, which flared
into angry red stripes overnight, not yet bedsores.
I think you yourself will break through
before your skin gives way—both ready
to release what's inner to the world.
Your hand is soft and small
and cool in mine. The shape of your skull
presses out of your smooth forehead.
I've been instructed in the final signs of pain:
clenched hands, clenched brow or jaw.
You have none of these, the jaw hanging unhinged
with gravity. And because of my ministry of sweet,
the morphine syringe insinuated
into the corner of your mouth, then nuzzling
beneath your tongue, I don't think even your gasps
are troubling you. They erupt
in rhythm against the snare percussion of your oxygen
machine, and they don't show signs of stopping.
One of these will be the last, though I won't know it
when I see it. I'll expect another,
no matter if I see the pause,
because I've also been instructed in breath's trickery—
the apnea that can stretch into a minute, then jerk
you back again, so that even with your breath held,
I'll wait for you to keep going, the way your
brain spark right now is surely not expecting
to ever go out, the way the gray
trees outside your window live on with
their veins of snow, their quiet sap
not dead and not dying.


8.

It looked like death would come
the last day of the old year
then the first day of the new
then the perihelion
then the full Wolf moon
then the Feast of the Epiphany
then the coldest day of the year.
Turns out you had nothing to do with
zodiac, almanac, or Christian calendar,
but that you were simply interested in living on,
rolling in and out with your tidal breath,
loose as a sea plant, until you washed up somewhere,
not random, exactly,
but free of plot point or correlative
or any meaning of mine
tricked out of metaphor.


9.

At two fifty-eight,
what comes to you? What light or
dark or faces or

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