In Departing Light
My mother all of ninety has to be tied up
in her wheelchair, but still she leans far out of it sideways;
she juts there brokenly,
able to cut
with the sight of her someone who is close. She is hung
like her hanging mouth
in the dignity
of her bleariness, and says that she is
perfectly all right. It is impossible to get her to complain
or to register anything
for longer than a moment. She has made Stephen Hawking look healthy.
It’s as though
she is being sucked out of existence sideways through a porthole
and we’ve got hold of her feet.
She’s very calm.
If you live long enough it isn’t death you fear
but what life can still do. And she appears to know this
even if there’s no hope she could formulate it.
Yet she is so calm you think of an immortal – a Tithonus withering
forever on the edge
though never a moment’s grievance. Taken out to air
my mother seems in a motorcycle race, she
the sidecar passenger
who keeps the machine on the road, trying to lie far over
beyond the wheel.
Seriously, concentrated, she gazes ahead
towards the line,
as we go creeping around and around, through the thick syrups
of a garden, behind the nursing home.
Her mouth is full of chaos.
My mother revolves her loose dentures like marbles ground upon each other,
or idly clatters them,
broken and chipped. Since they won’t stay on her gums
she spits them free
with a sudden blurting cough, which seems to have stamped out of her
an ultimate breath.
Her teeth fly into her lap or onto the grass,
breaking the hawsers of spittle.
What we see in such age is for us the premature dissolution of a body,
as it slips off the bones
and back to protoplasm
before it can be decently hidden away.
And it’s as though the synapses were almost all of them broken
between her brain cells
and now they waver about feebly on the draught of my voice
at random and wrongly
and she has become a surrealist poet.
‘How is the sun
on your back?’ I ask. ‘The sun
is mechanical,’ she tells me, matter of fact. Wait
a moment, I think, is she
becoming profound? From nowhere she says, ‘The lake gets dusty.’ There is no lake
here, or in her past. ‘You’ll have to dust the lake.’
It could be
She has grown deep, but then she says, ‘The little boy in the star is food,’
or perhaps ‘The little boy is the star in food,’
and you think, ‘More likely
this appeals to my kind of superstition.’ It is all a tangle, and interpretations,
and hearing amiss,
all just the slipperiness
of her descent.
We sit and listen to the bird-song, which is like wandering lines
of wet paint –
it is like an abstract expressionist at work, his flourishes and
and is going on all over the stretched sky.
If I read aloud skimmingly from the newspaper, she immediately falls asleep.
I stroke her face and she wakes
and looking at me intently she says something like, ‘That was
a nice stick.’ In our sitting about
she has also said, relevant of nothing, ‘The desert is a tongue.’
‘A red tongue?’
‘That’s right, it’s a
it’s a sort of
you know – it’s a – it’s a long
When I told her I might go to Cambridge for a time, she said to me, ‘Cambridge
is a very old seat of learning. Be sure –’
but it became too much –
of the short Christmas flowers.’ I get dizzy,
when I try to think about what is happening inside her head. I keep her
out there for hours, propping her
she dozes, and drifts into waking; away from the stench and
the screams of the ward. The worst
of all this, for me, is that despite such talk, now is the most peace
I’ve known her to have. She reminisces,
momentarily, thinking that I am one of her long-dead
brothers. ‘Didn’t we have some fun
on those horses, when we were kids?’ she’ll say, giving
her thigh a little slap. Alzheimer’s
is nirvana, in her case. She never mentions
anything of what troubled her adult years – God, the evil passages
of the Bible, her own mother’s
long, hard dying, my father. Nothing
at all of my father,
of her obsession with the religion that he drove her to. She says the magpie’s song,
which goes on and on, like an Irishman
wheedling to himself,
and which I have turned her chair towards,
reminds her of
a cup. A broken cup. I think that the chaos in her mind
is bearable to her because it is revolving
so slowly – slowly
as dust motes in an empty room.
The soul? The soul bas long been defeated, and is all but gone.
She’s only productive now
of bristles on the chin, of an odour
like old newspapers on a damp concrete floor, of garbled mutterings, of
some crackling memories, and of a warmth
(it was always there,
the marsupial devotion), of a warmth that is just in the eyes now, particularly
when I hold her and rock her for a while, as I lift her
back to bed – a folded
package, such as,
I have seen from photographs, was made of the Ice Man. She says, ‘I like it
when you – when
I say to her, ‘My brown-eyed girl.’ Although she doesn’t remember
the record, or me come home
that time, I sing it
to her: ‘Da
da-dum, de-dum, da-dum ... And
it’s you, it’s you,’– she smiles up, into my face –‘it’s you, my brown-eyed girl.’
My mother will get lost on the roads after death.
Too lonely a figure
to bear thinking of. As she did once,
one time at least, in the new department store
in our town; discovered
hesitant among the aisles; turning around and around, becoming
a still place.
Looking too kind
to reject even a wrong direction,
outrightly. And she caught my eye, watching her,
and knew I’d laugh
and grinned. Or else, since many another spirit will be arriving over there, whatever
those are – and all of them clamorous
as seabirds, along the walls of death – she will be pushed aside
easily, again. There are hierarchies in Heaven, we remember; and we know
of its bungled schemes.
Even if the last shall be first’, as we have been told, she
could not be first. It would not be her.
But why become so fearful?
This is all
of your mother, in your arms. She who now, a moment after your game, has gone;
who is confused
and would like to ask
why she is hanging here. No – she will be safe. She will be safe
in the dry mouth
of this red earth, in the place
she has always been. She
who hasn’t survived living, how can we dream that she will survive her death?
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Comments about this poem (In Departing Light by Robert Gray )
(March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963)
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