The Harrowing
His lips leashed
to the hospital wall by plastic tubing, oxygen
flowing from the pump hidden on the other side
of the wall to the alveoli rupturing within him —
we were already somewhere like purgatory.

In the book of the dead, the dead go on
believing in the body, craving
a cigarette, lapping
with a nonexistent tongue
at a stale cup of coffee.

Not knowing what else to do,
I stroked his back as tentatively
as one stretches out a hand
to a stray animal, and he
lowered his head and shuddered,
surrendering to the pull of this life,
as a horse to the bit,
the iron, the captivating grain.

While the living hurry to open a door
to a voice that is no longer
there, the one who has died
learns to recognize
the corpse. It takes days to realize:

this is myself — a child,
a mother or father, now reflected
in the gaze of a terrible deity,
a human scalp in one hand,
in the other, a seashell
full of blood.

We were waiting for the readings
of his heart, the colorless
areas on the corona
indicating which muscles
were dying or dead, isolated
deltas where rivers no longer flowed.

If I had asked him to rest
in such a narrow space, he would have insisted
he could never fit. How can I
walk through this house, step over
and around, when what is now called “the body”
is removed?

Wrapped like a birthday present
in gray paper, a white bow —
a box full of his ashes: two pounds, dense
as a star that, collapsing, leaves behind
a black hole. In a stunned field,
all we called “father”
drifts in the air.

He lifted his hand
to catch
his own soul
as it flew out of his mouth.
It flew away anyway, leaving
his hand behind, frozen in a clawlike grip.

At night, I wake up and say to no one in particular,
“My father is dead.” How we tried to plumb
the well of his coffin,
saying it did not look
like him. We covered that chest
with white roses. But we would never
have placed on Dad those chilled
leaves, their cold drops of water.

In the note he wrote to himself, between
the used-car ads and the golfing
tips: “First the soul must pass
through a terrible darkness.”

Now I pass through that darkness
everywhere, impermeable as the stain
he sweated into his sheets,
the terrible track
of his struggling at night to breathe.
The streets, the crowded aisles of the supermarket,
seem transparent, a membrane, thinned
by friction or need, so that a single molecule passes
through — harrowed from one cell, one being, one world
to another, saying aloud:

May he not be afraid, may he enter
the clear light of the void.

May he not be afraid, may he enter
the clear light of the void.