In a recent interview with Poetry Northwest, the full contents of which can be found here, Beatrix Gates discussed this week’s Poem of the Week with Senior Editor Jaimie Li:
“The Card, the Note, the Envelope” is dedicated to a cousin who I got very close to later in life, sort of like finding a new sister. Her friendship became a healing bond for me after the end of a long-term lesbian relationship. I wasn’t close to her earlier because there was a big age difference. She went back to school later, after raising her family, and became an art historian. She had a wonderful way of seeing the world—sanguine and hopeful.
The point is, when she got sick, I felt very rocked. I knew she was dying, she knew she was dying, it wasn’t a secret. It happened over the spring, about a week after my own mother died many years earlier. There was this feeling of confronting death again, wanting to connect with her, and yet, wanting to allow in the poem for death to be very real, raw. It is losing your breath, literally. On the other hand, I was confronting my own feelings of, in some ways, wanting it not to happen. I thought about sending this particular Samuel Palmer print because I knew that she and her father loved it. He was also an artist. The Samuel Palmer paintings had a lot of light in them, rural England working farmers with sheep and ancient trees. They’re not sentimental. Just fucking gorgeous; they glow. I found this card—I think I’d gone to the Met—I was afraid it would be an ending. I did not want to sign off. As I say in the poem, “It was not a circle.”
The Card, the Note, the Envelope
for Ellen G. D’Oench
1. I had the card, a Samuel Palmer painting, that you and your father
loved—”The Magic Apple Tree,” circa 1830. Brown ink,
watercolor, gouache and gum arabic. Modest among the work
you knew, it was rough-hewn, a glowing gold
meadow heaped in light behind apple orchard blasting
loaded, drooping gnarly limbs over sheep and shepherd
on curving path that tunneled through the valley to some darker envelope
of lasting green and shade.
2. I could not send the note—could not.
I did not want to make beautiful words
on a card—the chosen stamps: 1954, Brown vs Board of Education,
and Navaho turquoise necklace to make up the new rate—
to close and name a circle.
3. It was not a circle.
It was broken, raw
breath and breathing
the unbroken will
angry laying in the bed
(“Could we just do this?”).
You were in the last days—
I had heard enough.
4. I prayed that you would not feel
I took the card, stamped, to write and send.
I thought it might bring you some pleasure,
a visual tie and bond,
the color of time in hay-head’s heap,
but I resisted writing
as if last dark/light could be stayed.
And I knew you would know that
being your self—
how could I lie?
5. It was time
you yourself named it.
I decided it would be foolish to try and write,
nothing could be right, except your own moments
It wasn’t pretty or blank
but peace rode out a full day’s sleep. The white envelope
unaddressed and unclosed.
Nor have I looked inside
to remember the desire to lift
with words the floating veil of petalled shadows
mottling the room, and covering your chest,
until no breathing vined upwards.
6. I could send it now
when I said I would visit on the Saturday, the day after you died, you said:
“I’ll write it down.”
Beatrix Gates’ poetry collections include Dos (Finishing Line), the Lambda Literary Award finalist In the Open, and desire lines (Artifact Press). A MacDowell fellow, she received the Huntington Library Jutzi Non-traditional Scholar fellowship for research on astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Witter Bynner Award with Electa Arenal for translating Jesús Aguado’s The Poems of Vikram Babu (HOST). She has hybrid work in MAP out of Glasgow (www.mapmagazine.co.uk) and in Jane Cooper: A Radiance of Attention (University of Michigan). She has taught writing at Colby, CCNY, NYU, and in Goddard’s MFA. She lives in Brooksville, Maine.