My mother, sure, everything I know
is from my mother. She told me stories about
being a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse
in a prairie town so isolated her father and she drove
right through it and never noticed.
The loneliness, she said, of living in that town,
of boarding at the home of one of her students
the loneliness was the kind where you keep
telling yourself, This won't kill me
and if it does, then I won't know it, I'll be dead.
That made it go away for a while,
though you can't ever forget it: it's the voice
under the voice of every casual word.
I can hear it now when she's reproachful on the phone
she's in a Poe story, the walls are moving in,
and in the middle of the floor there's a pit, a drop
into darkness a thousand feet down.
The old drama queen. But she's also got that mad nobility
in her voice that makes me imagine her
riding like a Roman General on her horse through
everything she's been through, my father's death,
her children's cutting silences, her hardscrabble childhood
on the farm when they lived on 50 cents a day
and once, when she dropped the money through the floorboards,
they had to pry them up so they wouldn't go hungry,
she's got her yo-yoing blood pressure, her adult-onset diabetes,
the numbness in her feet, and fatigue that makes her feel
like she can't keep on but she does keep on,
she plays the piano, chords from her Fake Book
That Old Devil Moon, I've Got You Under My Skin
and then she reads, reads late into the night
and that's when, at the edges of her mind a voice
comes creeping, a voice, sure, she's heard it before,
it's the voice that echoes out of ruins piling up
one stone at a time, until the rubble piles up to your neck
but none of them notice, not even the old drunk soldiers
clinging to their dignity through you as you ride by,
they can't bear to see the rubble, they just see the horse,
and you, you keep up the show, you don't, for their sakes,
disappointjust who the hell thought life has any style at all?
and all the while, down among the mob, your son
stares up at you riding despite your wounds, the mob
of Rome shouting and applauding you in your triumph
and behind you there follows, in accordance with the ritual,
a slave crying out, Remember, you're nothing but a mortal.
Tom Sleigh's latest book of poems, Space Walk, won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award. A Guggenheim fellow and a Lila Wallace grant recipient, he teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College.