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Dear Kier


I woke this morning wondering 

if you’ve gone to the Celestial. 

                                                     

                                                                           The last time I saw you, 

we met under the gold four-faced clock in the main hall 

at Grand Central Terminal. 

                                                 You and me, Kier, 

in New York City,  southern transplants, writers, 

hospice volunteers, 

                                 meeting in the temple of travelers

under a turquoise heaven

stippled with lights—

                                      Seen from above by the Divine Horse;

the Hunter,

                     we must have appeared as spirits

among hundreds more wandering 

                                                          inside a golden bowl.


*

                                                                                                                                    

                                                                       

                                          We left the constellations behind 

for seats at the U-shaped lunch counter of The Oyster Bar, 

sandwiched between surface-dwellers hustling above us 

on the sidewalks of 42nd and Park

and the trains below rushing,

                                                  like madness itself,  through the tunnels.


We settled inside that white and blue tiled tomb, the walls unfazed 

by the overload of acoustics, 

                                                   the endless traffic of businessmen and tourists. 


I once saw  Joe DiMaggio there, an old man by then, 

                                                                                           close to death, 

with two friends on either side who took turns 

wiping his chin.


*


Leaning in close, we ate chowder from thick white bowls.


                                                   You were in your sixties, 

old enough to be my mother, 

                                                   though working with the dying 

erases the importance of things like age 

in a friendship like ours 

                                            where connection can’t be quantified. 

                                                                                

We talked about our patient, H. 

We’d taken turns

                               ministering to him during his final months. 


He told you his life had been too short. 

He told me being an artist is “not glamorous! It’s pain-staking 

and monotonous!”

                                 You gave him massages, 

we both sat with him through his hallucinations: dinosaurs, rocket ships, luggage 

packed for a moonshot—

                                                            If they were hallucinations. 


*

                                                                                                            

                                            

                                              Do you remember his memorial service

held in an artist’s loft in the East Village? 

                                                                          And Sister Dementia, 

the cross-dressing DJ from The Pyramid Club, 

                                                                                a diminutive, unassuming  

person in the off-hours, with short dark hair and bangs, dressed in a blend-into-the-room 

                    gray suit with a Nehru collar?

                                                                         He stood alone by the baby-grand, 

trembling a little, 

                               and wept through his remembrances of their trips 

to Montauk while H could still get around. 

                                                                          And the dancing—

How H loved to dance. The only time Sister D saw him smile. 

                                                                                                        

“He told me he wanted to die with dignity.” 

                                                                              And Olivia, 

the head nurse from the Unit, 

assured Sister D  H had gone that way.


*


I still have that copy you gave me of  the children’s book you wrote:

Chester and Uncle Willoughby.

                                                                 I go back to my favorite passage from time to time

where Chester asks Uncle Will,

                                                     “what if the world was made of nothing?” 

and they explore all the edgeless, unending dark 

such a world would be. 

                                       When I first read it, I felt a chill, 

                                                                                                but now 

it reminds me of dark matter, which we weren’t discussing 

thirty years ago, 

                             though it’s always been there, 

                                                                                 like the coyotes, 

as H might have said. 

                                     A language it took me thirty years to understand—

as we’d witnessed, many times, 

                                                     the crossing 

through those last moments 

                                                    into the nothing we’ve forgotten

that opens up into everything.



Dear H,


Thirty years 

since your ashes were scattered  

in the wilds of Harpswell—

                                           Thirty years 

since the day before you died; 

those blue-black scabs 

on your nose and throat fell off—

You wanted them to be saved, 

but the one from your throat 

disappeared. 

                      Your mother thinks 

Troy ate it. 

Would you have forgiven 

your little Pomeranian 

if you’d known? 

I remember how she twirled  

on her hind feet like a ballerina 

around your thinning legs, 

jumped into your arms 

when you were still able to stand,

laid silent on your chest

when you were too sick to speak.

                     

*


I fed you when you

could no longer lift a fork, 

microwaved veal and green beans

from the Chelsea Trattoria,

cut up your food

as if you were a baby,

and you let me. 

                         

*

                               

On this borrowed porch, 

scent of summer pine, the inlet receding,

I read out loud the notes I kept back then

and find my own voice strange, 

after all these years,

                                 closer to my death.



Peak-In-Darien


I want to finish my work.


That’s what you said to Kier as you palmed a piece of clay 

the color of Sheep’s Meadow in late summer.

You’d been blind for months, 

                                                but in the pitch-black 

of your new world, 

you saw a city, a white tower, 

                                                  a park.  Perhaps 


it was as Keats wrote after reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer: 

            

            Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

            When a new planet swims into his ken…


In those last days, the city sang to you, and you were driven, 

as if by something interstellar, 

                                                    to build—


the same way Roy in Close Encounters madly sculpted a tower

out of his mashed potatoes—

                                           

                                                  You called out the colors—

Kier handed you the clay:

                                             purple for a footbridge 

above a stream, 

deep green for endless meadows,

copper for a stone path through a ramble, 

                                                                      yellow for tulips 

                                                                                                   around a carousel—     


All you had left were your hands and your drive—

and you got started—

                                       We thought you weren't ready to go—

                                                                                            

But you were.



My Last Visit With R.


           As I was leaving

he called to me, “Hey! 

Keep the faith! 

I’ll see you downstairs!”

As if he were still that strapping 

window-washer 

scaling skyscrapers

in the years before 

the ever-stewing pools

of Needle Park 

were closed.

                      Never gone 

his primal thirst 

for wings —

                Now tethered

to his own refuse.

he was getting close—

blind, bandaged, 

tongue white 

with thrush.

He extended his hand.

I held it. 

I don’t think he knew who I was.



The Hydro-Tub


Above the mother tub

across the tender face

the patient movement of hands

aligned with the moment—

the temperature of time

                                         inside an ocean—

a blue padded gurney

lowered  

into warm water—

                                sweet as the womb—


Each patient leaves a silent echo—

without remark or sorrow, 

The clock secured

above 

          the porcelain berth—


Fingers, knees, feet, elbows,

places rubbed the most in a life

peeling off in my hands.

                                         I knew one day 

it would be my heels

shedding their little snow, 

the bones of my hands

loose

          in their purses of skin.

 

Frances Richey is the author of three poetry collections: The Warrior (Viking Penguin 2008), The Burning Point (White Pine Press 2004), and the chapbook, Voices of the Guard, a collaboration with the Oregon National Guard and Clackamas Community College, published by the college in 2010. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Gulf Coast, Salamander, Blackbird, and The Cortland Review, among others. She was the Barbara and Andrew Senchak Fellow at MacDowell for 2015-2016, a Finalist for the National Poetry Series in 2019, and a Finalist for the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize. Her poems have been featured on NPR, PBS NewsHour and Verse Daily. Frances teaches an on-going poetry writing class at Himan Brown Senior Program at the 92NY in NYC where she is Poet-in-Residence.





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