Poets’ Dinner Meeting
The foul heat of her breath is the only sign.
She’s pale, but it’s been a long, bleak winter.
In January, doctors gave her six months to three years.
Mercifully, the pain as yet requires only aspirin.
Now, seated alone on the dark brown couch,
she faces us, tarnished hair hanging beside puffy cheeks.
We do not say she will not be long among us. We do not stare.
We are compassionate: she is a kind, intelligent, loving person.
We love her. She will be missed, eulogized, mourned.
Yet in this warm, comfortable room where her friends
are growing sleepy over white cake, red wine, bitter coffee,
the terrible odor of her mortality escapes her mouth.
It carries charnel fear. We smell it. Our words falter.
A cup is returned to its saucer, a wineglass drained.
In the choked silence that follows the reading of her last poem,
before we all begin to praise, I am horribly, inhumanly afraid.
Will we — all as one and without warning —
rise in a screaming, coughing, plague-ridden panic?
Will we force frosted windows, crowd frozen doors,
abandon her to her earth-bound couch?
All it would take is for one of us to rise, shout:
We were driving, driving, driving
you and I, late at night,
on a necessary errand
for a document, a testament, a certificate —
some sort of bureaucratic requirement.
The dark-haired man who followed,
tailgating in his white sedan,
took every turn we made,
even when I drove by mistake
onto the narrow wooden pier.
When I had to turn around —
there was nothing ahead but water —
he got out, waited, blocking the way.
I accelerated, ran right over him,
but he rose up unharmed.
We realized then that
there was no harm meant.
He was simply going to the same place
we were — the dark, square building
above the marshes where
we both had to register —
even though you were dead
and I was the one left living.
© Elisabeth Stevens
Writer-artist-critic Elisabeth Stevens is the author of six books of poetry including Sirens’ Songs, which was named one of the 100 best Indie books of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews. She has also the author of six collections of short fiction and of the 2013 novel, Ride a Bright and Shining Pony, a tragic love story set on the day of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A former art and architecture critic of The Baltimore Sun, she is also a former art critic of The Wall Street Journal, The Trenton Times and The Washington Post.