Alex (1929-2001)


No act of will or Psychic Hotline cant
can raise you from the “utility urn”
I bought you in from Jern’s Crematorium
last week. You’re done, Mom, and you shan’t
correct my English, nor nothing rail nor rant
against forever more. No high-dudgeon
antics can stir the pot. Not even Nieman
Marcus on credit card can make you less than spent.
Farewell to the 12 Minton place settings
you never used, and to the Stickley bed
big as a Roman bath – to the nightshade
and St. John’s Wort, masseuse, bed-wettings,
panic calls, blindness – all that pricey dread—
and those who promised love that never came.


You were of course the damaged princess, downed
at seven by the osteomyelitis
in your forehead – surgery, leeches,
one eyelid frozen, headaches that would pound
and pound until you saw yourself as drowned
and then redeemed in your own helplessness.
Great doctors mumbled over you like priests
until the divorce lawyers came and found
your miscarrying mother drug addicted,
your rich daddy a secret queer and crazy.
The baffled judge at last left you to choose.
You were just 10. Your breathing grew constricted
and the courtroom walls leaned in. You told me
how the strange tears splashed on your new red shoes.


And so you chose the mother you would hate
by 17, who stole your friends and lied
and put on airs, while the new poverty tied
you to yourself like a bad smell. Late
to work one morning in the Gulf Coast heat
after a six mile walk, you were mortified
to find deodorant on your desk, tied
up with a little ribbon of pure hate.
That was the day, perhaps, you swore off sweat.
Powdered, perfumed, your beauty cool as ice,
you wore a long red coat, stiletto heels.
When, like soft wind, you tucked me in at night
and whisked away into a world of eyes
and mouths and random men, I felt your steel.


I hear your sniff of violated privacy
as my man’s hands riffle the soft innards
of your long bureaus – folded, layered,
immaculate, lush femininity,
but not quite lacy – wombs of secrecy
that hold old letters in frayed ribbons, half-heard
snatches of conversation like the words
of little girls whose coy hypocrisy
you loathed. Was it your father’s shortness made
you crave tall men, with timber in their voices,
who glowered down at me like men on stilts.
Was it just irony the man you married
stood only five foot six and favored boys.
Still I hear the venom of your hissing silks.


“Jarvis, Elizabeth Alice,” your great
grandmother, slips from a bottom drawer,
faded but lovely as a long-pressed flower,
at perhaps 17. I contemplate
her unstrung collar. She was maybe late
to come in for the photo session hour,
her hair windblown, a breathless now or
never slight parting of the lips. Her fate
was to become an itinerant schoolmarm,
revered for high intelligence and wit,
who married a young minister and raised
three daughters of a certain bearing, charm,
humor and piety. What doesn’t quite fit
the story, though, are her eyes – wild, slightly crazed.


What tamed that wild gaze that did not tame yours—
the cold Michigan farm? –anxieties
by candlelight? –the sleepless ministries
to endless household needs? From bottom drawers
they all come tumbling out, the ancestor
church ladies. Your grandmother’s diaries,
chock full of weather’s cheery godliness,
tell nothing of herself, only her prayers
to better serve. They warmed the glittering ice
of those heartbreaking farms that made you cringe,
if family jottings be believed. White haired,
bleak boned daughters of the mad-eyed Alice,
they show up faded at the faded edges
of family picnics – wistful, shyly proud.


Your existential loathing of the family
tree came early. One minister seduced
proved quite enough. Even old “Elder” Brewster
of the Mayflower hung there in the leafy
branches your mother grew like Blake’s Poison Tree.
Its roots were Charlemagne and Robert Bruce,
the Black Douglas and John of Gaunt. No half-truth
was squandered in her quest for ancestry
of might and merit. You were the poor daughter
who’d never measure up to that high-flown bunk
and didn’t try. You sang your own mantra.
You were no Mary Ann, let alone “Junior.”
You were no pious chip off the old stump.
You changed your name to Alexandra.


Not the carpool mother who sang I Like
Ike songs. Not the girl damaged by her father
who could not say no but not quite yes either.
Not she who made little me one May night
with a blond Mick prize-fighter without quite
conceiving what went on in the weeds there.
Not the petulant, angry daughter,
or even the bad mother or bad wife.
You wanted to exist uncategorically.
You wanted to be an original
created in the diamond moment. Not
for you the pain of being only
one woman. You desired to be impossible,
and stirred and stirred and stirred and stirred the pot.


You loathed your mother’s wheeler-dealer lies.
She worried you could be but could not do—
and always two stories of what was true—
yours and hers, hers and yours in perfect symmetry—
her outward quest, your inward journey,
clashing like cymbals. Both your winds could woo
me. I just saw varying shades of blue—
you darker and she lighter, but the same sea.
You both loved words, and words kept you apart.
In the same room, I’d feel your grinding wills
like creaking oarlocks, both a little crazy
and both killed off by the same bad heart.
You read Proust. She read me Wordsworth’s “Daffodils.”
In different climes, you each got called “a lady.”


You toyed with me with threats of suicide
that year I turned 11. Even then
I thought you were just putting me on
at least half the time. But of course I cried
and rubbed your back, and in my own way tried
to wrestle down your darkest demons
as if you were my double. And just once
I feared you’d kill me in my sleep – some tired
hotel in Switzerland as I recall.
We’d fought. You had been drinking pretty hard.
But I remember mostly how the lake
was blue as lapis and we were immortal.
The incident left us drifting apart.
We just let it alone for beauty’s sake.


All family wars play out best with three.
“What can we do with Alex, what’s anyone
to do with Alex,” Grandmother would intone
when I was fourteen and thought life easy.
We’d settle in for a long night’s breezy
confession of your sins. Crazy as a loon
sometimes, she had the storyteller’s one
virtue – to forge some actuality
just as she forged diplomas that got her work.
You were the poor poet of introverted
glances, who saw not things but in their ideas
that fluttered mothily toward the Absurd.
For you communion lurked behind the words.
After dissecting you, we’d have our brioche.


You showed no great interest in your grandson
and hated any grandmotherly role.
The very appellation seemed to appall
you, as if threatening your sense of fashion
and proper distance. No cuddly fat munchkin
hugger you. It was all about control
and self-possession and your ghastly will.
The touch you craved was near another ocean
under the calm fingers of your masseuse.
What you could buy you could put trust in—
even to that huge, sombre library
whose books you never bothered to peruse.
You were just out there like the last Victorian
dying amidst some phantom tea party.


With enough money nothing need be real.
You blew through seven hundred thousand,
a grand a month for your group psychic plan
alone. The rest, just baubles of the haute genteel—
Cartier clocks, drawers full of identical
designer suits in three sizes, not one
worn – scarves and sweaters numberless as sand,
and so on. Mostly it was pretty dismal
being you those last years, ordering things
through U.P.S. to have a moment’s friend
when packages arrived. Your eyes were failing
and liver functions – clear rememberings
of things that had not ever happened.
The sirens in your blood-starved head were wailing.


When it was clear the money had run out,
quite willessly you fell upon your sword,
refusing Laesix that your doctor ordered
and losing him for that. For one coquette
moment you tried to call a quick about
face, change your mind. Nurses were guarded—
it was too late now for that. You looked bored
and drifted back to sleep. And that was that.
You new friend-cosmetician held your hand.
Another startled as she entered your room
and one bright blue eye held her in its death-chill.
There was no code blue or shenanigans.
You’d become bride to yet another groom.
The angry child kicking in your head lay still.


Your portraits we brought home filled several boxes—
from Shirley Temple days to the young Hepburn,
your slightly cocked head and cocked eyebrow turn
the gaze inward, despite the outward glances
at the demanding camera. Long eyelashes
veil the quick bright eye. Something flickers and burns
and smolders out. A certain porcelain
veneer distracts us from your beauty’s darkness.
What you held dearest was your inner kingdom.
In most all of the portraits, that shows up.
None of them hold the look I cherish—
that devil-may-care, slightly-over-the-top,
what-the-hell grin. That wink. It all said come
dance, little broody boy, it’s all there is.