The Swimmer

–For Barry


Lorrie Goldensohn

The Stroke

Of January’s two faces, neither
proved your friend. When you
picked up The Times, its squirrely
letters tricked you: dropping it,
you covered your face with your hands,
and said I’m in a bad way—consenting
to go to the hospital.
                       Such hope
at first—then deeper and deeper
into speechlessness. I read
the newspaper aloud, Matt shaved you,
Rachel brought soup, and I
brought the troubling raspberries
you ate so greedily and probably
aspirated, as your swallowing
got worse and worse.
                     I played you
Soave sia il vento—Mozart’s mezzos
have always ravished you—but the reedy
cellphone irritated, and you made me
shut those lyric voices down.
                              By February,
you were still up for Hopkins—long-faced, this
slender Jesuit, at 5'4" a mere two inches taller
than Keats—he bends to the dying
husk of the hardy-handsome blacksmith,
whom Sickness broke … My tongue
slows for the intricate sonnet, our eyes fill—
we feel the last rite, the sweet ransom
the little priest has tendered—Thy tears
that touched my heart … poor Felix Randal: and yet
in the large music of the close, it is the man
at the forge mastering the flame, and the giant animal,
who tower in all their pagan might:

When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Sleepily, you note how cleverly Randal rhymes with sandal.

The Poet

You were daily shamed by what you could not do.
Even as occasionally from the page the right word
swam into view.
                Once, quizzed by a doctor
to identify me, you recited the whole string
of my maiden and marital tags, and grinning wickedly
at your interlocutor, called it her secret, ineffable Name.

You grabbed your own book of poems
from my hands, and putting it in front of your face,
misreading the title, declared it a fake,
a book of parodies…

Trying to match a mood, I read from one of your own poems:

The presumption that I need a shepherd amuses me
And the presumption of shepherds enrages me.
I don’t need staff or rod. I know I’ll die.

You asked me Who wrote that?
You did, I said. And gradually, you told me
how the piece came to be written.

Your last visitor in one long poem,
which I read back to you in its multi-planed
entirety, morphs into a sinister double:

my allegedly stillborn brother with my own face
and he seemed to bless me…
I knew the rites for welcoming strangers
and blessed him in return and Ha, Ha,
he was not a priest, not my brother, but the Angel of Death
come to play with me, to disassemble my heart.


I think of his sister caressing his hands—
What beautiful nails he has—those hands
that knew every secret of my body. Strong
but not remarkable in their shaping—merely

owning the grace with which he used them
as the flags of his soul. Out of the water
they rise in those photos I took—back stroke,
flare of the chill lake water behind them,
the white spray of his movement—he wrote,

Forgetting the dangerous weight of his body

on the calm skin of the lake, he swims

on his back in the female receptive position,

face to the bright sky, thin clouds

vaporizing fast in the sun’s brilliance

afloat in nothing, and the purposeful

seeming union of atoms supporting his weight…ready

to drift in the water and air and light.


from the hospital bed, his fingers fluttered goodbye—
after spoon-feeding his supper to him–his mouth
would open like a trusting child’s–but then
like the swimmer’s, his hand flung back: enough.
I came to put full plates of food away.
That expressive finger would crook:
Come here, do this, do that, for me.

And nightly I abandoned him, wave, wave…

The Hospital

Get me out of here,
you said to Bob.
When they offered you morphine:
They’re trying to murder me.
You knew your father’s peaceful exit
came through morphine, but
O my darling! You strained to resist. I’m
in front of the firing squad, you said.

From when you still could write,
an unfinished poem first asks, then answers:
Who is driving down the road
a curve or two away not visible
from here…a messenger for me
from an unknown power that I must welcome.

The wrathful motions of escape!
Twice at least you ripped out the iv,
moved incessantly to tear
from your face the high-flow
oxygen mask keeping you alive—it

made no sense—but to be
disencumbered, you clawed
at the mask, threw off the bed clothes,
wrenched away the device draining
your urine, messed the bed—
delirium. As gently as we could,

we gripped your self-harming wrists,
pushed back your hands:
a dozen times a day
at your instruction, we pleaded
with the aides in their color-coded
dress of service to raise you
in the specially-crimped hospital bed
you hated; slack and small,
a ragdoll in their competent hands,
the sheets their sling, they slid you
upright again. Smacked the pillows
into shape—only to see you heap
at the bottom within minutes.

How lovingly, with what
incomprehensible patience
so many of them treated you, Juan
caressingly calming you
and calling you Papi.

The harrowing dullness of the unstoppable
helpless, hopeless routines.

It took so long to stop thinking you would live.
You thought you would live.


Evenings when I left you,
the window held the New York sky,
a humming indigo with gridded lights.
From the hospital bed,
your fingers flapped at me their small

resigned goodbye—my sweetheart,
how you hated the slough
of that bed, poor “windowless monad”
                          departing from it
in anger and terror, even
as in delirium you spun
your crazy jokes, made
witty and precise distinctions
from within those strange
fantastic habitats in which
your mind entrapped you

Why couldn’t you die
as others did, with sweetness
and dignity less intermittent, all
your faculties undiminished, pulsing:

the last night you twisted
the sheets and then
my fingers with such

the strength of his hands,
the nurse remarked–hurting me
so that I could only

pull away, yelping.

Golden Lads and Girls All Must

When I was finally alone with you,
I bent my face, first drawing
aside the towels and blankets
soaking up the edematous weeping
of your swollen arms—those punctures
at the wrist, signaling the multiple
intravenous incursions, swabbed
away—but in that stubble which I had kissed,
even in your hardest—and angriest–days,
your own lips were too weak
to press back at the last.
                           This face
now arches from the pillow, the nose
painfully sharp and beaking.
The bony ridges of your temples
strain upward from the skull, cradling
the eyelids that fluttered, and did,
at my touch, refuse to close,
above the loud
and terrible blackness
of your mouth agape: a fissure

from which immense consciousness
was draining in its unknown
mysterious pace. You

were no longer you. But
on the flat plane of your white
dead belly, my lips
touched the shrunken penis,
still cased in that efficient plastic trap
leading urine off to its
discreet hose; at the junction
of the legs which led you
to the beautiful motions of your long life,
where lay the source
of my deepest and oldest pleasures–there
                               I greeted us;
discharging the body once mine to love.

Where Are You?

How can you be dead?
It’s so irritating.
You’re like the bird
In the Monty Python sketch,
E’s not dead, e’s only sleeping.

Only sleeping somewhere I can’t find you.

I made a terrible mistake,
I’ve misplaced you

Or you are hiding from me—
it makes me cross—

You were certainly dead
when I left you.
That was no living person
fixed on the hospital bed,
a mason jar of flowers on the sill,
a spray of rosemary, thyme
and lavender that Rachel
tried to close your fingers over
so that dying you would have
something nice to smell.

But you were certainly there,
although unmoving, in the last sight
I had of you on earth.

I told the nurse I wanted to leave
before they zipped you into the body bag.
I did not want to see
how you went from person into thing
as the zipper zipped: after
all the others had left, I said
my goodbye and crossed the room—

you lay so still behind me—but
between then and now,
where did you go?


There was weeping of course
the moment you died—beside
the roaring in my head,
Bob’s hard, broken sobbing,
your son-in-law
who truly loved you—

And yet it was all natural,
I couldn’t help saying to myself:
soon enough
before I wish it
I will follow you.

Look at you! Look at you!
My young and beautiful boy…
I close my old woman’s eyes, lean
back, and plummet
through the decades to where
the two of us began—

quick, lithe and randy, you could
put it to me anywhere,
or any time: I did respond.

Tears rise, as the full weight of you
slams into memory:
Closer, closer, you would murmur
as we clung to each other—
even in the late years
our bodies igniting at a touch.

O my darling! I hear how
I weep for myself—unmended
the wasted hours, stupid arguments,
blind bickering, misdirected anger—
I in tumult, you seething…
I could have
paused. Turned to you.
Sometimes I did.