~This poem previously appeared in Natural Bridge (2009).
Rise That We All May Rise
One moment your neighbor is vibrant. As you mulch your lawn she walks by, two children striding alongside, headed to school or home.
The next she’s gone. Or not exactly. She’s receded, gone ill.
She’s bald shadow, or something, an eagle, maybe, turning her head to look at you when you bring the casserole, when you smile and squint your eyes and tell her she looks good.
There’s an art to it, a kind of sport, to hovering, to gathering the neighbors, and you do, and put your heads together: blonde heads and redheads and children’s heads, books and movies in baskets, and your own walking back and forth across the lawn, making it nice, the thoughts you shake off.
Later, after your visit, your skin lathered in the shower and the steam, a picture comes to you. That owl, the big golden and cream-colored owl that appeared out of nowhere one day and perched right on the edge of your road, inches from the cars.
As they rolled by it barely moved its boxy head. Just the wind ruffled its flurry of neck, and its shoulders seemed – stalwart – was that the right word? Probably not, but it seemed to ache, and you’d have thought it would have hidden itself in the trees, but it hadn’t.
Usually you would have called the sanctuary and had them come but something in it spooked you and you pulled into your own driveway instead, got out, turned toward the broom, or, no, to the rake, or was it just that you reached into your pocket for the keys. Whatever, it didn’t matter now.
But the way you felt then, as though every still thing in the world could stitch itself like a stone under your skin and keep you from moving, too. Like any one thing you did would matter no more than any other.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
I wrote this poem from the perspective of someone helping a neighbor with cancer, but – surprise! (or not) – I was the one who had it. Going from being healthy to suddenly sick is so strange that it’s almost easier to identify with other people’s experience of it than your own. One neighbor, in particular, was the leader of organizing meals for our family. It meant so much to us, but I bet it had to take a toll. I kind of wish this poem didn’t have an owl in it, because they’ve become such a goony, overused icon. (Not like cancer – ha! What is it with life – so unconcerned about our outré expectations and specialness?) But there it was sitting on the street at a time when I, too, was basically immobilized, so there it’s got to be in the poem. All the still things, all the moving things: It’s hard to know which is the more natural state.
ABOUT MAUD KELLY
Maud Kelly lives in Portland, Oregon. Her poems have most recently appeared in Barrow Street and Pleiades, as well as Best American Poetry 2009. She is currently finishing her first book of poetry.