Still Listening

By Robert Cording

Featured Art: Confusion of Christmas by Julia Thecla

I. Hospice Jumble

The Jumble in the paper too hard for him to read,
my mother suggested we make up our own: Dear,

she said to her husband, your first word is life.
Reduced to words we jumbled, he joked file

it. My brother offered another, mean,
thinking perhaps of his diabetes, a name

like cancer to our family. Then, lamp,
lit at his bedside, and the one palm

visible outside his one windowed room.
My father got them quickly, the last, moor,

said with all the sadness of being far from shore . . .
A grandchild solved that one—horse,

she blurted, noticing that he had left
us for a while. By his bed, my mother felt

his hands and face and eyes. Bob, please,
she said, but he was already asleep,

snoring, not dead. My mother sighed, O God.
My brother, in the spirit still, said dog.

II. Near the End

sometimes old people snap back into life
—A.R. Ammons

My father gave up dreams early on:
too much damage in them.
He never thought much of choices either,
deferring until something chose him—
the army, a wife, a job. He was
always withdrawing from the world
even as he went about his life in it.

From his hospital room we watched
the clouds sag, the sun go down;
at night, cars crawled by outside
with their headlights on. Before
became After. Each day it took him
longer and longer to become a man
again. So it was with surprise

when, near the end, death already
in the room, my father snapped back
into life for a few weeks, making plans
to attend a grandson’s wedding,
having my mother rearrange his dialysis
around the celebration. Then, After
became Before again: he remembered
how he couldn’t walk, how he couldn’t
see or hear, and waited painfully
and without volition for the cup
of nothing-left-to-enjoy to come
his way. And when it did,
what else could he do but drink.

III. My Father’s Coma

Like a cave-in deep in a mine,
my father’s stroke,
his mouth hanging open an entry
to a bewildering underworld
where there was no chance
of enlightenment or journey.

Listening to the sounds
he produced was like listening
to the last muffled tapping
of a trapped miner to cease.
And then the man we called
father and husband was dead,
his mouth still gaping
as if his corpse was letting out
a last scream that none of us
could hear—a silence
for which we are still grateful.

IV. Something My Father Said

God is still speaking, but we’re not listening,
the sign in front of the church proclaims,
one of those little witticisms to jar us
out of the habitual trance of commuting
along the same daily route, driving to work,
or bringing the kids to school, and it gets me
thinking of my recently dead father

who, when my mother nagged him
from another room, are you sleeping again,
you better wake up if you’re sleeping,
do you hear me? answer me
, would respond,
now that he’d been roused from another
head-pitched-forward, mouth-open,
snooze, I hear you, but I’m not listening.

V. My Father’s Hearing Aids

Too costly to throw out,
my mother says, my father’s hearing aids,
some whole, some in various stages
of disassembly, lie in his top drawer

like a museum exhibit of a lost past—
when he was still living,
hand constantly raised to his ears,
trying to take hold of the sounds
that fell out of the air or floated
around him like apparitions.

I pick one up and fit it into my ear
as if, my own hearing amplified,
I might pick up something he is
still saying, but all I get is that loud hum
and screech, which, like a rip
in the scrim of memory,
brings him back—he’s at it again,
working to tune in the scramble
of insect chirr, rain chattering
on the trailer’s metal roof,
wind in the pines, a grandchild’s
high-pitched play, the buzz
of his wife’s voice. He wants to hear

again without thinking
of what he’s hearing, wants the Sinatra
song on the radio to sound exactly
the way he remembers it,
and not as if some damaged stylus
were sliding across the black ice
of an old LP. In the end,
nothing ever came to him clearly enough.

I see him spinning those little dials
on his hearing aids back and forth,
nearly frantic, nearly in tears,
the world he’s hearing
like the static of space, those gurgling,
stuttering, anomalous noises
we have our radar pointed at
as if we cannot imagine, being human,
the deep, enclosing silence
without another voice.

Robert Cording teaches English and Creative Writing at College of the Holy Cross where he is the Barrett Professor of Creative Writing. He has published six collections of poems: Life-list, which won the Ohio State University Press/ Journal award, in l987; What Binds Us To This World (Copper Beech Press, l991); Heavy Grace (Alice James, l996); Against Consolation (CavanKerry Press, 2002); Common Life (CavanKerry Press, 2006); Walking With Ruskin (CavanKerry, 2010) and his newest, A Word in My Mouth: Selected Spiritual Poems (Cascade Books, 2013). His poems have appeared in numerous publica- tions such as The Nation, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Orion, and The New Yorker.

Originally published in NOR 15

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