Cannula, from the Latin, means little reed,
and how could you not be thinking of the hero, ricocheting
through the forest, tailed by the enemy, then breaking
cover to find himself at the frayed margins of a swamp
where the water parsley and the hemlock are fuming
into the slow fireworks of their umbels, where,
on the first try, he severs a perfect length of reed and submerges –
simply sinks beneath the convenient surface of the water –
to breathe, calmly, through its long, hollow body.
But your mother was drowning anyway, propped up
on a pale talus of pillows, the twin stems of the cannula
looped demurely behind her ears, and you know, now,
that such escapes are not possible…
When we think of poems about the death of loved ones, we expect scenes of grief, memories, and expressions of emotion such as loss, love, and sorrow. We don’t expect cannulas. But cannulas are the instrument here through which the poem (available online, thank you, Briar Cliff Review) breathes, just like the submerged hero. It’s the means by which the poem takes its first breath before moving on to the subject of dying, and, of course, grief, memories, and expressions of emotion. It’s an interesting beginning that connects to these emotions. Just as the speaker realizes that breathing through reeds isn’t possible, the poet understands that talking about what is to be talked about here cannot be done without powerful emotion. Yet, while we do soon arrive in the mother’s hospital room, perhaps choosing this beginning backs us away from the overwhelming sentimentalism to which such a poem might be prone.
Throughout the poem, I see many images of leave-taking, linked with somber feelings: the hospital’s garden includes “drapes of ivy from which a single robin kept flying / in red arcs of lament, breaking out from behind / the waxed latches of the leaves.” Then, a few lines later, we discover: “She had no use for that garden…” Of course not; she already has an intimate relationship with that arc of lament.
The natural world, and the intersection of humankind and nature, also echoes this bittersweet sense of leavetaking, the “It’s been lovely but I must be on my way now” that runs the universe:
And we don’t talk enough
about the moment when that light abandons the water
at evening and the sea, turning its back, becomes suddenly
secret and remote. And it’s like a door closing.
It’s like a heart shutting down. And too much has been said
about the boats casting off from the quay and leaving
the clutch of the harbor; all that tonnage –
blocks and shackles and nets – upheld and under power,
catching and riding the swells. But that’s what they do,
those boats leaving the harbor – they head west
toward the hour of such abandonment.
The poem, however, is not the relationship between the speaker and mother; in fact, the speaker’s feelings are muted throughout, expressed only through what s/he notices. This selection of attention speaks volumes, of course. The poem isn’t even about the mother, or death or loss (though it brushes up against all these) or any of a hundred other things we might’ve expected had not the cannula signaled from the beginning a departure from the ordinary. No, the poem is in the fulfillment of the title.
I’m interested in titles, how they work, how they’re chosen. My Flash Fiction Hero, Randall Brown, wrote a bit about the possibilities of titles (“…count five lines up from the bottom. There you’ll find the title. Every time”) as focusers of attention. I tend to be very fond of titles that serve as first lines of a poem (or prose, for that matter) as in my recent discovery, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”. I’ve seen other descriptions – to identify the subject in an ode, for example, so the reader knows the poem is addressed to a skylark (or a goldfish). A contemporary, if skeptical, view might see the title as click bait.
But here, the title strikes me as a destination, what journeys have always been about, from the Odyssey to the Orient Express to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Read this poem, and you will get to Love Like That.