Pushcart XL: Rachel Rose, “White Lilies” (poem) from Prism, #52:3

It is hard for the dying to leave us.
We make it hard for them. So they wait
for us to step outside before they cut
the cord. So the baby
in the cabin, lungs full of staph,
who had been fighting the infection
for long nights and days
waited until his mother went out
to chop firewood before he sighed
and stilled.

Progression, transitions of focus, of person/subject; that’s what most interests me here, seeing a player introduced, take center stage as another is introduced, then be eclipsed by the newcomer, only to see the pattern play out again. There are two constant presences, although we aren’t aware of them at first. Nevertheless, they’re there.

I’d divide the poem, which is written as a block of lines, a single stanza so to speak, into six sections by these shifts. The first sentence, which I see as the first section, starts out with the most abstract, passive construction possible: “It is… [phrase].” I still remember a high school writing class, an assignment to write up a local newspaper story about a minor fire from some bare facts, and I began the story with: “There was a fire at…” In my defense, I was trying to avoid excess, like “Fire raged last night in the home of…” (it was a kitchen fire, for pete’s sake!). But I went too far, and thus learned about the purpose and importance of the lede.

But why would a writer of Rose’s stature begin a poem that way – a poem judged not only publishable, but prize-worthy? And again, I remember something I first read on Charles May’s blog, a remark from Irish novelist Joyce Cary: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail, Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?” If the poem starts that way, there must be a reason. I think the reason is this progression, this wandering through different aspects: we begin with the most abstract, an establishing shot if you will, and then zoom in for closeups on the players. The near-repetition of the first sentence in the second – a clarification, really, a restatement, an assignment of responsibility – could be seen as underlining this. “That wasn’t quite what I wanted to say, but it’s a start; here, let me try again.”

The last word of that first line, in fact, brings “us” into the mix. Still abstract; not “us” in the sense of “the three of us sat around the table” but a more general everyone-us. This marks a transition to the second line, which brings the abstract “us” – the ones who are being left by the dying – and the abstract “they” – the dying. But it attributes concrete action to the “they”, and motivation as well. And it turns us towards the direction we will next travel, as “us” and “them” go from abstractions to individuals.

The third section is the concrete example of a particular baby who did, indeed, wait until his mamma stepped outside before dying. The abstract theory is suddenly very personal, as we are brought closer to these two individuals and see both their pain and needs. The fourth section continues to focus on the mother in vivid terms, and brings in the speaker of the poem, the “I” as another person in the scene: as a child, she saw the mother, clutching her dead baby in her arms, running desperately for help. While the baby is still present, he fades from the specific, becoming more of a concept, an echo, which hovers in one form or another over the entire poem from the fourth word on.

The fifth section then turns to the “I”, her memories of gathering flowers as a child, of being forbidden to attend the somber funeral. We spend some time with her memory of the events, and her present-day meta-analysis of the process of memory, before linking it via metaphor to the sixth and final section, putting us in the footsteps of the father who, arriving home, does not yet know his child has died. That poignant, highly detailed moment before the world changes, when whistling is still an option, ends the poem as far from the abstract opening as can be imagined. I think of the excellent/horrific short by David Foster Wallace, “Incarnations of Burned Children” and his focus on the father who also was outside just a moment before his child incurred a terrible accident. That moment from normal to new-normal, from innocence to loss, has a lot of power. We could be in that moment right now. Or now. Or now.

Lilies are quite versatile, spanning from weddings to funerals without hesitation; at Easter they mean resurrection, but they’re also highly sexualized. The all-purpose flower, beautiful, ready to take on whatever emotional significance is needed.

I’m also compelled to remark on the “I” who, as a child, gathered white lilies but was forbidden to attend the funeral. Would it not be better for her last memory of the baby to be at his burial, rather than his lifeless body clutched in the arms of his frantic mother who is running for help that does not exist? So often we try to protect children from pain, but I think it’s ourselves we are protecting. A funeral is about controlled, socially acceptable emotion, and the presence of a child could disrupt that control. A crying child could make us cry, or feel our own loss more authentically, and we wouldn’t want that, not in public, now would we.

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