I can still see us there, laughing, all five photographing each other photographing each other, our faces masked by the cameras aimed at one another, and there in the far background, the ruins of ancient Greece. Crete, to be specific, Knossos, to be more so, though not much Minoan civilization even enters the frame. It is all about the present, just twenty-one years old, set loose in the world for a semester abroad, these ruins doubly lost on us, unaware there’d come a time we would forget each other’s names. No, we didn’t get it then, the innumerable feet that had worn these stone paths, whether the ancients themselves or centuries of tourists, those individual pasts each as unique and vibrant as ours, all gone, vanished into the labyrinth of history, utterly erased. Yet they had their names, they experienced achievements and failures, they had their children, they put to use their allotted time. And in memory, perhaps because I am closer now to the border between worlds, I think I can sense the multitudes, the ghost throngs that had gone before us, how they shuffled the paths between us, how they lay down beside us on the ferry, a humanity that fed us, urged us forward, day by day. This is the end ordained in our beginning, the bestial clarity and solace we ignore as we seek: we would be nothing without them, we will be nothing with them and we must learn to look upon this without turning away.
In the dream, I am ironing. This is a notable change of pace. No one has chased me anywhere; there is no complex circuitry to decode before some tragic detonation. I am just pressing shirts and blouses, one sleeve at a time, draping one half over the discolored board while I steam collars and seams. I am doing it the only way I know how, the way my mother did, patiently, without speaking, rarely glancing toward the TV she listened to. Somewhere, I read a man can’t really say he knows fatherhood until he’s washed and folded his children’s clothes; I would add to that, bagging things for Goodwill. Those narrow waists, the slender neck openings, the faint stains I couldn’t quite remove, always proof of all they had outgrown. But in my dream, there is none of that poignant nostalgia, there is just the ironing, precisely carried out, piece after piece. There is no deep meaning to be mined. I am not preparing for some gala event. I am not re-envisioning my life. I am just steaming and pressing, the rustle of fabric pronounced in the silent room, the hiss of the iron loud against that silence, my arm moving forward and back, my other hand resetting the shirt against the board’s cushioned edge. If I wished, the iron could have shrunk smaller and smaller in my hand. Or it could have been attached to my wrist like a fist. I could have used two irons in concert like cymbals or defibrillator paddles. But in the dream, there was nothing disjunctive or strange, the shirts just hung along a curtain rod, the fronts perfectly buttoned, their arms relaxed at their sides. There was no like and no as if, there was no before or after which. And yet this dream resonates in me like few others. The shirts hung in the shapes of persons. Those shapes hung collectively in the colors and postures of a family. Whose is not important, the dream insists. There is no such thing as emptiness. There is only being ready.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Cox
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission
Mark Cox has previously published four books of poetry, most recently Sorrow Bread: New and Selected Poems 1984-2015 (Serving House Books) and Natural Causes (Pitt Poetry Series, 2004). The recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, and numerous fellowships for his work, he teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and in the Vermont College MFA Program.
“Behind surfaces that can sometimes be wryly comic, Mark Cox is unafraid to risk adult tenderness (“brutal tenderness” he says in one poem) and great empathy for this world’s sufferers. Which is to say that beneath a rich variety of occasions (from an ancient Egyptian mummifier doing up a fifteen-foot crocodile, to a current-day housewife doing up an angel food cake), Cox’s bedrock concern is that impossible thing of endless grief and joy that we call the human condition. These poetic meditations and monologues are some of the least prosaic prose you’ll ever read.”