Several Repurposed Pictorials
by Karen Donovan Read author interview April 25, 2016
At first light: what you are being offered is not made plain. You are going to have to dig. Go to it. The book is open. There will be a test. At your death, which will likely be violent, men will come. They will prise your teeth from your skull and string them as amulets for protection against the evil one.
Ice thickens in mud as the tide runs out. Cold, dark, wet are best. You like to stand with your feet in the spring with dawn an hour away. No ducks, no swans. It is not their hour. Implacable, unescapable eye. Beak the nightmare of minnows. Your presence instructs eternity. I know you are there, my sentinel, before the clock radio clicks on and floods the world back. I sleep beneath your gray cloak, which smells of blood and judgment. When I wake, you startle, airborne in a flap. One prehistoric croak, leaving me behind.
As a child, you would observe wind. How it fills a sail, piles waves onto rocks, blows the fragrance of thyme and olive into town from hillsides. You would know what happens when you hang a kettle of water above a log fire lit in a brazier. You make a study of wheels. Do you invent the first bearing or put to use an idea developed by others? No matter, you pick it up, it’s interesting. Now you are in service to love, your days an endless experiment of joy and despair, your nights spun with dreams in which the best solutions vanish at dawn. When it turns out to work, which it will, you’ll stand back critically as crowds file past in wonderment and generals and emperors calculate what it can do for them. You are certain of the steps you will take to make it even more beautiful than it already is.
As I sit by your hospital bed, I wonder again as I have wondered before. What will it take to get through to you? Not at the moment, of course, since you are being intentionally sedated by the ICU medical team on the off-chance you might start breathing on your own and they can pull the tube out of your lungs. As your blood pressure plummets and your kidneys shut down, we all wonder what the hell everybody is working so hard for. If you survive this, your umpteenth near-death experience, won’t you roll out at the first opportunity and go find another bottle of vodka? We think so. But we don’t know for sure. This time could be different. This time is imminent delivery of a package we know is loaded with either hope or despair. Decisions are required, my brother. What we will do if you die. What we will do if you don’t.
I have no nails on my small toes, I confess to my niece Samantha. It does not deter her. I can just paint the stubs. She and her cousin Julia have turned my sister’s living room into a spa. Laid out on the couch across from the windows, my nephew Alex relaxes with two cucumber slices pinned like green coins over his eyelids. It is New Year’s Day circa 2009. He may be eight. They are not yet twelve. They invite me to the corner chair and put a cup of tea into my hands. Julia brings a basin of warm water. First your feet go in here. I soak. In the kitchen my sister talks softly on the phone to honor their business zone. Morning sun bounces off piles of fresh snow. Now they are kneeling down and drawing my feet out and drying them with a clean towel. Now they are inserting toe dividers. When I protest that it tickles, Sam gives up a small private smile. It’s normal, answers Julia, with an air of such competence that I am ashamed to take this ceremony so lightly. Sam holds up the polish. We decide on purple. There is a farewell cupcake. Then a day filled with forgettable errands. At bedtime I slide into my sheets aware of color in a place where there usually isn’t. Every breath of hope required to keep the whole human project afloat.
Power & thrift
Tumbled in great heaps along roadsides like vast unwritten libraries in miniature. Coiled intelligence packed beneath a smart brown cap. O that which has not yet spoken. O terror of enormous redundancies. Roll with me into the grass. There are already too many leaves. The books are full. For god’s sake, keep them to yourself.
Another awkward moment
Not sure you have worn the right clothes to this event? Resort to standing in doorways to avoid conversations that dead end at ghastly silence? Blown out by artificial chitchat? Our strategies work for even the most phobic of introverts. Believe in this: you’ll never find yourself out in the backyard alone in the dark again. Even if it’s better to watch the party from here. Tell us about yourself. You there – that’s right. You go first.
About the Author:
Karen Donovan is the author of Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize for Poetry and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her new collection of poetry, Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books and is due in fall 2016. For 20 years she co-edited and published a journal of short prose called ¶: A Magazine of Paragraphs. At present, she works as a writer for a nonprofit in Providence.
About the Artist:
These illustrations first appeared in the 1925 edition of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, based on the International Dictionary of 1890 and 1900. The author's copy of this wondrous book, easily four and a half inches thick, was originally owned by her grandfather Raymond.