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The Child Bride
Susan Mitchell

This time, Death is rising, waving its big bird
wing, anthracite plume, smoke and smudge of a twilit sky
E. A. Poe would have delighted in. Along the river
lights spread, bridges sway into brilliance, it's all
so sudden, like coming our of anesthesia, gates
opening, ascent and arrival, the elevator lifting
suavely into consciousness. But no,

I am leaving the hospital thinking of the woman Poe
almost married, and if he had, there wouldn't be that story
of the child bride, eight years old when Edgar
fell in love with her, same age as Dante's Beatrice.
Paradise is what Dante did with loss. But try
to imagine what it would be like to break
bad news to Poe, stare him straight in the eyes

and say, Listen, it's over, fini, ended, as far
as you're concerned, she's dead, you
understand, dead. I'd rather take out the hospital garbage,
or breathe ether, handkerchief pressed
to my face, swilling big gulps
of forgetfulness, swinging me darker
with the gulls that swim among skyscrapers, slashes of black—

Ah, sleep. Ah, the long swoon. In the hospital
is a corridor amuck with children, cages,
carriages, bed trays, wheelchairs in long lines
as in an airport. Children, children everywhere.
So much in life is a mystery to me,
pain is a mystery and pleasure, water is and Poe
who said I could not bring my passions from a common spring.

I am a mystery to myself, especially now
as I leave the hospital in memory, this phantom who hails
a cab to a bar on Third, and first thing,
examines her face in the Ladies' mirror, pencils
her lips blood red. In October the river
wind almost overpowers the fumes of buses, holds me
down in the deep pungencies of my suede jacket—

marigold, Cabochard, perfume no longer
obtainable on this earth. The children always died
in another language, though, I might add, don't we all,
misunderstood to the very end. Mainly, the language they
died in was Spanish. But sometimes they died in transistor.
Sometimes in window, a transparency that looks out on
the world, leading the tongue to new adventures

like a good lover. With leukemia, a strange thing can
happen even as the doctors are paged and a visitor leafs through
magazines. The patient, if male, feels a sudden tumescence
that will not go down, and at first, this seems the promise
of recovery, a fountain of youth, this rigor
mortis of the nerves, catalepsy of blood ending in
stalagmite, that true red marble called rosso

, oxides of iron, ferruginous, pegged to
falsetto, the veins of the penis standing out
in bas-relief, shadow and duct, reddish mottled stone. This can
happen to a boy, too, and perhaps that's what is meant
by the old clich‰, The dying see their lives
flash before them—the doctors running, nurses
crowding the room, the parents told to step outside—

because in that instant the boy is a man, and in hours
the boy-man is taken up to surgery
where something is cut, a nerve or vein, which proves
what a terrible thing desire is, how wanting
so strongly cannot be borne for long, it is
necessary to rub the body against stone,
roughen the penis with the tough

calluses of the hands until nothing
is left. Of course, it is possible to outlive
desire and be an Abelard untouched by tears, by the body
secreting itself in salts of grief and love, never
running barefoot through the dirty city
snow to where someone disappears into a taxi, into the speed
and thrust of an exit so powerful, it's almost

possible to hear its crash and cymbals. In the Middle Ages
there were manuals, ars moriendi, that taught
the novice how to die well, step
by step of the deep declivity. You, even I,
could learn to visualize a sick man in bed, the skeletal
Death approaching with club raised, ready
to strike. Let me be

your example and mirror is the Image's request, the sick
man inviting the visitor to slip under the covers
of his skin, be his terror, be
the rubber retainer inside his mouth, feel
teeth biting down on, bear its imprint,
as he does, with patience. But desire does not die
easy. Inside the folds of Egyptian mummies,

crushed deep into inner sanctums of linen,
the linen calcified, welded with flesh, archaeologists
find beetles so desperate for food they ate
through the body's silks and wrappings. Desire goes on,
ravenous, consumed and consuming as the simple
thing a child was doing before the first twinge
of illness, a thing so ravishing now

the child can't get enough, it keeps staring
out a window where I see only people waiting
for a bus, keeps staring at a wall
where I see only knobs and wheels
and a stain that looks like a fist or small animal
clenched into a ball. But something else
must be there or why would the child

keep staring, playing the wall over and over
like the bars of a favorite song. Poe's child
bride was singing when she had her first hemorrhage,
as if music and blood flow from the same vein and the heart
can pump only so much. The song split, traveling
in two directions, and one was a foreign
country always out of reach, a bird singing

in a forest she could not enter, though Poe
described it for her, a place where strange brilliant
flowers, star-shaped, burst out upon the trees
where no flowers had been known before
. The children's ward
extends for miles, there are so many
rooms, who could enter them all, who could
map the hidden corridors, the series of basements below

the first floor where white arrows and yellow arrows guide
the visitor to doors that open onto other doors.
It runs so far in, like pain itself,
chamber opening into chamber, the music intensifying,
changing key, modulating into, radiating—
the entire history of human suffering force fed,
dripped into the arm drop by drop, the lime

grottoes building slowly, the weird formations
opening onto banquet halls hung
with icicles and stony curtains, the grottoes pulsating
as they grow, each note dripped
lifts me by the hair until I forget
the name of my own country, forget
which language is which.

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