The Skunk

Paula Bohince

A smolder, an echo of shame, the weary wick of it.

In the smudgy Local section, a fire living underground for half a century
will be put out. An ember tossed into a mine shaft
within a mile of my house, some midnight by a tired anonymous, that person
surely dead now, the consequence roaming since, low-lit
at times as a candle, other years ghost-vigorous.

I wanted to go to it, to feel the sorry emotion of it, the same impulse
in the therapist’s office, the quiet “I don’t knows” lodged there.

Mornings of fog, crystalline memories, and sympathetic roads.

I thought of the Italian modernist who was like a brother
the winter I again took up smoking to stand in the pristine and be
belled over. In one poem, he cupped a firefly, ember of childhood, for his mother
and ran home at breakneck speed to keep it illuminated.

I felt that. Exhausting myself, plugging every leaking aspect of myself
for her smile, to wake her, there at the table.
A flicker at the corner of her resisting mouth, and I went wild,
memorizing her the way others did ‘Ozymandias’.

One Christmas, when I was grown, I wanted to cook for her
the meal of a lifetime. To say, “Mom, this is living. This is love. Feel it.”
Flakes of salt on pursed lips of asparagus, duck
limp-necked on the second-hand platter.

She kept her head down and ate with shame, quickly, and gave me
before leaving melted together wedding rings, hers and my father’s.

Amulet for I don’t know what. Pain-medallion. Coin for the underworld.

In the New Year, I flattened beneath the dentist’s lead apron
and thought of her (I am always thinking of her), her pilled red sweater, how she
looked around at the candles, her face scorched from crying.

O hiss of an iron releasing its malice, as I sat on the filthy floor, as she held it
to my ear, whispering, “Your father prefers the bars to us. He won’t (hiss)
come home because he hates us.”

What a paradise we could have lived.

Now, by the smoking hole, inflections of rain come faster. Visionary rain
and séance rain, sincere shawl of rain
as the skunk’s wrapped in the shawl of herself, her offspring in the den
where tree roots are dead and it’s pathetic to live so near.

Shovel-headed, digging into the past, I work, I collapse, I lie
on a vibrating mat meant to mimic the maternal embrace.
The TV reads me a lullaby of recipes in a voice soft as rain ceasing.

I sleep while the fire seethes through the maze.

“Conjure the perfect nurturer,” the therapist said. He shifted when
I spoke an octave higher, when I cried out for “the mother’s animal body”
and made a snuffling motion with my face, meaning I wanted to burrow against it. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I placed her hand on my hand.

If I could build an ideal mother, calm in linen, in sedate earrings, would I?

Once, she appeared as Meryl Streep, in the field
where my real mother burned off her rage, and I was made to follow,
less than dog on a leash. In the therapist’s office, among the smashed stalks,
breathlessness, sweat, Meryl said to me, “This sucks.”

Tender skunk-mother, I love you, receding in your backwards shuffle.

The songbirds are gone, disavowing the hellhole soon to be filled with spring
water or some alkaline compound: balm of man, cold compassion.