Today his body is consigned to the flames


Today his body is consigned to the flames
and I begin to understand why people
would want to carry a body to the river's edge
and build a platform of wood and burn it
in the wind and scatter the ashes in the river.
As if to say, take him, fire, take him, air,
and, river, take him. Downstream. Downstream.
Watch the ashes disappear in the fast water
or, in a small flaring of anger, turn away, walk back
toward the markets and the hum of life, not quite
saying to yourself There, the hell with it, it's done.
I said to him once, when he'd gotten into some scrape
or other, "You know, you have the impulse control
of a ferret." And he said, "Yeah? I don't know
what a ferret is, but I get greedy. I don't mean to,
but I get greedy." An old grubber's beard, going gray,
a wheelchair, sweats, a street person's baseball cap.
"I've been thinking about Billie Holiday, you know
if she were around now, she'd be nothing. You know
what I mean? Hip-hop? Never. She had to be born
at a time when they were writing the kind of songs
and people were listening to the kind of songs
she was great at singing." And I would say,
"You just got evicted from your apartment,
you can't walk and you have no money, so
I don't want to talk to you about Billie Holiday
right now, okay." And he would say, "You know,
I'm like Mom. I mean, she really had a genius
for denial, don't you think? And the thing is,
you know, she was a pretty happy person."
And I would say, "She was not a happy person.
She was panicky, crippled by guilt at her drinking,
and she was evasive to herself about herself,
and so she couldn't actually connect with anybody,
and her only defense was to be chronically cheerful."
And he would say, "Worse things than cheerful."
Well, I am through with those arguments,
except in my head, and not through, I see, with the habit–
I thought this poem wold end downriver downriver
of worrying about where you are and how you're doing.


                     –from August Notebook: A Death, 4


Robert Hass, The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, Ecco Press, 2010.