The Dying and the Living

by Jee Leong Koh

Water came swimming inward as the tide turned.
They saw far off a stranded dog rushing madly around
A dry patch of sand that was getting smaller and smaller.
—Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, “Tower of Storms, Island of Tides”

Your dog is dying, and he is the first
creature you observe, at firsthand, decline
from sure health to the helplessness you nursed,
his heart swelling and choking off his wind,
decline so every symptom seems the worst,
but is, like a cloud darkening, a sign.
Your dog is dying, and you seem to die,
the hard part called confidence, to my eye.

You see your exwife holding up the life
of her collapsing mother, see from far
devoted love but not the deadly strife,
but you know for a fact the murder there.
My ex’s father does not know his wife
but claims all the familiar stranger’s care.
The dying and the sick exact sympathy.
They are the cloud you see and do not see.

My father, told of the death in his lungs,
the swollen walls, the fast collapsing sacs,
would have—she said—my mother hold her tongue.
What did he fear? Not we would turn our backs.
He feared the angry loving of the young,
the ambulance duty and the air attacks.
Told he recovered, miraculous relief,
he celebrates, I suffer, our reprieve.

Lovers enjoy the lightning flash of love,
which charges blind motes in the atmosphere
and makes wide differences a matter of
interest first, contention next and then cheer.
When the sick load falls screeching from above
and flattens the town, all seems familiar
but not a blade of grass grows from the ground,
and then the bloody crying fails its sound.

There can be no fair symmetry between
the dying and the living, young and old.
We suffer in advance what pain has been
for dogs, for homos, the prehistoric cold
that calls for overcoming the unseen;
we learn to live in weathers not foretold.
I may yet learn to live with your decline;
if not, I have to learn to live with mine.

for T.


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