The mind
                                                is an impermanent place, isn't it,
                                                but it looks to permanence.

                                                                                     —Thom Gunn

 

I like to remember him
among a city crowd,
that jagged, dazzling flow
outside of offices
and sealed, oblivious cars.
He'd plunge into the stream,
a part of it, his eye
alive to each detail,
the body trim and quick,
good boots to hit the street--
then home, where he would read                                                                    
like a grad student.

He kept a certain edge
of tension when we'd meet:          
a touch of the young man,
his mind on other things,
ready to take off fast
if conversation dulled.
I miss that sense of risk.
Its spikiness stood out
against the normal blur
of comfortable, safe talk.

Nothing safe appealed
to him--he'd slip away.
But once his will had seized
on something worth his full
attention, he could be
relentless in pursuit.
A line just slightly off,
an argument unresolved,
a capsule that might hone
the eyes all night or drop
the mind into a dank
oubliette--he'd keep
up with it, keep on
holding what held him,
wrestling with the god
he'd chosen to take on. 

I see him walking home,
starting to sort the loot
he's gathered from the night,
working it, looking right
into it, as fog
pearls with morning sun.
It's not hard to imagine
a version of that same
tenacity in bars:
within the jostling flux,
the heart set to the beat,
the body testing itself
over and over in time,
all its fine bold moves
accustomed to surprise,
reliable and firm.

How long could it have held?
I can't picture the months              
he stared into the dark,
watching each man's slow fall:
loss of strength, weight, sight,
then beds and breathing tubes.
In sheeted rooms he felt
the ceaseless hook of hope
and bleak routine of care.
A letter brought it home:
My time of grief is done,
all my friends are dead
.

How to reply to that?
I couldn't then, and still
find myself shifting
to easier memories.
Like Cole Street, where love
held a whole household:
their kitchen schedule, work
and gifts each gave in turn—
a boisterous group, I'd say,
to use a word he liked—
a table up for hours
with laughter and wild talk,
the view out over roofs,
and drawings along the hall
that led to separate rooms,
in one of which he died.

It saddens me to think
he shut his door on them.
If his strength of will
betrayed him in the end—
quick promise of the drug
sealed across his face,
the muscles' vibrant jolt,
the heart stuck in its track—
could that be called a choice?

I'll never answer that.
What I want, I know,
is some transcendent note,
one defining scene
rendering him at last
into an ordered past,
which he would hate.  His face
stares at me from a sketch,
a map of red-brown lines,
fading, intricate.
Things change, feelings too,
even about the dead.
Nothing will be fixed,
nothing set.