‘Letter to Galway From Tahoe’ by Heather Altfeld: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter Issue

Dearest Galway, I hardly got to know you, but when I am sad
I write to my poets, as Hugo did, although his poets, generally speaking,
still required postage, and here you are months dead.
Still, for all we know down here, the dead like mail as much as the living,
and maybe you wait each day on a freshly painted porch for a delivery
just before heading out to a café to read the first crop of poems
from the place you now reside, the first of your newly made things,
no doubt bringing the dead as beautifully as you brought us
to the last hiding places of their tears. Because what I did know of you
was how generous you were with your time, I feel I can talk to you from here,
that you would be willing to press the shell of your hand to your ear
for a few minutes to listen.
Do you remember when you sat with my Lucy,
who came to you with her notebook? You were her first poet.
She was nine, and wanted to hear the Oatmeal poem again,
so you wrote a bit of it in her journal and took her hand and bent down to whisper
something in her ear which she still has never told me, she said it was your secret.
She is here elfing muffins before daybreak, a vision of elfinhood, cheerful and dreamy,
half the time pretending she doesn’t know me. Now she has her own important secrets.
I turn to you because I think you were one of the ones a little like me,

for whom terror and beauty were like the green languages of birds
we longed to interpret, and felt, if we could not do so,
that we had failed. I feel as though our ears heard sadness
just a little more strongly over the din,
that we saw it as our job to know it a little better, to bear it, to sing it,
to make some kind of walking peace with it.
Galway, I feel as though I were born to a race of grievers.
The first time it rose up in me, I was five, lying on my Snoopy sleeping bag,
reading the ending of Charlotte’s Web over and over, so that Charlotte died,
over and over, so I could keep crying—
it was the first time I had learned I could call up such sadness in myself,
and it seemed to be endless, a wrenching, fulfilling bottomlessness.
It turns out I was never much good at anything else.
My parents begged me to be a doctor.
At least in all of the ways that they did not know me,
they saw my aptitude for hearing pain.
Long ago they held my small body up to the light
and saw each of the bones and muscles in my hands glowing a magical pink,
and they wanted to count me among the other fine-coated ones, and say,
That’s our girl! She can find what ails you and fix it!
They wanted to tell others that I could read stitches right to left like Torah,
they wanted me to build a home of the shiny coins I would earn
charting the last breath of a patient.
But the first time I saw a corpse
and watched them wash her frozen body in a ritual bathing,
and saw how completely the body shuts in the end—
the kidneys frozen,
the heart frozen,
the bony arms frozen,
the pinky toe just defrosting under the hard light,
it reminded me all too much of the frailty I will endure sooner or later in my life
the way when I saw you last, your hands revealed how very delicate you had become,
how much more delicate you could become.
One doctor said he had seen a field of bedsores express sorrow
more deeply than any words or songs he had ever heard.
Bedsores. I was not born with this sort of fortitude.
It was not the address pinned to my blouse at birth.
So I went onward, searching everywhere for something I could do,
some way into the world that did not ooze or weep, and found myself
trying to be an anthropologist. Here, I was one distance removed from grief,
one valley away from the body direct; it was my job to chronicle
the days and griefs of others. I could learn the lost language of Yahi,
walk the footsteps of the Olduvai gorge to see how the others had walked before us.
I could study the Gisaro of the Kaluli in New Guinea,
whose ceremonies of sorrow chase human sadness into the bodies of birds
who lift and depart through the forest on their wings.
But this was even worse, tender sleeper, than medicine;

no surgery could save any of it, the annihilation so much more complete.
Did you know from the beginning that poetry was going to be your home?
Poetry is what was left when every other made thing failed me.
Grief, I am still learning, is everywhere, from sonnets to bedsores
from the Krakovian crypts to the nests of the Kahuli
it is in the doddering dirge of the Truckee that has become so sleepy this year
that it seems to have forgotten its velocity to live.
What rhyme can I make that will call the snow to flurry out of the sky for us?
What word will call the world to fill buckets with our tears
we can carry to the edge of the river and fling them in?
What sonnet will bring the butter-blond days of my children’s childhood back
so they can lie against me again one last time, damp with sleep?
How did you learn to describe the face of your love
in her most primordial gesture of desire
without the poem turning on you and finding its way to her grave?
I feel more impotent than I have ever felt in my life.
How can I learn to make a little spot for grief, here,
right next to me, right inside the poem
the way you so often did, where it won’t really bother anyone,
a place where grief can just sit by my side, looking at the passersby?
What was your way out of the Book of Nightmares?
How did you make it back to the Book of Meadows,
where the larks sang and the beetles turned their green backs to the sun?

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2 Responses to ‘Letter to Galway From Tahoe’ by Heather Altfeld: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter Issue

  1. Lucy says:

    Oh, what a beautiful and moving poem about Galway! Thank you for this — it made me think of his generosity, his dedication to beauty and unending wonderment at life in its many forms.

  2. Jim Gunshinan says:

    Thank you Heather for a wonderful evocation of your grief and Galway’s life. I’m sure there have been other writings, but this is the first I’ve read about Galway since his death. Glad I waited.

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