Marly Youmans

The Unsent Letter

Italian lilacs are about to bloom, 
Dear Bideth, in the side yard by your house, 
Where you long flourished like some biblical 
Olive that puts its roots into the stream 
To drink, and sends forth silver-green of leaves,
Etched secretly with words and runic signs.
Fifty years ago the foxes nested 
Under the flying staircase, and the owls 
Came hunting river rats below the eaves,
While bats hung upside down, dark chandelier
Of wings above a guanoed attic floor; 
Light flooded rooms and swept away the shade, 
And summer rains rushed in all day and night.
The plaster greened. But you, undaunted, tied
Your apron, Bideth, and marched in, and spent
A year with plaster, paint, and laborers
Before the children came, one, two, three, four…
You raised them, and one daughter died too soon—
Though when you shared her face with me, I met
An image blonde and laughing in your hand.
A half-century’s long to love a house 
And man; that thing you did, and when the man 
Was dead, your eyes were rimmed in daily red, 
And you confessed that none who loved you knew
Or understood your sorrow—no, not one. 
The house was dense and rich with heritage,
Ancestral glass and china lending weight;
To peer in the hand-painted punch bowl’s depths 
With Dionysian grapevines of green 
And purple was to see the fingers flick
And glimpse a sable brush returned to dust. 
Who’ll know the faces in your photographs?
To trail you through the parlors meant to see
Enormous shadowy world-charts unroll— 
The maps of mind and heart and ancestors.  
Here there be dragons; here are treasure-chests. 
The staircase whirled and flew in gyring up
Like an angel ascending toward the rooms 
Of white-worked coverlets and antique beds 
Where great-grandparents first encountered light
And loved and slept and drank the air and died. 
You held the keys of time; time was a realm. 
You came and went, you touched a silken face, 
The eighteenth-century grandfather’s clock, 
Wiping the silt of hours from its face.  
My Bideth, I don’t like to see you now.
They’ve wrenched the scrolled-up maps of place and time
From you, they’ve trapped you in this cubicle 
Where there is nothing for your mind to seize.  
Your precious things, dispersed, befell to those 
Who do not know their power as you knew…  
You are not dead, dear Bideth, and yet I 
Go grieving as if you’d already gone.  
This is what I want:  to take your treasures 
And place them at your feet like offerings, 
To hear you tell the stories that they hold.
Because it is the stories that become 
The soul of things and make them mean to us.  
Your things are beautiful, but they are fled, 
All that animated them dissolving 
Like sweetness swirling in a cup of tea. 
And when I see you, you’re unmoored, unpinned, 
And floating in a void.  You gaze around 
As though you hunt for something, but there is  
Only a barren safety in these walls,
And nothing here is old and beautiful, 
For every little thing has suffered change.  
I wonder, have the children told the news?
Your treasure-house of years has just been sold.
You raised four children there, and all the while
The angel burned like a flying staircase 
In the heart of the house.  The angel knows 
You’re loosed from everything and left to float. 
It bursts like a star when the door swings wide; 
Then our street of lovely houses brightens, 
Seems something from another, better world.
I want to send condolence but cannot,
And what would such a word mean anyway?  
You’d still remain there in the tomb, alive.  
The sun lets down intense, romantic shafts
From gaps in cloud; the street looks heavenly.
While walking by your house, I see the shades 
Of ancestors go streaming into air
Like bats at dusk and lose themselves in leaves.

Marly Youmans is the author of fifteen books of poetry and fiction. Her latest poetry collection is The Book of the Red King, from Phoenicia Publishing in Montreal, 2019, and her latest novel is Charis in the World of Wonders, published by Ignatius Press of San Francisco in 2020.