Red Lanterns

by Janisse Ray


I speed toward Philadelphia, on the Silver Meteor,
from the burned station in Jesup
crossing the Altamaha where rising bream
inscribe circles on gray water, past box houses,
a man patting a softball before he throws it to his son.
Past young trees like elephants
with no elders to grow toward:
surely they wonder how few years are left.
This I know: even the trees are afraid.
And this: trees are the earth’s lungs, breathing for us.
This week my mother lost her right top lobe
to cancer, four-inch scar under her shoulder blade.
Which is what we are doing, a kind of lobectomy,
reaching beneath the earth’s ribs, cutting out,
cutting down. How much time is left?


Meanwhile, my son's stepmother calls to say
she has found something strange
under the bed of my son,
young man now tall and beautiful
with a head of wild black curls.
It is a jar filled with poppy flowers.
I see the summer sun on his dark head bent
in a garden, gathering red lanterns.
What would you rather him do?


The berries of poke make ink.
The ashes of oak make lye.
The backs of certain toads
make you hallucinate
if you lick them.
Absinthe is distilled
from wormwood.
Vitamin C in white pine
will keep you alive on a long journey.
Certain mushrooms kill you.


My mother is burning up, her skin welting,
distillation of morphine. With a cold, wet cloth
I swab her, day and night in a hospital room,
view of a roof, dark thunder-cloud.
I didn't do anything to deserve this, she says.
The sky darkens, the sky lightens, the sky dilates.
There should be a rainbow but there isn't.


Some years ago I began a study of death,
unmasked, how to take care of the dying,
how to die well, final wishes, last words, then
what remains: a garden planted with poppies.
I didn't invent the madness of this world.
I've tried to change it, for my son if no one else.


When I call to tell him his grandmother
has made it through the surgery, they think
they got it all, she's resting, she's fine,
he's at the river, swimming in a cool hollow
where boulders are large and the river wide
enough the sun reaches in, across tall trees.
That is the place, I'm remembering, I tore leaves
from wild lettuce, to soak its sticky white resin
into mints. It helps me sleep.
Even when I'm swimming I'm thinking about her,
he says. Are you all naked? I ask. So close to the
restaurant? Almost, he says. An island hides us.


Something, of course, has to be said
about the hole in my mother's breast.
That clearcut. All I can think of, to place there—
a clear jar filled with poppies.

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