Celestial Lullaby: A Dramatic Poem

by Evelyn Hooven (October 2017)

By The Deathbed, Edvard Munch, 1896



Special thanks to Richard Selzer M.D. (1928-2016) for clinical detail in his medical narrative “Imelda” from Leon Kass’s Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics, 2003.

(Magda and her adolescent daughter Antonia live in a small village in a part of Latin America considered remote.)


They’ve come, the doctors who travel,
Who are generous to little towns;
Their knives will be kind.
I’ve misplaced my scarf, my hat is crumpled—
They’ll take away only strangeness,
I’ve heard they leave delicate stitches
That pale with time—
Intricate stitches
Like inscriptions on plants.
Isn’t tomorrow soon enough?
We’ll walk the long walk
To their chambers—grateful,
Not minding the heat—
It’s today, Antonia.
We move past streets we know
To the part that once was a field,
Past houses deep in slumber—
Past ruins. The church gets
Further away and the café is closed—
Couldn’t we stop at a friend’s door
For tea or mineral water?
Courage, I’ll lead you
Turn after turn
Finding the way alone.
Cobblestones disappear
And the road’s nothing but dust .  .  .
Dust, not a trace of wind .  .  .
I see the great door
And now here’s a fan
And a cup of water,
The bench has space—
For both of us together.
( Pause)

Perhaps, one day, you’ll marry Juan
Of the grand colmado .  .  .
Perhaps there’ll be no time for us today—
A long wait, this .  .  .
Or it might be Vicentio,
He of the moustache,
The goats and gardens .  .  .
Mother—my joy is to stay with you—
We’ll spin and weave
Plant peppers, olives
And almond trees,
I’ll bring cool water
For the goat to savor;
Though my face is in shadow
Yet my back is strong,
When you are older
I alone will carry wood;
Mother, what if I can’t—
Take the cloth from your face—now, for me—
Tell him your name—that’s right
Once and softly.
These are healers before you.
How quickly that one leads you
And shuts the door.
A man so sure of hand will do well .  .  .
Now I dream you as God means,
I dream your wound away—
It may not be Juan
Or Vicentio either
But a prince .  .  .
What is this cry
To the sound of running
A thicket of voices
At doors and in corners
The sting of fear?
“More ice, urgent
Anaesthesia, fever, allergic—
We have lost her!”
No precedent, no warning.
Dozens of cases
Without incident—
No precedent here.
This one did not seem exceptional—
The difference was where?
They take off their coats,
I think I see tears through my own—
You are so small on that great table,
All I have—taken.
The speed astonishes.
I go mute as stone
As thoughts gather within:
Shouldn’t you know the difference
Between one who would get fever
And one who will not?
Who but you should know
What is cure or remedy
Or what will destroy?
Who made the stitches,
Was it you or was it death?
She was fourteen—
And you have need of pardon—
Antonia walked far
To your chambers,
How will she return?
Someone who left yesterday for a visit
Returns to the village today:
Good morning, Magda, how is Antonia?
You know the priest’s library
Behind the chapel?
She’s there.  Her home’s a coffin,
But her wound is gone.
Now I rend my garment thus,
And sit in black, respected—
Magda the dolorous, Magda bereft—
Silence in her walls
And one cup of milk at table.
Show her clothes, Señora,
Embroideries, keepsakes, veil,
Such a good mother, figure
Of dolor, encircled by loss—
Lost now, the dream
Of a newer chance.
I am marked by time
And what cannot happen.
The life of market
And dusting and church
Wearies me
But you never weary me:
Kingdom of possibility
Now a basket of stones
A wreath of shells with jagged edges.  .  .  .
(Magda’s house that evening—as in a dream)

Oh, Mother, do not bury with me
Confirmation veil or wedding dress;
I’ll need neither olive nor figs
Nor bread nor mineral water,
Neither gifts that nourish
Nor tokens of honor—
This is a journey:
One who was motionless and prone
Becomes an explorer—
Timid at first, then eager,
Lost halfway through
The astounding expedition
Then finding her way—
There you sit—
(Wonder and amazement abate as she resumes the accustomed intimacy.)
Blankets and earthenware,
Shirred muslin,
This wood, forced to brightness
By repetition of gesture,
Sheen of, film of—
Is it shroud or veil?
Death’s not a jilting, Mother,
Though I won’t be marrying a man
Right as rain
Reliable as stone—
Death is a journey through waters,
Death is a journey alone.
Build if you will
A careful tomb
The only home maintained with roses
And chrysanthemums—
Tell me, Antonia, I must know this,
The parting from your wound—
Were mother and healer
Together in failure?
If the priest says
“God called her.  .  .”
Shall I say I am the mother
Who led her where she could not go
And the kind doctor
Was without remedy?
I have no compass like a sailor’s
Nor an astronomer’s glass—
I have crossed the border.
Home tools are no use—
No one’s to blame.
Then I mustn’t brood
With the mourner’s envy
That says what right have you to live
When my own love’s dead?
Nor for my sake shun
Feast days, christenings, parades—
Nor say with tight-mouthed piety,
She is with God,
Was too pure
For this stark location.
So long to learn what love is—
Death means so much work
And the work is harsh.
This is a parting,
From cords of bondage—
From window and prison both.  .  .  .
Build if you will
A careful tomb
The only home
Maintained with roses
To mitigate the taste
Of a near-consuming dust. . .
But whether you embalm or scatter
Is all the same to me.  .  .  .
It’s not for you
To help me recover from the loss of you.
This is bitter,
What I begin to know—
You could not be parted
From your wound
And you alone knew.
There’ll be a funeral
And a true wake—
No mourner’s envy.
You could not be parted
From your wound
And you alone knew.
Your life was your own.
That mystery is sacred,
Treasure and anguish
The one dream of the dead
The end of all dreaming
Is to awaken new and full of blessing
Entirely elsewhere.
NOTE:  Forty-eight lines from this piece appeared as “Antonia’s Song” in New English Review, June 2016.
Evelyn Hooven graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received her M.A. from Yale University, where she also studied at The Yale School of Drama.  A member of the Dramatists’ Guild, she has had presentations of her verse dramas at several theatrical venues, including The Maxwell Anderson Playwrights Series in Greenwich, CT (after a state-wide competition) and The Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, MA (result of a national competition). Her poems and translations from the French have appeared in ART TIMES, Chelsea, The Literary Review, THE SHOp: A Magazine of Poetry (in Ireland), The Tribeca Poetry Review, Vallum (in Montreal), and other journals, and her literary criticism in Oxford University’s Essays in Criticism.
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