Two Poems by Cleopatra Mathis

From After the Body

July 10, 2020  By Cleopatra Mathis

“Mother Pain”

Once in the vast middle of pain—pain stopped,
and a certain clarity descended.
In the sudden effortlessness of being, I could
forget the body. I stayed perfectly still,
caught up in wanting it to last,
this unexpected innocence born of the body’s permission.
Minutes passed before I had to move,
and pain came riding back, rising and twisting,
this time trying to throw me across the room.
She was the big wind coming through windows I couldn’t close,
turning over the orchids I loved, splattering the dirt.
If she wanted, I’d be on the floor weeks later,
still falling, and she’d bring the walker in to stay,
to remind me she owned it all. I was just furniture
that needed dumping. I was a dropped clock
and time had turned to serve her, my every second
belonged to her. She said just die.
Submission is not such a terrible thing: she knew
how to play me out with her pills, her bribes.
I give up I said, and that was how she knew
she could release me for those minutes
and I could be my own country, in charge of my little self—
the thinking and planning that had once been the sum of me.
Later, I could see how this leniency was only to show
how easy it was for her to get me back.
Mother, I cried, and cursed my infant cries.



When I can’t walk I think of you. I catch
your light in my mirror and see it
find my sallow cheek, the failing line
of jaw. Without looking, I can feel
that grimace or wince overtake me,
just a second’s worth of you
in the future of my face.
Nothing fails to remind me—a finger on my arm,
a twisting in my back when I turn too fast
and fall. Tired of my arrogance, you are behind me
with time to show how you felt
to be a shell left empty and waiting.
So it is that I steer my body out of the crowded
what-has-been. Because of you,
I’ve come to love a broken thing.


Excerpted from After the Body by Cleopatra Mathis. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Sarabande Books. 

Cleopatra Mathis
Cleopatra Mathis
Cleopatra Mathis is an American poet who since 1982 has been the Frederick Sessions Beebe Professor in the English department at Dartmouth College, where she is also director of the Creative Writing Program. She is a faculty member at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar.

More Story
The Week in Books LIVE: JK Rowling, the Joys of Catfishing, and Pissing Off the Duolingo Owl." Featuring the good news and the bad news from the week in books, the big titles everyone is talking about, the best reviewed...