I have been writing poems for you.
Long ago I read in
“The Death of a Nobody”
that final death occurs
when someone still on earth
has the last thought
of the one who has gone.
You were somebody.
Like the dinosaurs
who so captured your imagination
you lived, you existed,
you left your mark.
In the African kingdom of Lesotho
the national television station
exists in its design
because of you.
You are still somebody.
Who have not met you
may see these poems.
You will live.
You will be known.
You will still be
Through Your Eyes
Tonight, writing a poem for you,
I looked up a word
in your Sesotho-English dictionary
and a photograph fell out.
I see a wide, dry, golden landscape,
lone tree in the foreground,
long shadows across the grasses,
dusky mountains in the distance,
a rainbow softly dissolving.
Thank you Jeremy
for taking this picture,
for slipping it carelessly into a book
and forgetting, so I could find it
years later and cry
to receive such a gift:
to see the world once more
through your eyes.
-Alma Maria Rolfs
Since the moment of my arrival
we’d been sparring, only half-joking
about your crazy wish to bungi jump
at Victoria Falls, finally concluding
I had no right to ask you not to do it,
you had no right to ask me to watch.
But of course I did, and still can,
since for one hundred American dollars
you got not only to throw yourself
upside down off the bridge
between Zambia and Zimbabwe,
plunging over the gorge the rocks
the rushing Zambezi river,
suspended between life and death
merely by rubber bands
attached to your boots —
but to keep it on videotape.
After the jump, the slow swaying ascent,
you bought a dark green T-shirt with
“Bungi, 111 metres, Victoria Falls, Africa”
modestly embroidered on one sleeve.
I wear it. And sometimes when
dark relentless mind seeks
to fill the gap between laughing
together in the little rented car
and waking out of blackness
to hospital lights and strange faces
telling me you “didn’t make it”
I wrench away to see instead
your strong young body
freeze-framed forever, bravely
hurling itself toward the horizon.
I hear you yodeling in pure wordless
bodily pleasure, the boundless
exhiliration of plunging but not hitting
bottom, conquering gravity,
bouncing on air above the gorge
the rocks the river.
And I am glad you did it.
For Jeremy, who seized it
In the forest preserve the river has flooded its banks.
Ponds of brown, ice-skinned water fill the dips
and valleys where spongy earth can absorb no more.
The paths are streams, the leafless trees emerge dreamlike,
ringed with graying mud from pools of sludge
where melting snow joined with river-flood,
leaving on the forest floor a few thin creeks and great bowls
of slushy dirty water awaiting transformation,
to evaporate softly into spring, or ooze to soggy ground.
Suddenly we see it, a flash brilliant as fire in the center
of a pool of sodden dun-colored mud, a solitary carp,
glowing like igneous rock at the earth’s core,
not knowing it is trapped, can never swim back,
can never leap to safety over dried earth, broken sticks
and fallen branches, can never return to the mother-flow.
With a glance we understand, you step in, groping,
searching through debris, a rusty can, a paper cup,
you try and try with branches, fallen winter-dried leaves,
Your stripped-bare legs breaking thin ice, shivering,
Bare hands reaching, the fish slithering away, hiding
deeper and deeper in the sludge, desperate, until finally
you have it, wrapped in mud-soaked young man’s jacket
now held tight against your chest, you are running barefoot
over rocks and logs and branches, the dogs suddenly
leaping after you, chasing splashing joyfully behind you
through muddy water to the high swift-running river,
to freedom, to life, the captured carp instantly
swimming away, that stupid, beautiful, fiery golden fish
simply swimming away and never knowing what we know:
that you loved its life, and fought for life, and won.
-Alma Maria Rolfs
“What was that?!”
But even before
the words had leapt
unbidden from my lips
or the dark blur streaked
the edge of my vision
sound of terror
that harsh repeating cry
was a captured bird
watched hunted tracked
and swiftly brought indoors
by Joe-the-cat, long-legged,
small-headed smart-aleck Joe,
shiny black lap-sized panther
living in our house.
Rushing shouting after him
with relief we saw
the small tight zipper-mouth
release its hold –
felt the thrum of beating wings
the sudden feather-fall
the frenzied urgency
of the captured cardinal’s flight,
staggering through motionless air,
window to closed window,
wall to solid wall.
It seemed forever.
At last, plunging
through the curtain folds,
it made a shuddering fall,
hopped out of sight.
And then the rescue:
my almost grownup son,
your young expansive hands
— half boy’s, half man’s –
closing with firm and
infinitely tender strength
around that frantic
Purposeful as a pioneer
making his way west
with your delicate charge
through the open door
For a breathless moment
you were fused:
bird and boy
under the lamplight
surrounded by snow
your arm straight out
the trembling creature
on your steady
open palm –
then a wild and pure
diagonal to heaven –
and the crimson bird
From the door I saw
your happiness explode
like winter fireworks
your arms flung upward to the sky
I thought whole flocks of birds
might spring from your open fingers
and fly soaring
toward the stars.
Leaping and prancing
your exuberant feet grow wings,
scatter diamonds in the snow,
feather the crystal air
with exclamation points
of light. My own heart
swelling like a bird’s,
love crowding my throat,
blurring my view
of you and the lamp
and the snowlit night,
in this luminous moment
your freedom dance
of pride and joy is for me
Still in shock and tears they told stories,
your Peace Corps friends gathering
to comfort each other, comfort your father,
haggard from grief and sleeplessness
and travel, while I lay in a South African hospital,
trapped in traction and a merciful morphine haze.
Laughing and crying they told stories
of your humor, your perseverance,
your selflessness and generosity,
your famous “to do” lists marked “done”,
the people and animal photos all over
your walls, your laughable attempts
at baking, the yeasty muffins exploding
in the oven, the dinosaurs on your desk.
At the Christmas party, dancing, you had
exclaimed “I’ve never been happier!”
Someone thought we might hear one day
your voice on the wind as she still heard
her beloved brother’s voice – you
reminded her of him. Your father
told your story: the murdered sweetheart,
the long journey through darkness,
the need to bring good out of evil.
They had not known. When a friend
confessed her fear of loving and losing again,
you had replied: “If you truly love,
love is never wasted.” Another, stumbling
and choking on tears, recalled turning to you
so discouraged he was ready to leave.
“Going on,” you told him, “is like
learning to walk with an artificial leg.
It’s not you, it feels all wrong, but you put it on
anyway, you lean on it, it holds you up,
and little by little it works and then
one day you realize you’re walking.”
I remember your first walk outdoors
after her death, hunched in your black
overcoat, the fear lying thick as vaseline
upon your skin. Later we walked in the woods
through a dozen changing seasons.
Gradually, you talked, you opened
again to music, you took pictures at the zoo,
you traveled to see your sister,
recorded it all in sounds and images,
you photographed the world once more.
Animal images reappeared on your
childhood walls, as they had when you
were ten, before Dr. Who and the rock stars.
Prehistoric reptiles crowded your shelves,
dolphins swayed above your desk, where
you sat endlessly writing poems, stories, letters,
the final college paper it took three years to
complete. More often, you left your door open.
You refused to eat anything “raised to be
slaughtered.” Instead, you ate nachos in bed,
watched bad science fiction, laughed out loud.
Collecting dinosaurs, you explained
you needed that vast perspective, to know
in a thousand years all traces of you and Heather
and her murderer would be equally vanished.
You dreamed of the Peace Corps, applied,
went to Africa, grew ever more alive.
You told me you had never felt so young, so open.
The last sound I heard from you was laughter.
I’m walking, Jeremy.
I miss you always. I walk. I tell stories.
Held together with metal bars and screws
my body learned to move again,
to see me through. Following you,
I strive to truly live.
With every step I am sustained
by images of you.