Ghost in a Red Hat
Ghost in a Red Hat
—these cabbages under full sail, these ancient walls
smothered in ivy and wisteria with its purple froth:
in my middle age and sensible girth
I didn’t know why.
I practiced being a ghost.
I was a girl, I thought
this was how one became
a woman. I lived in a village
in Italy, it was picturesque, I was not
picturesque. That was the project:
I gnawed stale bread, roamed vineyards and olive groves,
drew portraits of artichoke plants under twisted trees,
recited Petrarch and grew
so thin I was a dazzling
knifeblade in my new white pants.
The old grandmother quietly cursed in a corner.
Her family ignored her. They ignored me.
I recited more Petrarch and bought a broad-brimmed crimson straw hat.
What to do with this girl?
She learned to survive long spells of dryness.
She embraced strangers and they stayed strange.
She painted still lifes and they stayed still.
She dreamed she attended a soirée at a Soho loft
Where the main dish on a platter garnished with parsley
Was a woman’s naked torso, roasted, belly down, crisply hot.
She looked for the small flame guttering in a sacred jar.
Giving birth was one way. Holding a dying man’s hand was another.
She buried small animals, with appropriate rites, in the back yard.
And here are the generations: water and fire
begat turpentine which joined
earth and brought forth
color from mineral loins and boiled-down vegetable soul.
So steeped and soaked, this land where I live now,
so rushing in rain,
roof tiles bristle in moss, close-woven or feathery, sprigging with spores—
The cemetery teems: lichen, honeysuckle, roses.
Little mildewed photographs under glass.
Enemies make peace.
Centuries fall through limestone cracks.
And Edith came up the street this morning
to bring me Le Monde and La Revue des deux mondes
and a packet of fresh goat cheese
before setting out, in rain, on her drive to the Dordogne.
—when she disappeared on the path ahead of me
I leaned against a twisted oak, all I saw was evening light where she had been:
gold dust light, where a moment before
and thirty-eight years before that
my substantial mother strode before me in straw hat, bathing suit, and loose flapping
every summer afternoon, her knapsack light across her back,
her step, in sandals, firm on the stony path
as we returned from the beach
and I mulled small rebellions and observed the dwarfish cork trees
with their pocky bark, the wind-wrestled oaks with arms akimbo,
while shafts of sea-light stabbed down between the trunks.
There was something I wanted to say, at the age of twelve,
some question she hadn’t answered,
and yesterday, so clearly seeing her pace before me
it rose again to the tip of my tongue, and the mystery was
not that she walked there, ten years after her death,
but that she vanished, and let twilight take her place—