Intimations of Mortality

Thomas Centolella’s pandemic poem 

Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth

I thought the teacher had to be kidding.

Come up with eight moments of immortality.

First of all, wouldn’t one moment do?

Second of all, I was already working al fresco,

painting window-sized blossoms of velvety burgundy

and buttery yellow against a background of emperor green.

I was like Picasso in the documentary, wild-eyed,

always in motion, master of the fluid hand.

I wasn’t yet like Pollock, who had entered so deeply

the canvas spread on his studio floor he couldn’t get back

to a simple cup of coffee. Teacher was breaking for lunch

but first she looked me in the eye. Eight moments. Immortality.

Did I pick up a glint of mischief, or was it something more

serious? Can you be cryptic and condescending

at the same time? I supposed you could. It didn’t matter

this was a dream—I had my assignment. When I woke up

to the larger dream, I thought of my own students,

each sequestered in their rooms, which I hoped

hadn’t taken on the dimensions of a prison cell

or one of Dante’s infernal circles. All we had to do

was wait out the pandemic together

with generosity and humour and whatever creativity

we could muster. All we had to do was flatten the curve

of the infection rate, including the newly perished

who, through no fault of their own, had died alone

out of sheer arrogance and incompetence and fear,

and who would not be honoured with a proper burial,

their caskets stacked like cords of wood

in the empty churches. I wondered how soon I’d get sick

of sheltering in place, of wearing gloves and a mask

to the corner store, of cursing the hoarders and the empty shelves,

of gorging myself on too many statistics. And touch,

without which we’d be spectral sadness, touch had become

something to shun: the automatic hug, a homely doorknob,

even my own face. This was the larger dream

turned nightmare, and all any of us wanted

was to return to normal, whatever that was. It seemed

there was nothing more loved. Not even the immortal.

Particular Flow

Guggenheim Fellow Thomas Centolella shares a poem on pleasure and the self 

Martin Leuvrey, Overflow

It came to be a matter of looking

for the pleasure inside the pleasure.

 

How the trees in summer heat keep their cool.

(Trees on a street calm me.)

 

The bougainvillea’s purple petals fallen during the night: rune.

And swept by late morning: ruin.

 

Today’s word is “here.” Tomorrow’s word?

You’ll just have to wait until it’s here.

 

Quote from a dream: “God is beauty without fragrance.”

(And I thought God was that bush, that blush

 

of roses—Sweet Akitos, labial-pink, off the Japanese veranda.)

And then it came to be a matter of looking beyond the pleasure:

 

When confronted by a becoming creature, said the guru,

imagine the body as it decomposes.

 

A different tack from a different teacher: Beautiful bodies

and beautiful souls are rarely ever found together.

 

And Aitken Roshi: “The self is a particular flow, sustained

by the gecko, by conversations with friends, by reading,

 

by eating, by sleeping.” (Sustained by the gecko

because he lived on Oahu. Trees on a beach calm me.)

 

Tearing through the ancient lobby past a man bent over

his walker, I hear: “Where’s your fire?”

 

Current status of my fire: crackling, but banked and secluded,

like the one deep in Kaibab before the ranger caught us.

 

Former status of my fire: balls-deep in the wild rose, where I believed

all would be well and all manner of things would be well.

 

Today’s lesson, from the great beauties:

Be cordial and give nothing away. (If only.)

 

Today’s dessert is kashiwa mochi: dumpling

of sweet bean paste wrapped in, of all things, an oak leaf.

 

Always the see-saw of discerning

which paradigms to abandon, which to embrace.

 

A town in the heartland that’s my kind of town

because its sign says: “On the way to everywhere.”

 

The two Syrians, new friends, sharing a plate of kibbeh nayeh

in their UN tent, eat the raw ground lamb with their fingers

 

not because they have been driven from their home

but because they have taken their home with them.

 

Centolella has taught creative writing in the Bay Area for 33 years and has published four collections of poetry. The most recent is Almost Human, from Tupelo Press