Ellen Bass, "When I Die"

This poem, from the Chautauqua Literary Journal Issue 1 (2004), won the 2004 Chautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Poetry.

When I Die
When my heart does its last
lovely squeeze, faithful muscle,
squishing one more glob from the
toothpaste tube of the ventricle,
when my lungs suck a final breath, claiming
their remaining share of oxygen that trees
and fields of corn and lowly roadside weeds
provided all these years, and then
when they've given back their parting gift, a little puff
of carbon dioxide, like a letter to read on the train,
something the nearby maple could open
when I'm gone, just as my worn out
body is cooling, the way a fog mired beach town
cools so quickly at the end of a summer day
none of those east coast sultry nights
I remember from my youth, lovers
in sleeveless dresses and bare chests
strolling the streets, people out on stoops,
sipping beer -- no, I'd be done
with that, as whatever is me lifts
from the slab of my body, incorporeal
as smell, to drift to an eternal afterlife
or return to the soul soup I was once
ladled out of, or just disappear -- how can I
know where this floating me-ness
will go, as the image of all I have loved
and left rapidly fades from my nonexistent eyes?
This alive self is like my father giving me
instructions the winter I was bound for Africa.
He'd prepared me in detail on the route
to the airport, how to check my suitcase,
find the gate, board. Then he said,
"When you get off the plane . . . "
I waited for the rest, but he just sat there
at the brown formica kitchen table
with his mouth open, unable to finish the sentence.

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