Poems by Mary K O’Melveny
I. Memory is not the same as memoir.
What is the volume of our forgotten lives?
If we could stand every disappeared
memory in a line-up like determined
detectives reassembling a crime scene,
how would that transform our future selves?
Or does the brain do us great favors by
sorting, sifting, revising, deleting
like Maxwell Perkins on a late-night shift?
Maybe the red-penned version prepares
us for surprises, keeping our secrets
ready to leap forward to do battle
at split second’s notice. Fierce, yet tender.
A South African museum promotes
“the memory against forgetting” as it
showcases Mandela’s revolutionary
life. So we all know what may be required.
II. Heat is not the same as light.
I remember how I watched with horror
as Thích Quang Duc turned to fire. Flames
reached toward the sky like prayers, obscured
the figure folded like a lotus blossom.
He told no one of his plans before
he drove into to Saigon, gasoline can
jostling in the back seat. Yet the light
he sparked spooked me as if I lit the match.
Only his heart remained at day’s end.
These days, as temperatures rise more
rapidly than hormonal upheavals
or arctic waterways, we only seem to
speak in tongues, stumble like blind
prophets. We cannot recognize ourselves
in the smoke or mirrors of our lives,
much less enjoy truth’s incandescence.
III. Statistics are not the same as truth.
Keeping tabs on the dead has always been
a disorderly business. Body counts
transform depending on who is doing
the counting. Take Hurricane Maria,
where sixty-four bodies have now been joined
by nearly three thousand more. Or, Yemen,
where thousands die each month from bombs,
guns and lack of nourishment. Grim reapers
of numbers transform calamity
and calumny to ciphers resting like
cadavers on pages few bother to
read or mourn. The volume overwhelms us.
I remember searching for my father’s
gravestone at Arlington amidst marbled rows
wondering how many names were not listed,
survivors left to weep in darkness.
IV. Escape is not the same as departure.
Some days you can almost hear the keys
Click in the door no matter how far
from home you are. There is a comfort
to that sound. A certainty. A calm.
Other times home is nothing more than
wishful thinking. A muddy floor,
a few blue tarps or scraps of plastic cloth
to curtain off strangers, avoid shame.
There are tented refugee camps in which
generations have come of age as they
waited for documents, stared at lists,
counted cash, prayed for flimsy rescue boats.
I remember my mother, dressed in a
suit and hat, walking out our front door
when I was ten. She stared at the ground when
she said goodbye. Her return surprised me.
V. Recovery is not the same as healing.
Hospital hallways fill with huddled forms
waiting for hopeful news, redefining faith
with each tick of the clock or surgeon’s turn
of a phrase. Tubes and monitors provide
an alternate memoir. Nurses morph to Greek
choruses near bedside stages where waiting
becomes an epic tale. For many, luck holds.
Death waits for another cue. Stitches dissolve.
Scars heal. The dull roar of pain dims down
as drugs dance through eager veins like garage band
groupies. But fear always hovers nearby:
an errant cell, a backfiring car, an icy
roadway, a rogue cop, an AK 47.
A Parkland survivor takes her own life.
A Sandy Hook father does the same.
Maybe all of us need a mind transplant.
VI. Velocity is not the same as power.
Sometimes one can feel the wind of forward
motion. Our hair blows wild, goose bumps bristle
on our flesh. Rush of speed, thrill of vanished
gravity. No need for Elon Musk to send
us spiraling toward distant planets.
We control our own destinies. Fists airborne.
Knees on ground. Attention must be given.
Selma’s Pettus bridge. Stonewall. Standing Rock.
Harriet Tubman covered miles of darkness,
reading signs and signals as if they were
braille-pierced sonnets. Her wary passengers
inhaled for hours, bent double as they crawled,
clung together and clawed their way toward
freedom. Fredrick Douglass told everyone
what truth looks like. We can move, march, sing, shout,
scream, soar, vote, fight, write. But demands must be met.
VII. Touching is not the same as feeling.
Perhaps there are no random acts
of violence or kindness. Perhaps we
are all guilty for our failures of nerve,
for our memory lapses, our leaps of faith.
Maybe we just need to grasp the hand
of the aging woman who stands on
our street corner surrounded by her
worldly goods arrayed on grocery
carts, as plastic bags anchor the sides
like buoys while she rocks from side to side.
You can see she once was beautiful.
Some days, her hair woven into a
careful braid, she rests by the trash bin
next to the bus stop to read a book
of poems or stories by Henry James.
Other days, she is shrieking into wind.
VIII. Reasoning is not the same as understanding.
Most people agree that the longer one
lives, things that remain unknown expand
like mathematical equations or
long dead stars that float above our heads
each cloudless night, sparking curiosities
well beyond our ken. Scientists keep tabs
on black holes and explosive events far
afield from our solar system. They stare
through giant lenses, lean in to sounds from
past lives we will never know, send robots
to scoop up rocks and sand samples from
arid plains and basins in hopes of learning
what we might have been, or might have wished
for, or perhaps lost along our journey.
I still believe someone will one day detect those
routes, dig up the scrolls, decipher their codes.
Mary K O’Melveny, a retired labor rights lawyer, lives with her wife near Woodstock, New York and in Washington DC. Mary’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has received many other honors and awards, including being chosen as a Finalist for the 2017 Pangaea Prize. Her poetry has appeared in numerous print and on-line literary journals and anthologies and on national blog sites. Mary is the author of “A Woman of a Certain Age” and “Merging Star Hypotheses” (Finishing Line Press 2018, 2020) and a co-author of the anthology “An Apple In Her Hand” (Codhill Press 2019). Her latest poetry collection “Dispatches From The Memory Care Museum” will be published in 2021 by Kelsay Books.