Eileen Tabios

A Mortality Module from The Ashbery Riff-Offs

—where each poem begins with 1 or 1-2 lines from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery

Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Inelastic

Remains that is surely you. Those voices
in the dusk familiar, then not. To see you
now is to see a childhood ball formed from
hundreds of rubber bands twined around
themselves and each other. That ball could
bounce to the ceiling in one leap, then jump
to the other side of the room with the vigor
of puppies and our youth. But of course
the matter at hand is not dogs though their
voices, too, punctuate the dusk with the
faint barks of the unfairly short-lived
Addressed here are the remains when
your body outlives the mind: we keep
speaking as if we can still delight in
a fatty prime rib steak generously reveal
-ing its pink interior as it straddles a bed
of garlic mashed potatoes oozing butter
from its sides. The remains of you: familiar
sound of your voice as it voices the un-
familiar: I am the rubber band ball lacking
elasticity. Life is flexible, but death is not

Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Archetypal Fiction

We notice the hole they left. Now their importance
if not their meaning is plain. They were to nourish
a child into the far side of potential, not because
they’re saviors but because no child should ever
need saving. Now the child is a mother who
understands some children need saving because
their parents are still children. In this child-mother’s
dreams, a couple are always smiling at her on
the other side of waking. But when she wakes
no one is humming, or baking a cake, or warming
soup, or pouring milk. But she is expected to do
such things and more because another child is
staring at her with wide eyes through the bars of
her corner crib. When the mother opens the cup
-board, she sees the same emptiness she saw in
her childhood after she’d outgrown her crib. No one
warned her if she weren’t careful she would continue
a certain pattern. No one cautioned against playing
over sidewalk cracks as if they would never widen
when you weren’t looking, then swallow you up
Doesn’t history reveal that every inch of our planet
bears a history of earthquakes? Doesn’t history
reveal the nature of “saving grace” as compromise
despite their elevation by fictionists into false divinity

Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: From the Widow’s Last Year

Like the pinpoint of a smile, a spark
or star one is not sure of having seen
a freshly-washed plate on the counter
winks from a sunray using it as a
trampoline. A scan of the room reveals
the table wiped clean, placemats
neatly stacked, the sink cleared off
dirty pots, polished pots hanging from
their racks—the first year of widowhood
is the most difficult, and perhaps she
has began to rise as if she’s a bird
with flame-colored wings. The son
will remember this moment—the hope
this moment brought, a tiny thing like
the pinpoint of a smile, a spark, or
a star one is not sure of having seen
He also will never forget her face
unlined for the first time in grief’s eternity
as she lay on his favorite armchair
in the winter garden. Beyond the glass
walls, snow. But perhaps her last
thoughts were of the flowers he could
never name but usually admired for
their off-season blooms. “Mother, was
I not enough?” he asks as he picks up
the empty pill bottle whose small mouth
images a wound he already knows will
never heal. Years later, whenever a
small mouth appeared in his dreams
and parted its lips to reveal a growing
dark orb with no bottom, he will chant as
he has learned, if belatedly, to articulate:
quince, snowdrop, witch hazel, camellia
Christmas rose, mock rush, sweet box…

Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Youth’s Conflict of Interest

At least confuse issues by means of an investing
aura that would corrode the architecture—
such is the old story of passion. A young couple
agrees on joint suicide to make permanent
not their love but, their love’s intensity. When
the sculptor Pygmalion asked the gods to trans-
form his sculpture Galatea into a human being
was he foolish? A visual artist, should he not
have preferred Galatea frozen in stone to make
eternal her beauty? By whose side should we
stand? What is the significance of Galatea’s
risk: that she steps off her pedestal, turns to
the one who sculpted her beauty, and sniffs
“Foolish man, why would I appreciate your
wrinkles and white beard?” Is this not an old story
of youth’s conflict of interest as regards freezing
time? Look at a beautiful woman—do not her eyes
always look past your shoulder for another
possibility? Do not self-portraits often fail?
Is not architecture pitiable when it still reveals
its plans despite the rubble beneath its broken
stone walls that were built to last forever?

Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Mortality’s Mid-Life Crisis

There seems no special reason why that light
should be focused on love. We’re past
the age of boozing, drinking and drugging as if
we always will be slim, fresh-faced and smiling
We’re no different from the Ross Ice Shelf (and
the rest of Antarctica) as the planet warms
around it. Faced with mortality gazing back
at us from the bathroom mirror, we measure
the slackness of fat belted around our “true”
waistline. Faced with climate change, scientists
measure ice thickness and the shape of the sea
floor to gauge the frozen shelf’s vulnerability to
collapse. Once, you whispered, “You are my
planet.” What was a room dim with the edges
of night suddenly flared into a sunlit space
bright as noon. We could not have known
a moment such as that would be the tip of
an economist’s curve graphing the “marginal
rate of return”—that from such a peak begins
a descent where redemption breaks through
the implied trajectory only if love surfaces
allowing us once more to behave with innocence
Thus, where illumination is generous enough to
rise, let it: reveal love with its infinite possibilities
despite the body’s deterioration, ours and earth