Best of the Net 2008  

A Brief Ontology of Guilt

No pill could numb the ache
     that kept my grandmother awake
each night, the gray fingers
        of insomnia lingering
like a dybbuk's hand against her cheek.
        I remember weeks
my mother paced the hall,
               her footfalls
hammering the ashwood floor,
     the sound of slammed and opened drawers
while she looked. . .for what?
     A box of bleached letters, a silver locket
clasping pictures of the dead,
        their faces smudged, their heads
tiny as stars seen through a telescope.
               What did she hope
to find? And I--tattooed inside
     my dreams, choking on cyanide--
what use were my night terrors?
        In that house speech was rarer
even than relief from pain. We paled with shock,
     joints like cracked limestone, knees locked
at acute angles, toes turned
        to marble claws. Trauma, a wound burned
in the body
     or written there as though we three
were parchment. Even morning's yellow
sickened into jaundice, white
               paint reflecting light,
almost medicinal though not
        a cure for silence, our eyes bloodshot
with grains of sleep, our skin
     translucent as a lampshade, paper-thin.

-Jehanne Dubrow (Mezzo Cammin)