Stories & Essays


            Her husband died suddenly of a heartattack right in the middle of writing a poem. He was only thirty-eight, at the height of his powers--and people felt he had a great deal more to give, not just through his poetry but through the way he lived his life.  His second wife, who was nearly ten years younger, found the poem half-finished,  moments after he died, and put it in her pocket for safe-keeping.  She'd never liked his poetry, nor did she like the poem, but she read it again and again, as if it would explain something.   The poem was about Poland. It was about how her husband kept seeing Poland in the rear-view mirror of his car, and how the country kept following him wherever he went. It was about fugitives hiding in barns, people eating ice for bread. Her husband had never been to Poland. His parents had come from Germany, just before World War II, and she had no sense that Poland meant anything to him. This made the poem more elusive, and its elusiveness made her sure that it contained something important.
             Whenever she read the poem, she breathed Poland's air, walked through its fields, worried about people hiding in barns.  And whenever she read it she felt remorse--the kind you feel when someone has died and you realize that you've never paid enough attention to them. She thought of the times she'd listened to her husband with half an ear and of the times he asked where he put his glasses and car-keys and she hadn't helped him look.  After awhile, she began to have similar feelings about Poland--a country she'd never paid attention to. She studied its maps, went to Polish movies, bought a book of Polish folksongs. Poland stayed on her mind like a small, subliminal itch.
            One day when she was driving on a backcountry road, she looked in her rear-view mirror and saw Poland in back of her. It was snowy and dark, the Poland of her husband's poem. She made turns, went down other roads, and still it was there, a country she could walk to.  It was all she could do to keep from going there, and when she came home she mailed the poem to her husband's first wife, explaining it was the last thing he'd ever written and maybe she'd like to have it.  It was a risky thing to do--neither liked the other--and in a matter of days she got a call from the woman who said:  Why are you doing this to me, Ellen? Why in God's name don't you let me leave him behind?   There was static on the line, a great subterranean undertow, and soon both women were pulled there, walking in the country of Poland.  He was there, too, always in the distance, and the first wife, sensing this, said, "Well, as far as I'm concerned, he can just go to hell."  She said this almost pleasantly--it wasn't an expression of malice--and the second wife, answered: "I agree. Completely.   It's the only way."