Lynne Knight

Elegy Bearing on a Phenomenon

The day my mother died went on & on
until it seemed like years that I'd been lost
inside the strangeness of her being gone.

What started out a calm, clear day, a dawn
streaked rosy gold, turned fog-bound, cold. Wind-tossed,
the day my mother died went on & on—

think bolts of blue washed silk or pale chiffon—
there, yet almost not there. Was this the cost,
inside the strangeness of her being gone,

my grief exacted? I looked stricken, wan,
some spectral figure no one would accost.
The day my mother died went on & on

until it seemed there'd be no denouement—
grief's one emotion nothing can exhaust.
Inside the strangeness of her being gone

were stranger things. Take the phenomenon
that certain boundaries I knew I'd crossed,
the day my mother died, went on & on
inside the strangeness of her being gone.

The Fifth Straight Night of Rain

The fifth straight night of rain, I heard my name
the way my father used to call it: Lynnnnne,
the syllable so long it seemed some game
of how much breath could be sustained, how thin
those n's could sound when poured into
the wind, that moaned at all the eaves now, loud,
insistent, nothing like my father, who—
convinced death really was the victor, proud,
triumphant, lasting as the soul would not—
had given up his breath without a cry
though there were rattles, gasps, an ugly knot
of effort through them all. I don't know why
I hear them still through all this rain. Some need
for lastingness, against my father's creed.

My Mother, the Immortal

My mother hasn't finished with me yet.
I figured once we'd poured her in the sea—
I mean her heavy ashes—she'd forget
the continents, lose her way back to me.
Don't get me wrong. I loved her, but most days
after her mind was gone, I prayed she'd die.
What point was there? She'd stumble through the maze
life had become, her gaze gone so awry
I'd have to look away. She needs you strong,
I'd tell myself. But my mind might go, too.
That dread obsessed me. Then, she died: one long,
slow breath, then nothing, as her life withdrew.
I fought for breath then called the nurse. My mother
I stopped. As she had, calling to my brother?

I stopped. As time did for my stillborn brother—
or so my mother often said, the loss
so endless—nine long months, then nothing other
than stillness, breathless stillness, with a gloss
like ruined marble. Born stillborn. Her first.
Get pregnant right away, her doctor said.
He'd overdosed her—Nembutal. The worst
would be to give in to despair & dread,
abandon all her dreams of being mother.
The doctor felt so terrible, she'd say.
I never asked her if she'd held our brother.
Most didn't, then—a nurse whisked them away:
the might-have-been. My brother, whose small ghost
still seems an emblem of the word almost.

So many emblems of the word almost
unfinished things, the house my father built
but left half done, though often we would boast
that he'd designed it. But then, out of guilt,
shame, hopelessness—some boring-in despair—
he drank. He drank most nights. So we pretended
(my mother, sister, I) we'd landed there
just temporarily, our lives upended
but soon to be put right. The rough dirt floor,
the lack of heat & plumbing; all the holes
where windows, stairs should be; the weird front door
that opened to mid-air nailed shut, its keyholes
missing—everywhere was lack. Lack. At night
we'd read into escape, in weak lamplight.

We'd read books to escape, in weakened light
from an old lamp, the only one we owned.
The year before we'd moved there—taken flight
from creditors—something nearly unboned
our mother, stripped her of her will: another
stillborn one. I was six, my sister eight.
I thought I'd killed him, killed my baby brother,
by running from my mother, shouting hate!
I hate you!
up the endless steps outside
the Philadelphia Art Museum. Why? Why?
She wouldn't let me—. She ran behind, cried
Stop! Come back here! Then my grandmother's eye,
so cold, reproving: You! You'd better pray
you haven't killed this baby.
What to say—

I haven't killed the baby!—what to say
to such steel-eyed rebuke? & then he died.
He died. Not four weeks later. A June day.
Our father said it was his blood. I cried
because I thought I should. I was afraid
my mother would come home & say I'd killed
my baby brother, but instead she stayed
so mute & still that she seemed dead. I thrilled
to hear my sister whisper that our brother
was there—inside her suitcase!—our reward
for being good. But it was empty. Other
than silky things, empty. We both abhorred
that moment ever after. I was not
accused though guilt wove its obdurate knot:

Accused. Oh, guilt wove a stubborn knot
I'd struggle to undo, slowly, as words
came back to her. & then we moved. So what
if people laughed at us because the birds
flew freely through our windowless, strange dwelling?
So what if we were cold, come winter? Hell,
my father cried (fueled warm by drink, repelling
us with his breath), we've got ideas! Well,
my mother's eyes said, burn some in the stove.
The oil stove, which gave off little heat,
though if we hunched beside it, made a cove
of sorts, we'd warm our torsos while our feet
stayed cold. It seemed impossible, how cold
they'd get. We bore it: Spring would soon unfold.

A little mantra: Spring would soon unfold,
so we had hope. Or Hope, we could have said—
my sister's name—a talisman, a bold
repudiation of despair & dread.
It's all so long ago. Our parents, theirs,
their friends, & some of ours are dead. The names
go missing like those missing doors & stairs
when we moved there, as if one shame outshames
another, as some sorrows do. The most
egregious shame of all—hear shame as pity—
is not the missing doors or rooms, the host
of other lacks, the dirt floor packed & gritty,
but what became of my poor mother's brain
as it unbuilt itself. There came such pain—.

As it unbuilt itself, there was such pain.
My mother's brain, that structure she so prized—
for though she mocked my father when the rain
poured through the cracks & claimed she was surprised
he claimed to have ideas when the lack
of everything was so pronounced, the truth
was she herself subscribed—I'm going back
into the house, that structure where my youth
passed through denial—she herself endorsed
the notion of our intellectual
superiority. It wasn't forced,
this loyalty. Though ineffectual
at finishing, my father mastered dreams:
true, sorrows came, but dreams led into schemes.

True sorrows came. & dreams, or prayers, or schemes—
I couldn't tell what plagued my mother's brain.
Alzheimer's, senile plaque—whatever meme
came by, I seized upon. & so the drain
on both of us continued. It's Swiss cheese,
her doctor said. Her brain's Swiss cheese, he said
again, as if I hadn't heard: the breeze
was blowing through my brain. She should be dead,
my sister & I swore. She wouldn't want
to live like this. & yet she lived. She fought
to live, a creature skeletal, a haunt
that frightened me awake, asleep, so fraught
with guilt was I for wishing she would die.
Die, die, I'd pray. & she'd look lost, & sigh.

I'd cry within while she'd look off & sigh.
One day she broke her hip. It healed. Again.
A third time she just smashed it. We can try,
the surgeon said, but be prepared. Amen,
I thought. But she was Lady Lazarus.
The surgeon's mask hung like an injured bird
around his neck: It wasn't hazardous
for him to breathe near me. I thought I'd heard
him wrong. He said again, She sailed through it.
I guess she's going to outlive us both.

She wasn't dead? She wasn't dead! Oh shit!
I almost cried. & though I still feel loath
to say it, disappointment far outweighed
relief, though relief came. But I had prayed—

relief brought me more shame because I'd prayed
for her to die. Some daughter—selfish, mean,
praying for her to die when she displayed
no will for anything but life. Unseen,
my evil thoughts persisted. Were they evil?
Confusion wracked me. If there was a God,
why had he visited such medieval
suffering on her? Take a cattle prod
& whack it at her head & watch her brain
short all its circuitry to ruin! Why
berate myself for wishing that such pain
could end? If God were merciful, she'd die!
& so it went. Drugged up, wrapped like a mummy,
my mother lay & healed. My dear old mummy.

My mother slowly healed. My dear old mummy,
so strange she seemed like no one that I knew.
Her silence now was vast: She was a mummy,
her face a weird collage of black & blue
because she'd bruised it so during her fall.
I sat beside her, studying the sheets,
the air mattress, the iron rails, the wall.
Her eyes were smudged the red of sliced-thin beets
from where her glasses rammed into her flesh
on impact. How had she survived all this?
The nurses came to change the bandage, mesh
that made a little sigh, a mild hiss
undoing: white, then violet, then red.
I had to look away. She wasn't dead.

I couldn't look away. She wasn't dead.
She wouldn't die for years—five years, to be
exact—to be or not to be. Her head
seemed empty of all speech & thought. Then she—
an aide had wheeled her to the shower, turned
the water on; as it ran cold, she cried
(her voice thinned flat, like metal beaten, burned)
My God, have you NO humanity? Dried,
returned to bed, she quieted, then sang
so loud at night they had to tell her Hush.
You'll wake the dead.
Not join them, though. Harangue
her ghosts, cajole her stillborn ones—no rush
to be with them. Some days she knew my name.
It came so unexpected—sudden fame,

it seemed, so unexpected—fleeting fame,
then back to anonymity. & then
I mingled with her ghosts again. I blame
myself for not anticipating when
she'd go from being mildly demented
to someone so far gone I couldn't follow
across the strange divide, & I've lamented
betraying her by calling her brain hollow.
Yet good came after all: her brain was sent
to Harvard when she died, to help undo
dementia's mysteries. I still feel rent
with grief that seems the measure I am due
for praying she would die; I don't regret
my mother hasn't finished with me yet.


Lynne Knight has published six poetry collections and five chapbooks. Her awards include a Poetry Society of America award, a RATTLE Poetry Prize, and an NEA grant. I Know (Je sais), her translation with Ito Naga of his Je sais, appeared in 2013. In March of 2018, she became a permanent resident of Canada, where she lives on Vancouver Island.


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The most recent addition to The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline is Phillis Wheatley by Kathryn Voorhees.

Kathleen McClung is the recipient of the 2019 Mezzo Cammin Scholarship to the Poetry by the Sea conference.

Megan Marlatt:Looking like large puppet heads, it was "anima", the root of "animation", that led me to the making of the big heads, (or "capgrossos" as they are called in Catalonia where I learned the craft.) Anima is the soul or what breathes life into a being and to animate an inanimate object, an artist must insert a little soul into it. However to bring attention to what is invisible, (the soul), I chose to mold its opposite in solid form: the persona, the ego, the big head, the mask. Nearly every culture across the globe has masks. They allow performers to climb into the skin of another being and witness the other's world from behind their eyes. While doing so, the mask erases all clues of the performer's age, gender, species or race. In this regard, I find them to be the most transformative and empathic of all human artifacts.

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