Updated: Nov 25, 2019
By David Van Etten:
“Finishing School” is a meditation on community life and loss. The poem began as a writing exercise—I was reverse-engineering the verse logic of Dean Young’s “We Through Mists Descry” for Exercise #2 of my poetry workshop. The elegiac tone of the Dean Young poem led me to reflections on different communities facing death together: my weekly visits to the oncology center for chemo treatment, the halcyon days of life in a freshman dorm, my parents shopping for a suitable independent living facility, and my grandma’s last days in hospice. My good friend, Father Bernie, once referred to his Jesuit care facility as the “finishing school”—the playful term of art just sort of stuck.
Their fourth date first found them
far side of sea-soaked steakhouse
sizing up three fingers of prime rib
and two of bourbon, almost truly square.
I once ruled an eleven-story dorm
by internal multisyllabic off-rhyme.
No one upends dementia by repeatedly
tiddly-blinking their ESP prehensility.
I learned my first lesson in lost memory
as some shirtless novice high on chemo.
But don’t we long for lives of generational
wealth, our kinfolk cloned-and-tweaked
like editable drafts, our rights asserted,
our undersized protected, our fortunes
ultimately outlasted. Father Bernie was
ninety before greeting me with “aloha”
and exiting breathlessly with “courage!”
Might be two mics at my week-long wake.
When last I saw her, she slandered that
slinky grad student who selected grandpa
as dissertation director. When last I saw her,
she showed me her naked nerves, all
that gall, my soul a bovine bladder
squirting red wine, and your Roman nose
in the Norman dark, hawk-like
at shadowing tilt, two months of ancient lips
whispering secrets and awaiting ice chips.
“Suscipe” was an attempt at a quieter poem of thanks. The poem’s prompt was a series of weekly greeting cards I received from family friends during my year of cancer and chemo. It’s a poem of small things like get-well cards and of big things like mortality. “Suscipe” is the name of an Ignatian prayer that translates roughly as “receive”—as in, receive everything from me, oh Lord. That prayer and this poem are about letting go of everything and receiving unexpectedly more.
What a mess, says the sailor. Time once
held me incapable of stressing small stuff.
Fresh bandages now hold things together
like old age like old adages like never
follow a hippie to a second location.
Avoid things you’re not told to avoid.
Receive this common sense, oh Lord, it’s Thine.
I filled Fred’s chalice with bourbon
and gave thanks to the god of large things.
Have you ever had a hankering
for lost litanies lasting until dusk,
the laundry list clipped to the clothes line?
From one neighbor, homemade pasta and ragu.
From another, soft brownies.
Jeanie wrote weekly from the Applegate Valley.
I gave nothing, and the sun gave me freckles.
I leaned before an Oscar Romero statue
and gave everything in a repeated series of threes.
I like to call him my no-action figure.
He makes footstools of enemies, but I have none.
David Van Etten is a lawyer, teacher, uncle, theologian and poet. His newest collection of poetry. Twist the Blue Burlap Inside You, will soon be available for purchase on Flapper Press, and his regular poetry educational series—Dave's Poetry Workshop can be seen monthly, along with his ongoing series of posts about his journey through recovery from colorectal cancer. To find out more about David, read his interview with Elizabeth Gracen here.