HomeSouthern VoiceThe Naming of Months

The Naming of Months

by Paul Alexander

I float between my mother and my father
in the gym of West End High School,
the room an ocean of voices. Today,
families have gathered in one long line,
as if coming to this gym were all a family
could do on a Sunday afternoon.
My parents and I do not speak but listen
to the others talking. Hours drag and drag.

When we are finally next, my back stiffens
as I see the nurse before me, luminous
in her starched white uniform. Suddenly,
I am helpless, staring. She leans down
— her face coming at me as if in a dream —
to place the pink sugar cube on my tongue.
I clinch my lips into a kiss, the sugar

dissolving as quickly as the nurse is gone.
Later, my mother whispers the disease
the pink sugar cube will prevent — polio.
The name alone makes her face go tense
as she turns silhouette to the light
of my bedroom window. Polio, consumption,
cancer, the last “our family disease.”
How my mother can describe the way

her sister died, the hallow coughs coming
until her body withered into a shadow
of itself. The naming of the months
was the naming of her own slow death.
It was unimaginable how the lungs
could dissolve into the body but they did.
For my mother, these are the pictures

she holds of her sister in her mind:
Sitting under the showering green
of an oak tree in August. By May,
laying in a hospital bed, the day’s long
shadows falling across the room,
as a nurse leans down to place
a white sugar cube — that one last love —
on her frail patient’s waiting tongue.

 

Paul Alexander is the editor of the essay collection Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath and the author of seven books, including Rough Magic, a biography of Plath, and Salinger, a biography of J.D. Salinger that was the basis of Shane Salerno’s documentary, which appeared on American Masters on PBS. He has published nonfiction in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe and The New York Review of Books, among many others. His poetry has appeared in Poetry {Chicago}, The Sewanee Review, Southern Poetry Review, Poem, Poetry Now, Mississippi Review, The Louisville Review, The Vanderbilt Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, The Spoon River Quarterly and The Black Warrior Review. He is the author of Edge, a one-woman play about Sylvia Plath. A graduate of The University of Alabama and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he teaches at the Eugene Lang College at The New School in New York City.

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