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By Steven Mayoff


The Montréal Review, February 2012





Searching for my mother's grave among headstones

like crowded teeth. Names cut into granite, marble, limestone.

Sklar, Jacoby, Berkovitch, Posner: names of dead strangers

I will carry from Montreal back to PEI.


Crowded teeth cut names into granite, marble, limestone,

as if by the elements of precious days.

I will carry from Montreal back to PEI

gravel in my pocket, a scent of memento mori.


The elements of precious days

come back in dreams filled with

gravel. In my pocket, the scent of memento mori

haunts the drawers and closets in this hotel of my birth.


"Come back!" is the recurring dream. Filled with

an indifference to my health, the open window sings a chill

that haunts the drawers and closets in this hotel of my birth.

I repair to the bar and raise a glass in the face


of indifference. "To my health!" the open window sings. A chill

from the hearth blows ashes into foundation cracks.

I repair to the bar and raise a glass to my faith.

"Drink up for tomorrow we die!" Gravel clinks in the tip jar.


The hearth blows ashes. In foundation cracks

the dead rattle off a litany of regrets and beckon the living to

drink to tomorrow. We die, gravel clinks. In the tip jar

all the coins are donated to cover eyes that will not stay closed.


The dead rustle, letting any regrets beckon to the living.

Sklar, Jacoby, Berkovitch, Posner are dreaded names that strangely

coincide. Eyes that will not stay closed

search for my mother, grateful among headstones.



In girlhood you inhabited the winding staircases

along Avenue de l'Hôtel de Ville. Snowflakes imprinted

your tongue with a desire to speak to the future.

Raindrops pinned your limbs to the past.


Along Avenue de l'Hôtel de Ville, snowflakes imprinted

helixes in the bloodstream. Laughter erupted from

raindrops pinned to your limbs. To the past,

you concocted prayers in hope of warding off


hexes in the blood. Steaming laughter erupted from

the milkman's horse and the yeshiva boys for whom

you concocted prayers. In hope of warding off

the Evil Eye, your mother's hand struck you daily.


The milkman's horse and the yeshiva boys formed

a procession, trudging under the observance of

the Evil Eye. Your mother's hand struck you daily.

A funeral for the brother you never knew visited as


a procession, undermining tragedy in an observance of

guilt. The shadow of the cross on the mountain crept

like a funeral. The brother you never knew visited as

bones sprouting from a patch of dirt behind the tenement.


Guilt shadowed the cross. On the mountain crest

you picked wildflowers and put an ear to the rumbling

of bones. On a patch of dirt behind the tenement

saints and tzaddiks rolled dice to settle their grudges.


You picked wildflowers and tuned an ear to a rambling

tongue in a desire to speak to the future.

Sons of tzaddiks rolled dice back to the shtetls. Gradually,

the girlhood you inhabited blew across the windy staircases.



My body is a cemetery map, the navel a freshly dug grave.

I exist only as Flesh, Bone, Blood, Sinew: names I carry

into sleep, into longing, only to wake up

seconds ahead of the light, the sky dissolving.


I exist only as flesh. Bone, blood and sinew are mere names. I carry

an instinct for following certain pathways, circling endlessly,

seconds ahead of the light. The sky, dissolving

into a wash of ennui, disappears behind towers.


An instinct for following certain pathways, circling endlessly,

brings to mind kicking the bucket. What language!

Watch, ennui disappears. Behind towers

clarity shimmers unlike anything I have known,


bringing to mind kicking the bucket. That kind of language?

The phrase is derived from a form of suicide: hanging oneself.

Clarity shivers. Unlike anything I have known,

the impulse for self-destruction is in a shard of the mirror.


The phrase is contrived. A form of suicide, hanging oneself

entails a final act of free will, a kicking away of the bucket.

The impulse is for self-destruction. In a shard of mirror

I tilt every angle, searching out my own death.


The tale of a final act: Free Will kicking away the bucket.

Do we build up these myths to sugarcoat the irrational?

I tilt every angle, searching. Out of my own death

I hold a mirror to the last breath of self-deception.


Do we not break down these myths to rationalize

sleep? In their longing, the lonely wake up

and hold a mirror to their last breath. Self-deception

turns my body into a cemetery. Map the navel then dig a fresh grave.



The sprig of lilac in your hair was a signal to the world

that the season of remorse had passed and a budding

flirtation with cab drivers and soda jerks was ready to commence.

The downtown ashtrays would soon bloom with lipstick filters.


The season of remorse had passed; its bedding,

once shapeless as a straitjacket, was smoothed

down. In town the ashtrays would soon bloom. Stick figures

in your mind were replaced by bartenders and maître d's.


One so shapeless, you straightened your jacket and smoothed

your skirt for department store salesmen. The fluttering curtains

in your mind were from another place. Bartenders and maître d's

spoke to you in soothing tones. In a different mood, you would


skirt the department stores, the flattering salesmen. Curtained

changing booths felt too confining, like rooms where doctors

spoke to you. Their soothing tones put you in a diffident mood.

Caught somewhere in between, you knew your two selves were


changing. Both felt too confining. The rooms where doctors

asked you to undress created a sensation of being buried alive.

Caught somewhere. In between, you knew your two selves were

moving farther apart, stationed at either end of the pendulum.


You asked which dress would create the sensation of being. Buried alive

in this third identity, you could only watch earth and sky

moving farther apart. At either end, the stationary pendulum

froze each day into blocks. Your movements were sluggish


in this third identity. You could only watch earth and sky

and flirt with cab drivers and soda jerks, ready to commence,

each day freezing into blocks of movement. In the sluggish

spring, your lilac hair was a signal to the world.



My own death stares back at me

from the faces of cemetery employees,

landscapers and gardeners driving backhoes

and setting up sprinkler systems. The work is continuous.


From their faces, cemetery employees

must not give a second thought to mortality, lulled by the

setting up of sprinkler systems that work. Is continuous

labour the antidote to the Reaper's culture?


Must we not grieve for a second? Though Mortality (lulled into

keeping busy) loses its bearings in this love affair with

labour, the antidote to the Reaper's culture

is to break free from the linear.


Keeping busy? Losing its bearings, Love becomes unfair

when everything is happening at once. All we hold dear has no choice

but to break. Free from the linear?

Then who gives a damn? I'd argue with my own death.


When everything is happening at once, all we hold dear has no chance.

I know I should try to make peace with the Reaper. Time is short.

"Me, damned?" I'd argue. With my own death,

the fun is in the bargaining. What have I got to offer? What secret do


I know? I should try to make peace. With the Reaper, time is short.

Is that why mourners love to dawdle, like there's all the time in the world?

For them it's just beginning. What I offer has nothing to do with any secret

I might have up my sleeve. There's no ace in the hole.


That's what mourners love, to dawdle all the time. In the real world

landscapers and gardeners drive back their fears with hoes.

I might have. Up my sleeve, there's no ace. In the hole

my own death stares back at me.



You were reduced to a weightless concentration

planted in an acre of bed. In that last light, sheets

took on the papery betrayal of skin curling away.

Your hand, like smoke, motioned to the boy at the door.


Planted in a nacreous bed, the last of the light shimmered

through a thread count, unravelling at the touch

of your hand, like smoke. Motionless, the boy at the door

never dared to look away. You spoke certain names and made


a thorough head count, revelling in the touch

of a cherished friend or passing acquaintance. The boy listened,

never caring how it looked or the way you spoke. Certain names made

him wonder who you thought was actually in the room.


As if a cherished friend or passing acquaintance, the boy listened

to the rattle in your throat erupt into coughing fits.

He wandered through the room, actually

believing he could smell a presence in the stale air.


The rattle in your throat erupted. A coffin was fated

to replace the bed. The boy crept in beside you,

believing he could stall the presence . Your stale hair

reminded him of something washed up on a beach.

Two places in the bed. The boy slept beside you.

Not for the first time, you wondered what would

remind him of you. Something wafted from a branch

through the window. You crossed your arms,


not for the first time. The woody mouldering

of potpourri, a betrothal of skin. Curling away

through the window, you caressed your arms,

reduced to a weightlessness. A consecration.



I place a pebble on her headstone. Other graves

boast of many visitors, a multitude of pebbles.

But hers has only mine, stone on stone,

a sculpture of mother and child.


Boats of visitors, a multitude of people

came to this country, my mother among them.

A sculpture of mothers and children

in steerage class is represented by these pebbles and markers.


Come to this country. My mother is among the

the Republic of Silence. They don't mind

if you stare. Age, class are resented by this public. Machers

don't exist here. Secrets level out this playing field


(hence the Republic of Silence). They don't mine

any kind of nostalgia for the old country. Their stories

don't exist. Here, secret levels play out on a field

of anonymity. On the footpath I compare stones


as a kind of nostalgia. Far from the old country, their stories

calcify into these nuggets of remembrance.

Anonymity, my foot. Pathetic. Pare stones

into grains of salt by rubbing old wounds.


Crucify these nuggets of remembrance

then serve them to future generations on a seder plate

with grains of salt. By rubbing old wounds

we can preserve the fruits of our bitterness


then serve them to the future. Generations in a seed.

Hers has only my stone. In stone

we can persevere, despite frittering these hours of bitterness.

I place a pebble on my head. The other stones grieve.


Steven Mayoff was born and raised in Montreal and currently makes his home on Prince Edward Island. His fiction and poetry have appeared in journals across Canada, the USA and in Ireland, Algeria and France. His fiction collection, Fatted Calf Blues, won the 2010 PEI Book Award and was shortlisted for a 2010 ReLit Prize.


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