Margaret Mackinnon: “How It Might Have Been”


          So make the most of this, your little day

After a summer storm, the leaves of the ash trees

washed with rain. Scent of wild thyme along the path

toward the house, large and white and rambling,

seen from a distance above tall grass.

Wind alive in late afternoon—

these are the details my mother remembered,

even years later, when she told me of the day

she drove to Austerlitz, to Steepletop—

to the home of the poet whose work she’d loved.

Edna St. Vincent Millay—

poet long gone, the house still there,

inhabited by Norma, the sister who never wrote poems,

who gave my mother an odd, distracted welcome,

and later, invited my mother to swim

in the spring-fed pool they’d built near the beds of iris,

border of pine. It’s a place where swimsuits

aren’t welcome, Norma said—

And so, my mother described yellow fields,

an early moon, partly visible, partly hidden

among branches overhead. She told me how

lights in the windows of the house lined up

like a pattern of stars. The lawn, blue at dusk.

How lucky, the way it had all worked out!

But what if I stop the story here?

What if I say it never happened?

It was someone else’s mother, someone else’s day,

not a place my mother ever saw.

Still, I’d like to think it could have been.

If this were only fact, who would need it?

I’d like to see my mother there on a last night,

not trapped in her drab room, the useless drugs,

the tumor that wouldn’t stop—

Perhaps she recites Millay as she swims:

I will not flaw perfection with my grief.

Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.

Birds are noisy as light begins to fade.

The pool dark with longing, with her leaving.

Her arms rise above the surface, her strokes,

as always, slow and beautiful—

water made warmer by the cool evening air.

Margaret Mackinnon’s work has appeared in a range of journals, including Poetry, Image, New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Quarterly West, Zone 3, South Carolina Review, Crab Orchard Review, Southern Poetry Review, and The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. Her first book, The Invented Child, was awarded the 2011 Gerald Cable Book Award, and was published by Silverfish Review Press in 2013. The Invented Child also won the 2014 Literary Award in Poetry given by the Library of Virginia.

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