Today’s ghost poet is John Ciardi (1916-1986). In addition to being a professor and prolific poet, Ciardi produced an acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In three linked sonnets, Ciardi’s poem “Aunt Mary” tells the story of the death and life of a lonely woman whose love was too much for those she loved (she “loved us till we screamed . . .”). She’s the aunt who squeezed your cheeks too hard, forced you to kiss her, hugged you to her bosom (which smelled of drugstore perfume), and wanted so desperately to be loved that you turned away. Ciardi’s use of alliterative slant rhymes (peppers, pressure, scorchers) and repetition carries you along to the poem’s sad end. Stanza two conjures the messy, crowded, noisy immigrant household that Ciardi, the son of Italian immigrants, may have experienced in his own childhood. The poem begins with macabre humor but ends with the narrator’s graveside epiphany and understanding of his loss.

Aunt Mary died of eating twelve red peppers
after a hard day’s work. The doctor said
it was her high blood pressure finished her.
As if disease were anything to Aunt Mary
who had all of her habits to die of! But imagine
a last supper of twelve red peppers, twelve
of those crab-apple size dry scorchers
you buy on a string at Italian groceries,
twelve of them fried in oil and gobbled off
(Aunt Mary was a messy eater)—and then,
to feel the room go dizzy, and through your blood
the awful coming on of nothing more
than twelve red peppers you know you shouldn’t have eaten
but couldn’t help yourself, they were so good.

Now what shall I pray for gluttonous Aunt Mary
who loved us till we screamed? Even poor Mother
had more of Aunt Mary’s love than she could live with,
but had to live with it. I am talking now
of a house with people in it, every room
a life of a sort, a clutter of its own.
I am talking of a scene in the palm of God
in which one actor dies of twelve red peppers,
one has too many children, one a boy friend,
two are out of work, and one is yowling
for one (offstage) to open the bathroom door.
This is not the scene from the palm of God
in which the actors hold God in their palms,
nor the scene in which the actors know their prayers—

it is the scene in which Aunt Mary died
and nobody knew anything, least of all
Aunt Mary. In her red-hot transformation
from gluttony into embalmer’s calm
and candlelight, I cried a hypocrite tear.
But it was there, when I had seen Aunt Mary
bloodlet for God, that I began to see
what scene we are. At once I wept Aunt Mary
with a real tear, forgiving all her love,
and its stupidities, in the palm of God.
Or on a ledge of time. Or in the eye
of the blasting sun. Or tightroped on a theorem.
—Let every man select his own persuasion:
I pray the tear she taught me of us all.

feature image via The Redish.

See Stacey Harwood-Lehman’s other work as our Medium of the Month here and here.

1 Comment

  1. Perfect! What a poem, and one I never read, so thank you.