Aunt Alma


From the Archive

Judith Mason, Self Portrait Age Ninety (detail), 1985.

“Aunt Alma,” a poem by W. S. Merwin from our Spring 1958 issue. Merwin is eighty-eight today. 

This is the one that will outlive us all
With her head in the same duster and her small
Mouth maybe puckering in a bit more
Each decade, but it always did gather
Shut, that way, with a drawstring. Only her
Glasses, I think, may thicken some; that odor
Of naptha and laundry, that look and color
Of saved pumpkin shrunk in the dark, were there
Twenty-five years ago when she appeared
Over the railing of Ruth’s cradle and
Made the baby scream. Nothing has escaped
That stub and orange hand since it was little
And could snatch rats out of the cellar wall
To soak in gas and light them with a match
As she let go, laughing for fear the fields catch,
Up the river, when they were children. It still
Possess three pennies of the first nickel
Husband Spence ever made, and cleans and keeps
Things covered but never uses, while the world
Knows who might be watching even the preachers
On their pedestals. Nor nothing ever got faded
By the daylight in a house of hers. Only
The eye of God ever got past the drawn
Blinds and belted drapes at her locked windows,
To where she sits now on a loose cover
While Spence nods in his hat, and her brother
The snuffling preacher and she writhe together
With the wrestlers on the jigging screen, smack
Fists in palms and cry for blood. Unto her
Dark at last all our things will be added,
We never doubted. One after the other
She will watch us go, and no one will see
Her sidle up to each of us where he lies,
See her bend down over us, blinking behind
Her mullioned lenses, nor catch the rat-quick hand
Reach to snatch the pennies from our eyes.