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after a photograph by Gordon Parks

Of all his portraits of elderlies
waiting on the mercy of their Master,
this is most bitter by far
once our mind pans away from some
few pleasant, long ago moments
we fancy the wallpaper’s
many morning glories having seen,
and down to our penultimate mystery
captured by values brightening
from weeds to winding-sheet
in a sorry trinity of hope.
Mrs. Jefferson, whom we know
from another photo of the same year,
sits bedside, her silvered head darkly netted
and her hollow, hallowed eyes
lifted to a realm of epiphany
in an undepicted corner
where Bethel appears
with shiny processions of angels
lining Jacob’s ladder from heaven
to earth to heaven again.
In her wizened right hand,
the well-worn staff of other such pilgrimages,
as her all but audible hum
of chariots swinging sweetly low
wafts across yet another dead or dying sister
tucked and foreshortened in fetal ease,
this one’s aged but still full face
with eyes closed and lips
slightly parted to let us know.
And the third figure,
also a woman on in years,
like Mrs. Jefferson, also in black topcoat,
stands at the foot and to the right of the bed,
her back to the lens, half in frame,
her graceful waves gently bowed in vigil,
most likely imagining twelve pearly ways
to a crystal stream and the tree beside
with its twelve manner of fruits
that will heal everything.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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