Sometimes I still think of Gertrude 
and all her privacies, of the tenuous
sheen of her thin gray hair,
and the sculptural, elegant way 
she piled it high up on her head. 
                                       Even now
typing these simple words, vividly
she returns, conjuring the images 
that made her real, transcending
the withered anonymities of elderly
citizens one passes in the street
without even noticing a whole life
is walking by…  

agony seemed different from ours.
Older. Well-thumbed. Polite
And buckled to her person
Like a well-fitting garment. Ours?
Untamed, sharp-edged and shouting.
Hungry infant, railing in a crib. Not 
noiseless and ancient like hers.  
Nor glamorous as a hologram
Of anguish, flickering and glittering
with broken fragments of 
captured light which lit her up
inside her grief and made her

              Surely she could not 
be as fragile as she looked,
carrying that weight. We craved
the object lesson of her tragedy 
thinking it would teach us how 
to transcend our sobbing, 
corporeal essences that grieved 
us so, and held us back as we 
kept on searching for the sure 
way out: the red door marked exit 
that Gertrude (we assumed) 
had passed through long before.

If you’re lucky, she once said
elliptically and apropos of nothing 
specific, It will bring you to your knees, 
speaking so softly we could barely 
even hear her, her legs crossed at the ankles
arranged off center, cotillion style 
of the debutante she once had been.  
Her vein-swollen, bony hand
gestured midpoint of her chest 
as if something still lodged there 
that had never broken free.

The rest of us felt shocked then—or I did
anyway—perceiving the torment 
still living inside her that we thought
she had conquered. The mystery was how
someone insignificant and ordinary
as Gertrude had redistributed 
that weight, and reoriented
the magnetic poles that for us
always defaulted to agony.  

She had been our hero,
icon of a victory that could
one day be ours if we learned
to live as Gertrude lived: elegant
and stoical, silencing our constant
clamoring for relief. But now 
here she was: testifying to victory 
or defeat? We could not tell, and that
Fucked us up. Oracular and  
Eternal was what we’d
thought she was. In possession 
of the answer. Instead,
her image and her words— 
It will bring you to your knees
turned us back into ourselves.
where the suffering was,
and the mystery, and offered 
no answer but the hard shock 
of our knees knocking against 
the earth, and the prickling burn 
of blood breaking its barrier of skin
and starting to flow.

Copyright © 2021 by Kate Daniels. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 29, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.