Elegy for My Grandmother in the Form of a Cactus

The way each linked lobe of your cactus swallows all
the green from the one before it, reminds me of that movie
about the human centipede and how appalled you’d have been
to know such a film exists, though you were no stranger
to the macabre, you who used to warn me not to drink tea
too much or my stomach would swell red, you said,
citing the story of that man with the shotgun wound
in his abdomen, how he became a medical curiosity
for the dark deep hole in him through which the world
could suddenly view the innermost sanctum of a human body,
which was a long way you had of saying it matters what we put
inside ourselves. I have put so many things inside myself I should
not have: smoke of all sorts, whiskey, sorrow, pennies, bottomless
guilt, river stones, a crusty work glove pulled off with my teeth.
I even licked a Burmese python once. I list the contraband
of my body to myself as I eat nachos or frozen French fries
off your blue dinner plates, counting the indulgences
I imagine you would not have approved. And here I am now,
inserting a gross horror movie reference into a poem
about your absence, a poem I began writing only because
I wanted you to know: your cactus is flowering again,
as it has four years now, fuchsia flames licking out
from the maw of each final green—I don’t know what to call it,
not a leaf, but a section of stem pressed flat—until yes,
it erupts into firework, a tongue or tail of brightness uncurling
into this winter room. I wanted you to know: it flowered
the night you died. It flowered because I told it to,
you in your hospital bed and me not there. And now
I force it unconsciously each year, forget to water
for months then soak it with the thawed remains
of yesterday’s chicken pail. It’s an Easter cactus really,
I wanted you to know. I looked it up on a diagram today—
the three shapes of lobe—but yours is willful, peculiar, blooms
only in late January, blooms only for you. Which is fitting,
since we don’t believe in resurrection, you or I. Just another
flattened green segment each year, another stubborn
explosion of beauty at the end of our grief.


Reprinted from Plume (Issue #139), March 2023. Copyright © 2023 Julia Bouwsma. Used with permission of the author.