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Bob Arnold

My Sweetest Friend

38 poems


What have you known of loss
That makes you different from other men?


She sews
in the sun



Lilacs in the rain —
In a very wet nest
A very wet bird


My dead sister’s ashes on my palms
I lick them clean


                      for Mikko

My sister took her life

The next day her sick cat was put to sleep

Their ashes together couldn’t be told apart


for a week her ashes were with us
nicely haunting the place

it was spring and warm again
lilacs and irises everywhere

something came down the chimney into the woodstove
a duck

yes, a duck
no one has ever heard of such a thing

we could hear it coming closer and closer
then through a six-inch stovepipe

a visitor coming from a long way off
I turned my flashlight into the glass doors

a duck blinked out
I blinked in

she was breathing heavily, ash covered
wet ashes draining from her beak

for years we raised ducks and knew what to do
take her in a cloth, get her out the door

into sunlight
the morning woods

she flew through
to the river

days later when we lifted
the satchel of my sister’s ashes

the same weight
as the duck


my sister wore a green buckskin jacket
as a little girl

I was 5 years younger and still remember it
the fringes

with her girlfriends they dressed me
as a girl

my sister wanted a sister
my mother was sure I would turn gay

yes, I have been mainly a very happy man
ever since


they found her on the floor of her florida condo
nearly a week that way
family living all around her
they had to cut her hair out of the dried blood
to raise the body
someone said they heard her make a last gasp
my mother saw her last at the hospital
didn’t recognize her
kissed her
one of my brother’s said an eye blew out on her fall
pills & wine
pills all over the bed
another brother tried to hide these with a blanket
the cops find what they come looking for
not a note — a letter was left
she wrote to a precious sweet lord
as if a George Harrison song
by the second page her lovely handwriting was
an ancient’s, deteriorating,
and the final stroke was her pen
across the paper
as she left


I called my son the day of my sister’s burial
or did he call me?
he called me and typically I screened the call
which irritates him

it’s me it’s me pick up the phone

I knew it would be him but this is now a tradition
the irritation, my laughter, his laughter

what are you going to wear?
black pants, black shirt
I’m wearing a suitcoat
you should wear a tie
I never wear a tie
I would, but I don’t have a tie
I’m wearing a suitcoat, white
white?! to a funeral?
I want my sister to feel joy not blackness

I used to talk to my sister this way
long ago when young
now I have a son who is young


this was the scene the day of the burial —
what is left of my immediate childhood family

flew up from florida:
two younger brothers, a stunning 81 year old mother

a tiger

they took up room 3 at an inn in our hometown
it used to be a nursing home

rooms and rooms of once dead people
I reminded my middle brother how he used

to run with me and our gang through the front door
and out the back screaming our heads off

waking up the dead?
who will wake up my sister?

my two brothers take a room adjoining our mother’s
two beds in each room

for some mysterious reason
my youngest brother, a card-shark looker

at age 50, slept that night in the same bed
with our mother

my other brother described it as a morning
when he walked into the room and saw this

and had to turn and immediately walk out
shaking the image free by giving it to me

while my wife and son also heard it
and their faces went obediently dumb

in an inn that was already spooky


the first to arrive at the grave after my wife and son
and me was a guy who looked like an undertaker
and a woman who looked like a vampire


the ashes were in the wooden box urn
a cousin thought I had built it
no I hadn’t
a brother said I should have built it
maybe so
it was bought in colorado and sent fed-ex
the delivery man came huffing & puffing up our hillside

hand delivered

my sister’s ashes stayed with us a week
by a window of lilacs and a flicker building her nest
we played days of music she loved
traveled thousands of road miles to places she loved
yes we talked to her
tapped the box good morning
tapped it goodnight

brought it to the grave on the day of burial
coaxed my sister’s only daughter to lean down
on the grass in beautiful white dress pants
to place the box down into the ground
a two-foot reach
a sudden bawling sound from this daughter
like one has never heard

no shovel around, my middle brother

and I worked on our knees and buried
our sister with our hands
re-set the crisp cut sod
did it all as good as the gravediggers
then we took the red roses my mother
thought to buy at the last minute from
the Big Y and transplanted those

still no shovel, the WW2 iron medallion was removed
from our father’s grave and I dug the hole with that
Susan brought water from a spigot
where I later washed my hands
and my brother re-straightened
the medallion and
set it back


a small bottle of my sister’s ashes I kept
after saving some for her daughter
my mother, even her only husband
since divorced, still my friend

it means something to us all

alone today at high noon on the wild atlantic
side of provincetown I took the ashes
in my hand and some in my wife’s hands
and we let them blow away in the

wind and the surf

where a half hour later
we noticed other people arrive
and the children ran right there
to play


I want to eat Evanescence slowly


the minister arrived in a beat up red thing
parked it far enough away from the grave
his thin black tie all askew
his bald head and what-hair like his tie
afterwards my mother said he cost $100
she wondered if that was too much
I told her to get a load of his car
he read the same thing that he has
read a thousand times and somehow
made it sound like it was for my sister


other than the minister
the only one to speak
at the grave was my
sister’s daughter and
when she was done and
silence held fast my mother
leaned forward to find me
kneeling close to the ground
and about scolded why I
wasn’t saying anything

I placed a palm open on the
grass and pressed it down
gently looking at her

my sister killed herself
some say it was from a life of scolding

I liked it that my sister
heard her daughter
and only her daughter


an old childhood friend who
works the graveyard shift
walked up to me from his
work truck as I stood with
my own family at the grave
hours before the service

we’re just looking around to make
sure everything is on the up & up

Carson and Susan look at the
little heap of earth, the respectful
cloth covering

my friend looks in rough shape
after years of rough living
and losing his job at this cemetery
and gaining it back

I’m glad he’s back
his face and body-weight timeworn
when he asks how my sister died
he says, I came close myself


let me tell you one thing about suicide

if a loved one has the guts or the heartbreak
to pull this off, you better have the same to
say this is how it all ended

even if you argue with her or him in your mind
every day as you bake bread
rake leaves
drive to work
return library books
tie your shoes
walk a cross walk
mail a letter
split wood
and try to sing in the shower again


when my sister took her life
our families were busted into a million
pieces from a long time ago

who knows

money brought them together
money tore them apart
it’s the same old stupid story

I worked from the vermont woods with a phone
and email to get them talking again
you’d never know it worked except on the
burial day they met up like nothing was ever wrong

almost old friends
even though they spoke to me earlier of real hate
the momentary forgiveness that fits into a ritual
a suicide is in that ritual too


this morning in vermont
two young women jog up river
through sunshine and woodlands

I can hear them approaching from
a long way off
all the chatter & laughter & chatter

what kills that off?


one of her happiest times —

with all the family
my sister in a swan boat
a rear seat
body relaxed as the waterway
long soft ponytail
pretty in her glasses
smiling up to the photographer
as she passed under a bridge


my irish aunt doris
is my only aunt or uncle
still in the region to make it
to the burial

she is my mother’s older sister
and they rarely see one another
and you might not know they
are sisters at the burial

one is dressed to the nines
the other in a pink sweatshirt
frizzy white hair, barely holding on
she touches you and smiles a real smile

I remember her in hundreds of photographs
and family films and real life as one who
was always there, but now she is almost
a phantom

when a generous cousin and his wife
have us all out to their house for a reception
no one invites my aunt, or my sister’s daughter
and her father, who all go separate ways

at the reception all their
names come up
but they’re not
there to answer


like my youngest brother assured
me after my sister died and was left
on the morgue slab like a bargaining
chip waiting to see if her daughter
would show forth and claim her and
pay for the funeral so he wouldn’t
have to pay anymore of the tab

You think just like my wife —
Sherry’s not alive, she’s just a husk, says he

so that meant the silly poet shouldn’t worry anymore
stop being so sensitive
we need to see if the other side of the family is for real
and loves this mother, or is she just a gold-digger

let the body wait a few more days
the husk


I made a recording of certain songs to play
in my sister’s memory
at the burial

but it didn’t work out that day
after vivid images in my mind
of how it might happen

I even brought the portable cd player
new batteries
it could all possibly work

the silliest songs when mentioned
peter paul and mary, mary mccaslin
leonard cohen and a fine one by
nick cave

I wish I had now played the nick cave
it would have worked
I even tried on a cream suitcoat and both my

wife and son shook their heads no


the suicide rides a different rail —
they’ve done something that most can’t fathom
taken control of what they can’t control

my sister knew who she would leave behind
what’s to be said of the ones she didn’t know?
those that knew of her and wonder where she is


if there was a film running
(and there wasn’t)
at the burial
you would see a black muscle car
float into view from Boston
storming the interstate at 90-100 mph.
just to make it on time —
my brother-in-law hasn’t
been back to the region
since he divorced my sister
15 years ago and has lost
all sense of time between
boston and the berkshires

after the burial and every
one has mostly gone away
he encourages my son to
take the car on a spin

go ahead, that’s what it’s there for

one of the highlights of this man
generous if he loves you

my son isn’t sure
so I encourage him as well
and when he goes it certainly
does look joyful but extremely odd
over the hill & dale of graves


you won’t believe me
and I don’t care when
I tell you it was shabby
weather and looking like
nothing but rain until we
came down out of the
mountains and leveled into
the plains of small town and
right at the town sign, shit
you not, a moment from the
grave, the sun appeared and
grew stronger and stayed
through all of the burial
even greylock cleared
we could see easily
the thunderbolt trail
that we all climbed as kids


It goes without saying this suicide
would have killed my father —
luckily he is dead

my mother was badly shaken
and then there was the phone call
when I could tell she had returned

but not really
to lose a child
who mainly blamed her


What have I become
My sweetest friend?
{as sung by}


my mother wanted to visit with all of us
before the funeral
it had been 5 years since the last time

which was at my father’s funeral

her vermont family
a place where she vowed she would never stay
because of the mice, rats and bats

what mice, rats and bats? my wife asks me

when we arrive promptly at the hour
no one is around, the inn is locked tight
I find a slo-mo guy mowing the lawn who

points to an unlocked service door
we go in there
no one around

then my wife remembers my youngest brother
was with my mother on the phone when
the time was set for our visit

he’s taken her off on a drive
just before we arrive
just like a soap opera


I find out my son is
sick to his stomach
after burial and family

little does he know I
couldn’t talk on the
drive all the way home

my wife is definitely
alone without
either of us


a day earlier at the family graves
my middle brother tells me that
my youngest brother was going
to tear out the daylilies my wife
and I had carried down from our
gardens in vermont and planted and
tended to over years at my father’s
grave because he had no idea what
an unflowering lily was


I spoke to my middle brother back in florida a
week after all of this — he said he
badly wanted to visit us the next day after
the burial (and I had invited them up anyway)
and he couldn’t get heads or tails with my
mother and youngest brother, so instead of
taking advantage of being so close to vermont
(a little over an hour away, and he would drive them up)

they left

he regretted, we regretted, the other two mum

it turns out that day, knowing they weren’t coming
Susan and I were in new hampshire in a surprise
to us book sale in a church, where all the books
were for sale lining up and down all the pews

what a sight!

& only 1/4 were religious books
& they sold hotdogs out in the vestry

quite a church


in letters, good friends right under my nose
share how they lost a brother or a sister
a son a daughter to suicide

I’d never know
even if I already sensed something sorrowful
about them on a sunny day

it just seemed they were off
it just seemed they were left behind
it just seemed they were like me

the new me who shares the loss during a conversation
like there is a special way to share this news

millions and millions and millions have died this way
the world still goes around
how? but the world still goes around


songs still get to me —

Linda Thompson has a son
who plays guitar as fine as another
Thompson and when I heard this piece
‘stay bright’ as I was house painting and
even a crew of loggers nearby loudly
grinding away, nothing could keep the tears away


no I don’t believe it was depression
or a shitty economy

even though my sister was in the dumps
and broke from years and years spending

as a little girl the sadness could be seen —
very attractive yet feeling incomplete

one mother on one side
one daughter on the other side

they food fought one another mercilessly
they loved one another like no others

the gnawing expectations
the obsessive grandeur of reliance

she became exactly what she hated
and what she hated is what she saw

she couldn’t simplify herself

she chose to end her life on the week
of her daughter’s birth, yes seeking

revenge / remembrance on the day she knew better than
anyone, on the same week as mother’s day

which comes every year
like a birth date

over and over and over
until we are all gone


unknown to me
Susan has told our dental
hygienist, maybe out of her
own haunting need, about my
sister’s suicide

by the time I show up
and in the middle of other talk
she gives her condolences and I
say nothing of the how and why
with sharp tools in my mouth

through her plastic mask
and my plastic eye wear
I seem to see tears in her eyes
as she begins to remember her mother
which I believe is a feeling for me


the tiny wren building her nest
in a birdhouse I built long ago
attached under the eave of our woodshed

the wooden peg I placed under
the entry hole has been in the weather
so long it’s rotted and fallen off

it’s now tougher for her to land and perch
or to manuever a stick or grub inside
but she does


my brother Scotty called from florida
and we went over the burial plans

in the berkshires, with its fine view of greylock
my middle brother and I were devils together when

we grew up, our sister was older
I protected him and he was brave enough to

come to my defense when two guys jumped me
he took a baseball bat to one

it was remarkable to watch how fearless he was
I’d have him scaling the 3 storey house roof with

me where we lived — the neighbors either side were
old ladies, sisters, and they watched from their grey

windows and just held their breaths
once I was lowering my brother down the side of

the chimney with a clothesline
(he reminded me today it was a clothesline

how I laughed!)
and the rope broke halfway down

down went 10 year old, crumpling onto the lower
roof, maybe 8 feet, he rolled

he’d never dare say he was hurt
once we fell through a ceiling in the garage together

my father came home from the lumberyard
to hunt us down for that one

I wished he could have seen it happening…
I fell first and grabbed the 2 x 6 crossties

while I went down — my brother followed
and he grabbed me at the waist

we swung, like a circus — we so badly wanted to tell
our mother how exciting this was, but we ran!


there’s no real way out of this mess
so love the girl you remember

any girl you remember
every girl you remember

no one can touch this now


my sister is what they call
a piece of work

that’s why I miss her

for Sherry

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