Kevin Prufer

Could Someone Please Check on My Mother?
February 23, 2017 Prufer Kevin

Could Someone Please Check on My Mother?


When the young man thought about the history of poetry

it seemed to him he had walked into a crowded room

in which everyone was speaking at once. There was,

he decided, no order to it. And this troubled him

because he had grown used to the idea that one poetry

emerged from another,

that the history of literature

might be read backwards

   as each dominant worldview

shrank into a radical poetic sensibility

           then disappeared

into the great maw

   of the previous generation’s


     forever and ever amen.




When the social worker found her,

the old woman had been locked in her apartment for four days.

Where is my daughter? she asked, Where is my daughter?


—but her pregnant daughter had run off to Atlantic City

with a man she barely knew


and was just then recovering from a car accident

in a strange hospital room, alone.


When the night nurse knocked on the door,

her daughter asked if someone


could please check on her mother.




The young man wanted poetry to be like

a congregation in a church

awaiting the moment

when the pastor says,

please rise,

   says, now we will sing,

and the church is full of song.


The pastor, in this metaphor, stands for the poet.

The congregation is language. The church is history.

The hymnals they are holding are what?


Where did the hymnals come from? He didn’t know

what to make of the hymnals!


Thus are poems enculturated,

thus are they written by enormous invisible forces

across the great page of humanity,


the congregation singing from identical hymnals

gloriously unto god


until the metaphor fails completely.




It was supposed to be a one-night trip,

she told the officer who stood beside her hospital bed,

how could she predict a car wreck?


And her drunk boyfriend couldn’t exactly stick around—


Her mother was senile and mean,

so now and then she locked her in her apartment

and took a personal day—


She’d left plenty of food,

the old woman was probably

just fine,

but if you could send someone to check,

it’s been four days,

     I’d be very grateful—




Because all the hymnals were the same,

and tucked away,


because the pastor was alone in the sacristy

talking to himself

     to keep from crying—


And on the ceiling

someone had painted the night sky


and even in darkness, the church windows seemed to glow.


Earlier that day, he’d buried his mother,

and then he’d come to the hushed church

as usual—




Poetry was maybe the sound of the pastor,

who thought he was alone,

       crying to himself in his church,

recollected years later

by the young man who’d overheard him

and sat now, lost in thought before his newspaper.




And when the social worker

unlocked the apartment door,

she found the old woman

     asleep in a square of light

on the floor beneath the window.


She’d been reading her Bible,

the crumpled pages of which lay beside her as if

she’d torn them out one by one.


Where, she asked,

is my daughter? Where

is my daughter,

even after she’d

been moved to a temporary shelter,

bathed, fed

at the state’s expense—




which is how the young man came to read about her case

in the newspaper—

so hard to be old and abandoned

and voiceless,

a pregnant daughter

recovering in Atlantic City,

       such silence,


all the measureless churches—

he tried to conceive of them, like silhouettes

through which real people have moved

and keep moving,

a poem in the mind.

Poet and editor Kevin Prufer was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned degrees from Wesleyan University, Hollins University, and Washington University. His work, which has been praised for its elegiac attention to the banalities of the contemporary United States, includes In a Beautiful Country (2011), a finalist for the Rilke Prize and listed as a 2011 Notable Book by the Academy of American Poets, and National Anthem (2008), named best poetry book of the year by the Virginia Quarterly Review. Other collections of poetry include Fallen From a Chariot (2005), The Finger Bone (2002, reissued 2013), and Strange Wood (1997). A bilingual edition of Prufer’s poetry appeared in Germany as Wir wollten Amerika finden: ausgewählte Gedichte: zweisprachig (2011), selected and translated by Norbert Lange and Susanna Mewe.