Iowa Writes

WILLIAM MATTHEWS
Negligence


A woman opens a parcel with no
return address. Last month her only son
drove himself full tilt into a maple
and each day brings new drudgery from grief.
What's this? A vase, an urn? Off with its lid.
And so she's up to her wrists in her son's
Ashes—not, by the way, like silt or dust,
but nubble and grit, boneshards and half-burnt
burls of cartilage, cinders and nuggets.
I ask you, ladies and gentlemen
of the jury, to glove her hands with yours
and sieve the rubble of your beloved
only son, and also I ask you this:
what simple task could the funeral home
perform to run this cruel film backwards,
to lift this woman's hands from the cinders
of her son and wind them back to her slack
lap, and why did these merchants of balm
fail to perform it? I believe you know
as well as I that it takes but paltry
seconds more to write a return address
than to endorse a check. It's easy to say
what they ought to have done, and did not do.
What's hard to know is how to value grief.
It's very hard—but it's the very job
you're here to do. You have to ask and ask,
Could this grief have been prevented? until you
answer. Money may seem a crude measure
in philosophy, though it seems exact
enough for the grocer's and mortician's
bills.

A woman opens a parcel with no
return address. Last month her only son
drove himself full tilt into a maple
and each day brings new drudgery from grief.
What's this? A vase, an urn? Off with its lid.
And so she's up to her wrists in her son's
Ashes—not, by the way, like silt or dust,
but nubble and grit, boneshards and half-burnt
burls of cartilage, cinders and nuggets.
I ask you, ladies and gentlemen
of the jury, to glove her hands with yours
and sieve the rubble of your beloved
only son, and also I ask you this:
what simple task could the funeral home
perform to run this cruel film backwards,
to lift this woman's hands from the cinders
of her son and wind them back to her slack
lap, and why did these merchants of balm
fail to perform it? I believe you know
as well as I that it takes but paltry
seconds more to write a return address
than to endorse a check. It's easy to say
what they ought to have done, and did not do.
What's hard to know is how to value grief.
It's very hard—but it's the very job
you're here to do. You have to ask and ask,
Could this grief have been prevented? until you
answer. Money may seem a crude measure
in philosophy, though it seems exact
enough for the grocer's and mortician's
bills.
            I beg your pardon, Your Honor.
I meant but to say that a jury's duty
is to blame or not to blame,
                                                        and if there's
fault there's got to be a reason for it,
and so a price for reason. What's honor
worth that's ladled like soup onto plates, all
the slosh that fits and then no more? Suppose
you pulled into a gas station and asked
for a full tank. "How far you gonna go?"
"Twelve miles east of Bozeman." "Then half a tank
will do." A freak mishap (golf course, four iron,
lightning) is one thing, and preventable
heartbreak another. This woman's bruised heart
is evidence, ladies and gentlemen
of the jury, and this plain brown paper
with no return address. If there's excuse
for every harm, what use then is law?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask
you to vote against random pain, to vote
that suffering has cause and thus has blame,
to vote that our lives can be explained, and
to vote compensation for my client.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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WILLIAM MATTHEWS

William Matthews, 1942–1997, was an acclaimed and prolific American poet and essayist. Two posthumous collections of his poetry have recently been released: Search Party: Collected Poems and After All: Last Poems. This poem is taken from the anthology Poetry of the Law, edited by David Kader and Michael Stanford, just out from the University of Iowa Press. It is the first serious collection of law-related poetry ever published in the U.S. and features 100 poems from the 1300s to the present.

Established in 1969 and housed in the historic Kuhl House, the oldest house still standing in Iowa City, the University of Iowa Press publishes scholarly books and a wide variety of titles that will appeal to general readers. As the only university press in the state, it is dedicated to preserving the literature, history, culture, wildlife, and natural areas of the region.

Poetry of the Law From Chaucer to the Present

University of Iowa Press

This page was first displayed
on May 17, 2010

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