Nancy Vieira Couto



As it fluttered through the gauzes
                                                                      of another
morning, hovered,
                                         and landed
precisely in the center
                                               of the red-haired woman's
                                                                                                     palm so
startling her she dropped
                                                     the rosebud and baby's breath
                                                                                                                   she'd just
purchased and held
                                           her other breath, her paisley
minidress no longer
                                                                     in the breeze,
Carlisle, late for work
                                               again, glumly squeezed
                                                                                                 between tourists on a cable
car that just
                              happened to be tottering
                                                                                   by, wouldn't
have noticed at all
                                         if the handsomest brown-eyed
                                                                                                         man in the world
hadn't pointed
                                  at those palpitating, membranous
                                                                                                         wings that stained
the milk-white, workaday
                                                         hush and made her feel

compelled to settle somewhere
                                                                 bright and full
of luck.
                    "How about some
                                                           coffee?" he might have said, because
                         the dumb fog bared
                                                                     its diamonds.



The sheets are blank as snow and on each bed
a fuselage, or whatever's left
after the amputations and colostomies
have claimed bits of wing, tail, propeller,
landing gear. The elevator shuffles
its doors, starts and halts each chance it gets
before it pauses long enough for me
to squeeze my way out please, breathe
some antiseptic air, and try to pull
myself together. I feel as if I've climbed
for days just to find the rescue party

really is a party, my father
cadging extra ginger ales, his bubbly
visitors vying for chatter's
mirrorball facets. They are all
friends his age from that club he goes to
once a week for dinner and line dancing.
Next time it will be just dinner
and talk. They take me in through magnified
eyes as if to minimize me. After
traveling hundreds of miles to be here,
I am the intruder. The youngest
person in the room, I offer promises
in tangible disguise: magazines,
new robe, electric razor. They see
these gifts for what they are: false promises,
promises they know I can't deliver.

According to the lawyers, we die
one at a time and in an orderly fashion,
like dominoes. If we don't, there are laws
to lay out a sequence so it's clear
who survives whom along the clacking
topple of beneficiaries. I know this
from a job I had when I was in insurance,
if it's possible to be "in" something you hate
but do for money. After all these years
I still can see that color-coded manila
folder, the forms duly signed
in ballpoint, the finality of death
certificates with mute, palpable seals,
and the Polaroid some official person snapped
in the dazzle of a California mountainside:
the Cessna's torn, tipped fuselage
worrying the snow like one of those
drinking birds forever frozen in sip
position: the scene so mutely
definitive, so squared within its stark
border, I could hear a fly's
buzz—I swear it!—interposed between
its stillness and my curiosity:
two claims, two private deaths in God
knows whatever order. But it was
the law in the end that let the husband
live on paper the one extra second
that mattered. In my father's

room the sheets are blank as snow. I lay
my promises down, let them be only what
they are: a razor, magazines, a robe.
I bend to kiss him, ask how he slept,
whether he's in pain or needs water.
The visitors want to talk of other things,
frivolous things. Their heads are filled with dances
and the dating games of widows and widowers.
My father, despite his pain, is animated
and blushes when a pretty woman with
permed hair pecks him on the cheek,
leaving a faint mauve smear. They trade gossip,
tossing names I don't recognize back and forth,
the women flirting, the men teasing them.
They are like high school.

                                                       No, they are like law,
like something already passed that keeps on happening,
some rubberband-powered balsawood contradiction
in texture and spirit. So they glide and dip
above the snowcaps, holding out splinted wings
for balance. When the blood-orange sun
drops, they double up around the absence
of campfires. And when the unfinished girls in pink
uniforms roll up the carts of measured
supper trays, they let down their wheels
and gum their jello salads just like cannibals
sucking bones. Their fingernails and eyeballs
glow in the dark. My father, his bandages
insistent as phosphor, glows in the dark,
a survivor. He knows the truth the lawyers
have only guessed at: He survives himself.



by placards in two languages that say
the same thing differently. In the yellow
wood where two roads diverge, we choose
both, not from arrogance but from
indecisiveness, which, like riding
two horses at one time, requires long
legs, strong thighs, and careless good
nature. The world flicks by, each leaf
magnified, as we sample this new bar
soap, that breakfast sandwich. Placards in
two languages praise soft drinks and party
politics. The world flicks by and bites
of speech elude their diagrams to hover
in the yellow wood. It is late and soon
the world will be different.



Still marvelling over all the trouble
music can get you into, Angie slips
unnoticed through time's wide arc,
the long, taut string stretched
to a twang. Metallic overtones
embrace her as she moves through the sound
of questions I hardly bother asking
across the space angled between us

as the world begins to spin and history moves
faster than I can write it down.
The finality of death
is the denser for its being bereft
of languages that say the same thing differently.
The dead are with us differently, not brilliants
in their stilled matrices, yet not
the definite article,

a cocklebur, all barbs, the small
jealousies surfacing, wanting to be
alive. In no hurry, they elude
their diagrams to hover in the yellow
wood. We pretend not to notice
the hole in the blown-up portrait's fisheye
center. We hold the door open.
She fills a whole room in the museum,

ad-libbing the refrain.



A long time ago, in what seems like another lifetime, I lived in San Francisco and worked for an insurance company. I was a “Claims Representative,” which means that I processed group insurance claims, both medical and life. I remember a particular claim that had me stumped for a while. A husband and wife had crashed their private plane in the mountains of northern California. Both were dead when the searchers found them, and no one could determine who had died last, or, in other words, which spouse's contingent beneficiary was entitled to receive both life insurance benefits. Fortunately, someone dug up a little-known rule under which, when a man and a woman die simultaneously in a common accident, the man is presumed to survive the woman. I don't believe this “ladies first” rule is still in effect, except possibly in Louisiana.

Fast forward a couple of decades or so. I was fooling around with dBase III on an old DOS computer, although I didn't know anything about programming, not really. But the menus and submenus fascinated me. I saw them as a series of roads to take or not to take, signposts suggesting real and possible choices. I started playing with the idea that poems could spin lines off into other poems in an open-ended, unpredictable way, sort of like life. “The Common Accident” and “Beyond Modernity” are part of the series that resulted, and “The Accidentals,” which is composed entirely out of phrases from the poems that precede it, is my attempt to tie everything together, sort of unlike life.

As for Carlisle in “The Butterfly Effect,” she just happened. She is tougher and braver than I am. But the butterfly was real.