The Death of a Taxpayer

“To find a person inexhaustible is simply
the definition of love.”

—Iris Murdoch

If only it could be this pragmatic,
a manual advising an efficient settling
of accounts with the clarity of filed statements,
the retention of key records
that in eight years the government
permits you to destroy.

Almost a year since her death
and everything remains
disordered: tax literature, piling up,
insinuates a way in
between memories that take you unawares,
nudges through gaps in the papers
you shuffle across your desk:

pictures of a quiet wedding that joined
you so complexly to her being,
a sudden glimpse of her when barely pregnant;
of a child’s first birthday marked
by tiny hands smearing
shit across the nursery walls.

Form letters from Revenue Canada
remind you that the country
expects its fair and final share—
not of your grief or your son’s silence,
or the cooking and the laundry,
the care of a garden
you and Kate made
from nothing, tearing up
a yard of asphalt, planting mountain ash
and pink flamingoes, seeding
a herbaceous border, setting patio stones.

For you death crops up like a beggar
reappearing on the street,
who hordes money
tossed into his hat by strangers,
saves it for a reconciliation that may never come.
Abandonment persists, a creditor
with a stacked agenda
you keep hoping to elude.

Your ribs against your shirt
are incandescent with loss,
ribs that have come to shape you,
ribs under skin that would even now
respond to her touch.
Sitting in a chair, I watch you
haphazardly file and sort,
uncertain from your face what you read
suggests tax shelters or reminiscence.
You talk at random of capital gains
and your first weeks together,
of the phantom knots of cancer
that form hysterically in your thoughts.

I ask questions to reassure you,
marvel at your laugh,
can say only now, after months I have known you,
that in dying she never wanted to leave
you in her debt.
Those who really love us are tenacious.
It was something she could not help.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Death of a Taxpayer”?

The inspiration for this poem becomes obvious as it is read. It is based upon observing a friend cope with filing his late wife’s final tax return.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Death of a Taxpayer”?

The poem, which is written in free verse, grows out of the contrast between the cold, bureaucratic language of federal goverment forms (and the obligations they insist upon) and the widower’s memories of his wife and of their life together, which of course occasions a much warmer, nostalgia-inflected language. This mix of vocabulary is what gives the poem its poignancy.

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