My father took me to the Getty Museum
to see “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last
Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia,” to behold
bloodstained wallpaper preserved behind glass
and the Tsarina’s severed finger, denuded
of rings, that stitched rubies and ropes
of pearls into her daughters’ dresses,
to shield them from the firing squad.
Sean Canepa’s father took him to Chuck E. Cheese,
peeled him from the ball pit, the boy’s greasy
fingers still clutching a dented plastic sphere.
He laid his sleeping son across the backseat
and set the car on fire. Curled among plastic
gas cans, the boy woke to his own screams.
The camera from the bank across the parking lot
captured the explosion in black and white:
his father standing there, an unmoving witness,
until he couldn’t watch anymore. At the trial,
his father would say, “I tried to save him.
Doesn’t that count for something?”
The boy’s fingers melted, popsicles in summer.
The sweet meringue of his skin foamed,
shedding soft ribbons like Kim Phuc.
Naked running from napalm, she tried
to brush fire from her body, but wiped
the skin from her arms, shaping thick scars,
breaking waves over her back.
And my father, whose hands no longer fold
for prayers, insists, “I wasn’t in the war,”
because he spent the sixties stationed in Boston
where he swaddled soldiers in Saran Wrap
and watched them sweat in a climatic chamber,
trying to recreate conditions of the jungle,
to cure the soldiers coming home with rashes
caused by Agent Orange, while his brother
crouched beneath heavy leaves, his finger
poised, waiting for something to move.
Alexandra, too, felt so guilty having passed
the bleeding gene onto her son, though she’d
been spared, she exhausted the royal surgeons
and turned instead to wizarding Rasputin.
Using his teeth to trace a fan of ghost feathers
on a Thanksgiving turkey, Sean Canepa’s empty
hands look like a rayless sun. But sometimes
I can see what isn’t there: my father’s soft palms
slipping into a leather glove for Red Sox weekends,
Alexandra’s finger, stitching a carapace of pearls,
and Sean Canepa’s father, his fingers splayed,
waving to greet his son.
—from Rattle #37, Summer 2012