WILL EXULT OVER YOU WITH LOUD SINGING
That’s my dad, I say, pointing to the man in the photograph
with thin grey hair reflecting river-light.
And that’s my mom. My arch of nose, my chin.
I’m talking to my children, talking the way I do
about things that are not lost, that are still here,
knowing that it’s no use, that time and decay
do not obey language; that the dumb flesh of a tree,
for instance, doesn’t care about Samantha,
which word my son, ten years from now,
will carve into it;
doesn’t distinguish between the pain of his love for her,
and any old pain: woodpecker, beetle, axe, frost, flame.
* * *
Once, when I said she could not play
with a dead mouse, my daughter wailed so loud
I thought she might break.
This was in Great Falls, next to a riverbank
wafted with small blue moths. We’d strayed
from the playground near an overpass where people
seemed to be sleeping or hovering around fires.
Mine, astounding even herself, as if at the end
of the scream she thought there might be nothing left,
nothing of her,
nothing to listen to in this world.
* * *
The sad mechanic exercise …
My mother was finishing a master’s degree
in psychiatric nursing, writing a thesis
on gambling addiction, on people who wear diapers
so they can stay at slot machines for hours,
and when we asked her if we should try
to get the last course waived and the degree granted
before it was too late, she said nothing,
as if keeping new and hidden counsel
with herself, or with someone not present.
And my father,
dead ten years later of a heart attack
in the bathroom of a movie theatre—the ticket-taker
panting out that sad mechanic CPR—he must have felt
a terrible silence growing inside him, or a noise
too loud to hear, the crashing stillness after
a long inertia, the indifference
of that small wet machine suddenly reluctant to bear
for one more second
the weight of his body. As if the soul
at the end of a long journey
finally stepped through a door and put down its luggage.
Thinking, maybe, if he listened hard enough
he could make out
why stars had lost their willingness to dazzle,
or where they were going—through what dark nimbus
or invisible crack—and why without him,
why so fast.
* * *
Once as a child I drove a hammer’s claw into
the trunk of one of the small maples
lining our driveway,
peeling bark away in strips as thick as fingers
to the underflesh, the soft wet honey-gold,
tinted a bit off-pink, off-green.
It was like being, or imagining that I could be,
everywhere at once, light
right there in the palm of my hand,
made still and, well,
in ruins. Light’s unsingable psalm,
a thing outside
our sad economy of come and go.
A brief end to stagnation, briefly glimpsed.
My father was angry, but mostly bewildered.
He stared for a while, then said only
that the hammer wasn’t mine to take, and that the tree
wasn’t mine to do whatever I thought I was doing to it.
And what are you doing to it, he said, and I said
I don’t know.
* * *
Poor flesh, love says, baring her teeth.
Poor agitation of heat, of stars, shaking and far away.
Van Gogh in the final letter to his brother Theo:
Well, my own work,
I am risking my life for it and my reason
has half foundered because of it—that’s all right.
It’s true no metaphor can save us, store us
like gravel in the cheek of Hallelujah Creek,
Creek of Unclottable Light.
But that’s alright.
Why not exist, at least for each other,
in love and thickly streaked and made to end,
believing if not everything at least
one of the minor prophets, maybe,
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
* * *
That’s my mom I say to my kids,
that look she has like mine, of somebody enduring
happiness, expecting grief.
And that, I say,
is her diploma, framed and hanging on the wall.
This is your breakfast, bananas and toast and jam,
our one life, ours in the only sense
that matters, something that we make … make what?
Come forth, I think,
like stars, all flicker and distance, prodigal and dim,
but not so dim that if they vanished
we would not weep every night,
or stop trying, though we knew we couldn’t,
to describe them,
from Rattle #62, Winter 2018
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist
Michael Lavers: “I wrote this poem as an attempt to put down in words what really mattered to me, what I would want my kids—still quite young—to know or think or feel about my parents, whom they’ll never meet. Of course, no poem could contain all of that, and so, like many poems, it became also a meditation on the failure of its own endeavor, the inadequacy of language, and of human memory, etc. But that’s OK with me. What I love about my favorite poems isn’t a perfectly communicated idea, or the measurable effects the poem has in the world. It is the daring to try, despite these limitations, that I find the most beautiful. Great poems—to quote one—remind us that ‘Tho’ much is taken, much abides’ and ‘that which we are, we are.’ Which is not nothing.”