“Waiting in Vain” by Craig van Rooyen

Craig van Rooyen


When my daughter asked if it was God
on my T-shirt, I lied and said yes,
though it was really Bob Marley. So what?
He could pass. The natty halo. The prophetic eyes.
The righteous look of someone who might be
crucified or go into exile at any time.
And who can blame her for wanting
a picture of God? We all crave one.
Just a snapshot to keep in the wallet
next to the kids: Yep, this is my Big Guy.
See his burning bush of dreads,
the smoldering spliff between his fingers?
He’s quite a footballer, but his biggest talent
is saving the world. Instead, all we get
are glimpses. Like that night in the VW
with Marley in the cassette deck and Mimi
in my lap, wiggling to the walking bass;
double skank guitar stroking up the goosebump
back-beat, open hi-hat off-beat underneath
the choppy organ shuffle, call and response,
call and response, the lub dub one-drop
liturgy, riddim, riddim, all about
da pulsing riddim pushin’ in on quarter
note four four like that, like that, baby
like that. Moonlight pouring
through the open window and the smell
of milkweed on her breath. Now that
was a look across the river Jordan,
as the prophets would say.
I could tell my daughter that was the night
she got her start. Then I’d have to tell her
the minor chord stuff—the weeping and
the wailing stuff. How we didn’t want
her. How we stayed awake plotting
her demise. How we sat in a clinic waiting
room hiding our young faces in old magazines,
the purgatory of Fox News on the overhead TV.
How we couldn’t get our feet to move
when the nurse called Mimi’s name.
How Mantovani’s Orchestra mutilated
“Let It Be” as the elevator descended
like the angel Gabriel, moving us
from one life to another while we looked
away from each other’s eyes.
I’d have to tell her about the time spent
walking circles in the desert, trying to build
an altar at every godforsaken turn in the marriage,
looking for a sign from God in every date night
fortune cookie. How we waited in line
at the liquor store for cigarettes and lotto tickets;
waited in line at church for a cracker on the tongue;
waited in line at the movies to find a story
in the dark. But then I’d get to the part about her.
How she arrived like a familiar four on the floor
bass line—a remembered backbeat in our chests.
The same cross stick snare. The dominant chord
in minor form. How her hunger and wailing
woke us up. How our hunger and wailing
led us back. How the same voice keeps calling
from the wilderness, calling, Idowanna, idowanna
idowanna, idowanna, idowanna wait in vain.

from Rattle #46, Winter 2014
Rattle Poetry Prize Winner


Craig van Rooyen: “I write poetry for the same reason a frog croaks—I want to be a rock star, but I can’t sing. It’s an uncomfortable situation. ‘Waiting in Vain’ is about redemption. It wasn’t until I fully committed to Marley as Word-become-flesh that the sound of the poem began to emerge. That’s when the speaker finds his voice and tries to follow it to the meaning beneath the music. Religious people may find this blasphemous, but for a frog or a poet the process feels very sacred. In fact, it feels downright redemptive.”

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