The First Poem I Have Labeled: Love Poem
Your face ostriched in the NYT, each year there is less
and less to say. Hope is what almost drowned us
but we are down to three words: will not do, will not be.
For us, it’s a time of having and not wanting. What we did
confess, our minds, still a blessing, have scabbed. The rest—
it does not need to be forgiven. Water with no ambition
for foam, we do not storm at each other; there are no lines
dividing us like those in St Louis, 1959, when metal plates
lettered White and Colored labeled two drinking fountains
on every floor of your father’s factory. I favor stasis
because there will be no progress, but not you. The day
after your 70th birthday, sick and tired of hearing me quote
Wordsworth: The world is too much with us; late and soon,/
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, you finally
decide to clean out the garage. Still impatient, you don’t get
down and move the step ladder but stretch to pull out years
from the loft. Free falling onto concrete, you cannot get up.
I think of carrying my grandfather each night up stairs in
a wooden chair. Going up, I’d bear the brunt on the lower end.
Even when my sister backed down the steps in the morning, I
could not reverse the weight. Seven years younger, the only way
to save myself from this sudden descent into your old age
is to unbolt the hasp you have on my heart, leave you stretched
on your back. Without love the loss of you will not be as great,
but it may be too late for me to harden, practice going to dinner
by myself. More and more, I have told no one but you what I
really think. If your body is stripped from me, who will listen
to my anger, my sorrow? Last night, when you blew out
all the candles on your cake, I strained to find words, compared
you to an hour glass, praising the pile of sand you’d formed
to keep us both from looking at how few grains were left.
I was never the type to blow kisses willy-nilly into the wind
and you won’t make promises about years you might not deliver,
knowing wanting will not make them happen. Yet, our bodies
have memory, wings we can hinge on to lift us: weren’t
we something in the back seat of my yellow Porsche Targa,
Bombay Gin, India Pale Ale, dancing on the deck to Little Feet?
I’ll be your Dixie chicken, if you’ll be my Tennessee lamb and
we will walk together down in Dixieland, Dixieland. A precise
man with words, but no William Safire, to please you, I learned
dusk is the dim part of twilight that marks beginning of night.
If I can’t stop gnawing at days we have left, I’ll fast forward,
erase the twilight just after sunset when we sit watching our dogs
swim out into the cove to chase blue herons unfolding to heaven.
If I could, I’d bind us to a bench you bolted into Morgan Point’s
pink granite, to this spot of earth we own, to Bear and Bailey
the bulldog who bring us such happiness. We’ve lived with sea;
waves have taught us what is planted in sand will disappear like
sandpiper tracks on wet shore. The Chinese artist Song Dong
keeps a daily diary in water on stone but why write a life when
words will evaporate? Surely, knowledge of loss will teach me to
cherish our sliver of time before darkness stows you in my heart.
A girl in Kentucky, I learned a way to keep you with me from
my grandmother who taught me that as the soul rises from earth
it goes to what it knows—so I will hang cabernet sauvignon
bottles you emptied at night in the white pine’s branches to catch
your spirit and if wind off Long Island Sound rocks them, you’ll
stir and call out to me through long nights. A boy in Missouri,
milk delivered to the doorstep was in glass bottles capped with
waxed paper. There were two kinds of kids: those who loved
film floating under the lid and those who would not touch
the scum. Never one to peel skin from surface, you don’t share
my fear of nothing, believe there’s no more to life than life.
Still, I pray I’ll feel air shift when I say your name, smell you
when I enter a room. Neither of us prefers survival, but one of us
will blow out the pilot light, leaving the other to finger our
answering machine: All of your messages have been erased.
–from All of Your Messages Have Been Erased © 2010
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