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Craft


ISSUE:  Autumn 1994
My father taught me one thing:
craft. He didn’t teach me what
to put in the poems we made
like little origami boxes.
Afternoons we sat in the kitchen
and I made marks where he needed
a comma, where he repeated a word,
where the line didn’t break
in the right place. And when we went
canoeing on the Little Manistee river
and fell in, he studied a book
and learned how to maneuver that single
bend in the river where the tree
had fallen and the boat got pushed
into the spike from the branch above, which
pressed into my chest
until we had to give in and tip.
He stood in the bookstore and found
the move he needed to navigate
that passage, and he taught it to me
and we practiced together. He called it
the “fallen tree maneuver,” and when
we came to the same spot the next year,
me in the rear, him kneeling in front,
we aimed the tip of the boat
at the base of the tree, then
I backpaddled, while the current swung
the front end around, clearing
the branches, carrying us
into the strong current
along the outside bank.
It couldn’t have worked
better. It didn’t help later
though, when a snake dangled
from a bush I brushed against.
It didn’t help that night, when
before going in to the tent
to sleep beside him, I read Lolita by the fire, still new in my woman’s
body, and I felt something tremble
when he said the word nymphette. Some rivers are too big for any craft.
His knowledge was like a little stick
tossed onto whitewater. Something bigger
than us carried us into that tree,
pressed the stake to my heart,
and then, before piercing me,
before either of us drowned,
let us go.

Jane Hilberry

FREE COFFEE

“Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors
  themselves!”—
 Whitman

In the book I’m reading, a woman says
her father walks a mile each morning
for the free coffee they give to senior citizens
at Burger King. The tears come up
until they gag me. I am alone
at 10 o’clock at night and I don’t know
how my life matters. I am
isolated in my bedroom, surrounded
by fear of a man who knelt down
at the window of the woman who lives
in the apartment below me
and jacked off when she came
to the window. My meditation teacher says
it doesn’t matter whether it’s your own
pain or someone else’s that you purify.
My face hurts, my mouth is full of grief.
My grandfather sat in his wheelchair,
asking for pieces of candy. “I see anorexia
in all your poems,” my poetry teacher
tells me in a dream. I loved a man once
who might have walked a mile a day
for free coffee at Burger King—
he was that sweet and that small.
It’s the smallness that hurts, the fact
that the father must have told
his daughter on the phone
about going for coffee at Burger King.
“Go ahead, take me!” I shout inside
to the grief or the god who wants me
to feel these griefs. My father
begs me now to write to him, to speak,
after so many years of censorship,
my throat clutched, so many years of living
as if I were in his body, as if his grief
were my own. This is the first night
I have stayed in my own house to cry,
haven’t driven in the dark, sobbing
in my soundproof box, shouting
at my father who can’t hear me.
I am afraid to open the window.
The grief turns my lips inside out,
the Asian gods’ expression of revenge.
He thought his daughters’ bodies were his home.
I don’t care if the man next door
hears me crying. It’s his sorrow too.
I wonder if he feels helpless, hearing my sobs
and not coming over to comfort me,
hold me, sit with me. He visits
his children on weekends.
I feel the grief on the floor of my mouth,
stretching the tiny ligaments.
I never wanted to be separate
from my father. I don’t want him
to die, and I don’t want to see him.
Whether or not I open the door,
whether I lock all my windows,
he’s there: going for coffee,
crouching by the window, asking
for speech. I am that man.
Afraid of myself, afraid to stay home,
saying it’s the flasher that frightens me,
but really afraid of an empty evening,
empty house, no face but my own
peering through the glass.

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