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Poem That Wends Its Way Through a Sculpture Garden, Trying to Get Home


ISSUE:  Summer 1999

Before these statues, before there were sculptors
or even famous men, before rhododendrons or reflecting pools,
before, perhaps, water itself, my father lived in the city
of bald tires and overbites. He left it so I wouldn’t have to
& in leaving, ensured that at least one of us would die.
I have one photograph of him as a child & in it he & my uncle
are stepping out of the woods into a clearing, some graveyard or
 nondescript park
& a threadbare darkness is beginning to settle in on the city.

For now, though, my father is lost again among the statues.
He is remembering when the world was methodical as a long scarf
floating up from the bottom of a pond on the first day of spring.
He is remembering the six starlings he & his brother killed
when there were still starlings, when there was still an Ohio
that could produce real goods, like black snow or bad eyesight.
A winter like that needed nothing, not ice, not a forest, not two boys
or the small songs they found when they cut the starlings open.

If you wanted to disappear back then, you simply had to close
  your eyes
& think of anything final, like water
or the death of water & a high council of mosquitoes
deciding to lay eggs in the unclosed eyes of the executed.
Back then, all you had to do to disappear was place yourself
beyond the arclights’ watch, beyond the floodplain refineries
& the suburbs’ budding masquerade, someplace
even the smoke couldn’t see you. I think my father

wanted to disappear that day. I think he wanted
to wrap the past around himself like the worn flag of a country
that never existed, to recant his small life the way the rain recants
 all its sins
& like the rain, I think he wanted to cover everything.

My father is lost again among the statues & he can think of
  nothing
reassuring, like a one-armed child in a roomful of strangers
or the short shadows the dead cast. If the past really never does
  end
but rises off our bodies, slowly, spiralling upward, I could believe
   it.

I could believe, too, that finitude is everywhere
& that it is subtle, like the taste of empire in a discarded apple
  core,
that before we can listen for it, the street signs must first go blank
& the newspapers must turn black so that all the drowned
  schoolchildren
of the world can finally tell their story.
Black page, black story, sound of one city stumbling, nothing ever
  dies
except silence. I think if you look at something hard enough
it becomes obsolete, or you do, that your name turns to smoke

& the trees you lie under, reading, become dead & important,
like statues. In the photograph, just behind the two boys,
behind the woods & all the high-school scandals beginning,
  discreetly, within them,
a plume of smoke is lifting up like a flock
of dead birds beginning their long migration.
In the end, who’s to say that the two boys in the photograph
are my father & uncle, threading their way back
into the industrial city before sundown?

Who’s to say the two boys aren’t my brother & me, stumbling
out of the dark woods to find our father’s house burning,
  resplendent
in its long, dark scarf of smoke & bright chorus of fire, each flame
singing with all its heart the one tune it knows?

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