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Yellow Grass: An Elegy


ISSUE:  Spring 1989
       Day brings a steady
hand, a sure breath every other day. . . .

My brother again on the edge of his bed,
sitting up with his eyes closed,
his palms pressed, a brief prayer.

        You see we’re in trouble

Spring, 1972. The last flare
of an April dusk. Sure breaths and relief
after a run on dialysis. He’s telling
an old story, his slim translations
of Psalms, to whoever is listening.

        Give us strength enough

The passionate calm after a run—
his pulse grows as the fresh blood thins,
his drugged face opens like a fist.

*  *  *

Runnels of spring rain. Branches
like floating ribs from the camphor trees.

Someone is asking you to make a fist.
Someone is taking your pulse
and saying nothing, and starting to weep
over the jonquils and the yellow grass,
over the cold surge of the Kanawha River.

*  *  *

Slurs on the Psalms he calls these prayers.
And writes them out
in a notebook he keeps under his pillow,
and shows no one.

      Death has fallen on me
      like a stone I can’t budge

      Once death was my companion
      We walked together in your house

          It’s an odd-numbered day,
the machine, like another child, bathed and asleep.

Before he sleeps tonight, my brother will forgive
his body anything—nightsores, bad numbers,
pain like a word. . . .

Before sleep, my brother will bless himself, and lie down.

*  *  *

The blood in a black widow falls asleep.

Near an almond branch,
work ants gather their meals in the noon sun.

At the far edge of a field, a hospital
is erected and torn down
on the same day, the healers now

working double time, now obsolete,
your failed kidneys swelling from pinholes
to buttonholes, buttonholes to large red sacks.

*  *  *

What’s in the doctor’s pause and the heart’s,
the needle placed like a root
in the red vein. . . .

The machine drones through the afternoon.
My parents shuffle about him, keeping the lines clean,
smoothing the blood’s slow run from the body.

       But 1 am no one
       I am poured out like water

Scissor-clamps, the pump, coils: the hours
are counted out. Like coins, like yesterday’s
good news, they pile up
just out of reach.

       Lord, be near

*  *  *

X-rays of the hip joint, fat negatives,
milk-light your wronged bones.
For once you can hear yourself:

Syringe of sleep,
syringe of another life,
close my eyes,
lift these white walls.

Your shadow ascends like a soul
from the stretcher but holds still.
In time, in good time, your own blood

mutters and wakes.

*  *  *

“Just to imagine
there is something larger than me, and purer.”

Thus my brother, in a notebook, 1972.
A reason to rise in the long mornings.
Thus sun, moon, ghost-of-a-chance; what
the Psalms say.

      How long will sorrow flow
      through my heart like bad blood
      How long will you be a stranger

      Like anyone
      I’m dying

He writes at his desk, sure breath after
sure breath. Outside, the poplars; and I’m
spinning a ball through a netted hoop

over and over, getting better.

*  *  *

Reedstem, cattail, eyelash, a leaf. . . .
A fine rain peppers the Kanawha, a cold
wind rustles the yew bushes and hollyhocks
in Tuendiewei Park. The log cabin there

rests on your fingertip, twilit; inside,
your grandparents parade in your white gowns,
their eyes the color of your eyes, their wake
the dust prints you’ll leave behind.

*  *  *

There’s a photograph, a boy on a beach, 1961.
My father took it. My brother
didn’t know it. He sat on the hot sands,
tracing his noon shadow with a Lego stick.

Heat came in with the waves. He was five.
Morning opened up
like a torn fingernail, and began to bleed.
Eleven years. He sits under himself now, the flush
and pull of dialysis; writing sentences.

          The river of God is full
          of water

The edge of his straw hat casts a shadow
like gray fingers, water reeds. Gulls
tattooed the beach. At five, my brother saw

his shadow as a circle. Widening, opening.

*  *  *

The hallway goes out like a blown
candle, and you’re back at your first house—

flies in the screen’s light, white wings
fluttering through the grilled blackness.

You walk toward the coal cars by the river bank:
damp smell of the corn field at night;

over your head, the same stars
in their ordered slide. . . .

Only this time it’s wrong,
the face of the night nurse among the reeds

and birch branches, the whole landscape
caught like a moth in the renal room’s dark.

*  *  *

Tonight, asleep, my brother walks
out into a mild rain on the driveway.
The pulse, he’ll say, of drops collecting
into puddles is his pulse, the soft tick
against the windows his tick. . . .

And tomorrow’s an odd-numbered day,
nothing but sleep and a book.

        a little sleep, a little folding
        of the hands

My father goes out to bring him back
inside. He knows that he will keep this:
his son asleep in his pale flesh,

part of this rain and the black sky,
part of these black puddles filling the potholes
in the driveway.
        (The hands ghostly, so steady. . . .)

My brother is led to a dry bed, and lies down
whispering after a rain, the quiet
before a sleepwalker’s footsteps. . . .

*  *  *

Your family, gathering themselves forever.

They play cards, or read, and wait for your step
and your suit of scars.
They stare past one another into

the river, and go on
waiting until your voice fills
the breezes again, until

the shine of the Kanawha
becomes their shine.

*  *  *

The machine drones like an old complaint.
My brother’s shunt—a tubed sleeve, blood-vines
scaling the entire room, a red trellis
of veins. I’m eleven and looking on
for hours, as though over a roof’s edge.

         The peace of a good family
         like rare oil
         like your name

We try to talk. Already, I know
the wrong words to say. I’ve rehearsed
the gestures of my hands, how fear
enters a child’s voice. He’s telling me
that it’s all right, that if the mind
is lucid it can shine
like blown glass in a brilliant light. . . .

His hands shake. His drugged face
blurs like a moon.

*  *  *

You sit in a silence of rivers, the last
April driftings of the Kanawha, and watch
your own ashes being raised in wind

and scattered on the bank. Your family
looks on without a word. In a dry cove,
they’ve waited for your body to float by

like driftwood, for your one call
from the nettles, from the crickets’ chirrs,
from the flash of fireflies low in the grass. . . .

*  *  *

When God died my brother learned to sing.
When God died my brother slipped through the house
like wind, rustling his papers and spread sheets
before leaving under a door without a sound.

     Lord, I look at the night sky
     and see your fingerprints

     What are we, almost you
     There’s sheep oxen birds
     There’s the sea there’s the field

     through which we see your vital hands

Scissor-clamps, the pump, coils. The hours
are counted out. But a sure breath fills
the planet, and another—what the Psalms say—

a sure breath, a steady hand, every other day.

*  *  *

Along the east bank of the Kanawha River,
your shadow swells to its own poise

and walks into the chigger bush, burrs
clinging like tiny scabs to the silhouette.

It finds the warm grass in Tuendiewei Park
and lies down. It considers your guilt

and lies down. It turns back to the Kanawha
and rises, and slides into the black water,

your body drifting across the white
bedsheets, a slow erasure of your name. . . .

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