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Apologia pro Vita Sua

ISSUE:  Fall 2005


In the iced depths of Suffolk’s one thatched church,
the gilt saints swaggered off to jury duty—
they’d packed the stable loft, the beetled woodpile,
masked like raccoons in paint. Only the stare
of crucifixion saved them from the pyre.
Daughter, you were no medieval beauty lost
in the dissolution of the priories.
You looked at me from a smuggled photograph,
your mouth like a cat’s mouth, half scowl, half grin.
How many years before our plot to meet
came hobbling like a cold conspiracy?
The old sins crouch where no one thinks to find them—
some have been burnt, some dragged from cleansing fire.
You faced the wall and never said a word.


Middle age is a holiday from death.
England engraved its landscape on the wall—
corn-colored, thin-lipped, graying like a dawn.
If men become the portrait of their mothers,
what would I have been, without your beautiful lie?
Passing the entrance to arched galleries,
I spied a face I knew, though centuries dead.
The varnished portraits hung in dust-kissed ranks,
as if the gold-touched Rembrandts, oily Van Eycks,
had mourned the souls their damned souls meant to save.
Promises kneel beneath a pediment
where mother’s buttressed eye, father’s chipped brow,
were named the spoils. You said, They’re my eyes now.
Each time I gazed at you, I saw myself.


If part of us is nature, part is not.
That guilt-starved glimpse of you before you knew—
fragile as water, endless as a stare,
the eggshell cools within the egg’s embrace.
All love is glazed with secrets, like a god
few sacrifice to the memories of sins.
Men watched you like old lovers lost in pleasure
as you swanned across the last flares of the empire
invisible as Caesar’s ghost-fed legions.
I was the ghost-eye swathed in bandages,
my headache pressed against the plaster walls
whose candors might restore the family line:
great-grandmother in her tea shop, father’s debts,
my last spoiled cousin whose car ploughed toward a cliff.


The engine of an ordinary day
purrs in disorder, as if it wished to drown
the river spent in opalescent whorls.
Beneath pendulous and unimportant clouds,
the flinching bridegroom lurches toward his bride
thirty years late, stained tie askew, hurtling
across the apse, toward the priest’s dramatic hand.
These after-days, each dawn grinds down the gears.
After the wretched, toilsome, painful kiss
of courtship, weeks of it, the swan’s nest stands
abandoned. Would you have been better unborn?
Love loves the affliction of its audience;
yet when I grieve, I mark the years from your birth.
What father doesn’t want to kill his young?


And down we plunged to fenland’s spongy mire,
which swallowed Norman gendarmes, Domesday manors
the chattel property of Latin grammar.
Picture the sun-tapped fields, medieval landscapes
flattened by broadsword, raised to polity
by butter mountain and Euro subsidy.
They’ve damned the postcard prospects you admire.
In coppery barley, huddled copses, cows
glazed with the tempera of milky light
crop a spent paradise. God gazes toward nothing.
In my cold fifties, the heresy of childhood
lies far, too far, not far enough. Memory fails
the malty stink of humus, bleached philosophy.
That summer burned the cows with kerosene.


In Goya’s nightmare, demons whirled like wasps,
stinging the dreamer’s head. Justice had fled
to the bitten line, the printer’s stone. Sweet dreams.
Flat-bottomed, varnished, splintery revenants,
punts glide beneath the arching plane tree,
through willow veils subduing more than will,
the filthy, rich, and blind unconsciousness
of water drifting back to reed-drilled marshes,
hazy upriver meadows, Cuyp’s mourning cows.
Time passes where there lies no mark of passage,
gone barren into brick-faced sediments.
The worm of backwash, progress, undermines
the limestone palaces of rotten stone,
the stolen towers, burnished expanse of lawn.


Damped in the hollow of hedges, quivering birds
nest in pale leaves, the night not yet at hand.
Clouds torn from linen spatter the lace-edged spring,
fray like lost raiments of a damaged nerve.
Not all their airy armatures repay
a murdered grace, or beauty palsied foxgloves
blooming unchanged against the hot brick-walls.
The kitchen garden once befit its station—
amid the steaming heaps of turnips, swedes,
the old ways took repayment in gold coin.
The mirror wears no more its silvered proof—
all changes must be alien to love.
I gazed into the black mirrors of your eyes,
glaring rosettes of mysteries to come.


Badly pruned roses leap the rocky garden,
spearing Victorian shards amid the snails.
The house is on the market, its crumbling bay—
a for-sale sign staked against the common wall.
Gray ivy pours down brick in greasy heats,
the dead lawn crawls with moss, a murdered green
teasing the eye toward distance or regret.
I ring your number twice a week—no answer,
just your mechanical voice, cold, unafraid.
If once a year we talk, the barbed wire cut,
how many lives would make a conversation?
That failing dream, a daughter like a daughter.
At fifty-two, I lose a life a year …
too young to die, too old to plead my case.


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