For the mile past American Steel
I breathed in my cargo of roses,
but even in that sweetness I could feel
the lung grit and chronic bloody noses
of my childhood. It was my last day
delivering flowers, and the dead man
these were meant to honor couldn’t stay
dead in the town he lived in,
where the undertakers all were white.
Like me, doing my buck-an-hour duty,
driving deep into Venice, Illinois, and its blighted
dying air with a perfect spray of American Beauty
roses, Boston fern, and baby’s breath for the casket.
What did I know? I was 19, a week
away from the army, and if you’d asked
I’d have just said “Luck, bad luck,”
and looked away, believing for the moment in flowers.
I don’t remember. Maybe I was told
it was all cosmetic, that even after hours
of trying, of dabbing at dead skin as cold
as any, no white man could make a black face
presentable. Maybe I believed that
the way I believed I’d go any place
the army sent me, that I believed what
we’d all been told—duty and honor,
fine and fitting things, the old lies.
How could I have known any different? Conned or
gullible, probably both, I honed my eyes
on beer and smoke, my ears ringing
with wild guitars. In Venice that day,
late winter, young black men gathered singing
around trash can fires, and no one looked my way.
A white boy with a job, a long hair,
I couldn’t outshine the package store lights.
I was out of focus in the noxious air,
in March, when not even clouds were white.
What is that smell in funeral homes?
formaldehyde? ammonia? chrysanthemums?
gladiolas? carnations? Or the roses I followed
held out before me and nodding like beggars,
like mourners—amen, amen, my steps
murmuring down the carpeted hall. They were
gathered in the chapel, the family I slipped
past, though I felt them watch
while I nestled the casket-piece in place.
Flag-draped and sealed, steel-cold to the touch,
the coffin held a soldier whose black face
grinned at me from an 8 × 10 portrait.
And what I don’t understand today
is how I looked back at him without
so much as a blink, how I eased away,
cool and professional, slowly, making sure
the roses were right, balanced and symmetrical,
how, until I turned toward where
the family waited, I could not tell
they were crying. Silent, emptied, they
didn’t look at me at all as I left,
but at one another, or at the plush gray
floor, or at the roses and fern and baby’s breath—
expensive, short-lived, and meagre. In that air
so full with dying, I moved like a wrist,
like sleep—impossible, invisible, there
and not there, like the people I passed
on the smoke-killed streets of Venice,
like the dead man I looked at but didn’t see,
like the nation itself imagining a menace
from across the world, while back home we
trucked our darker dead away and paid
ourselves little more than nothing to buy it:
the lie, the dazzling flag, frayed
to the edge of its true color, white on white on white.