You and I, we have been here before.
The phone rings, and you greet a machine
with a voice that says, congratulations,
you have been selected to receive
that free thing you did not know you want
because, face it, it does not exist, not
as the voice against your ear imagines,
the call in the call who cannot hear you.
Does it grow tiresome, you ask, to be
the solicitor who is always elsewhere,
who goes from door to door invisible
as some lost god in search of a believer.
And so you listen for a breakdown in her
presentation, where you might press
a pound key that links you to the sound
of weeping or song or customer service.
But it never comes. But wait, she says.
There’s more, she says. And she just keeps
coming up with new things you do not have.
And though her inflection has the shine
of memorial bronze too bright to read,
you hear in it a character a bit more
fraught, more full of blood and disappointment,
underpaid in a windowless office,
a widow perhaps, a child on the way,
clock-light staring through her at the wall.
A part of you knows she is not there
any more than meat inside the spirit
that lingers in the empty hat or chair.
And yet you lay the receiver face-up,
and it becomes the campfire between us
in the wilderness. It pulls out light,
however slight, from a lifeless thing,
our bodies pressed gently by some cold
at our backs to all we cannot fathom
or repair. You and I, we have been here,
though all night it grows more unfamiliar.
All night we talk across the tiny metal
static, listening for the next small thing
we abandoned, or lost, or never had,
over the voice that is no one, nowhere
now, without a home and full of promise.
Then the father slapped his son
for something he thought
the child said, just what that was
the child did not know,
he never would, and in that moment
as the boy looked up, confused,
too young to understand confusion
as his birthright, and his flesh
its beneficiary, its child, he felt
a part of something larger, older,
days whose fire lay buried in hands,
his, his father’s, all hands now,
their shadows cast each time
they touched a shadow of the blow.
Always we begin in the middle,
in what we do not know,
and never would, for years later
the thoughts of the father,
such as they were, would burn
to ashes with the man.
Years later the garden, the rain,
the crematorium of day
and its withholdings, the feathery
and bitter remains poured
in a jar, and those who remained
wrapped them in the blanket
the father was born into,
and bore them to the garden like a child.
Always too small, the blow
that christens a boy.
Out of nowhere. Just like that.
A name comes to a child
from a child’s perspective,
and in time, out of nowhere,
a child replies. Always too small,
the vaguely dangerous
aftermath when a father knows
he is wrong, and sees
what the child does not,
that gods, being human, say nothing
now and keep on saying it.
Smoke closes the eyes downwind.
And so the child digs a hole
in earth, and lowers his face
to the darkness and says,
I’m sorry. Or, Is anyone there.
Or, you there, can you hear me.
Or all of these at once.
And what he hears is something
of the unspoken in all things.
A father’s palms are no less silent,
warm and chafed as earth,
and when a child learns to read,
he looks first to the lifeline
where it ends, where the meanings
are, and the flesh takes over.
And so the father smiles
at the child’s beloved nonsense,
what it says and will not say,
what it cannot touch.
Any hole in earth will tell you.
We feel a little of our skin
in things or nothing at all.
The cold of the hand
against the fever, doubtless
it exaggerates, it worries,
it warms. The acetylene
of the flower is never flower.
The shadow laid in hand
never what the shadow holds.
When a boy loses his bearings
in the market, alone among the many
in ways no solitude can measure;
when he finds at last the coat he takes
for his father’s and a relief, tall
and speechless as a shadow at dawn,
strong with the stature a shadow
falls from, grabs hold the sleeve
and a man, a stranger, turns;
a sudden volt runs through the child,
into the hand that clutches
first in terror and then, in terror,
more aware, more self-abandoned,
lets the stranger father go.
If you hold whatever long enough,
it becomes a ghost, your skin
untouched. In certain stillness
stars fall more deeply into water.
Give me your palm,
says the father. And his eyes
grow wide pretending to know
a thing he does not say.
If you hold a grave open
long enough, it becomes a palm.
What a father said before the boy
remembers, it is in there,
in the furrow grown old
now, incomprehensible, and clear.
The wound turns inward,
as it is told, as the flower turns
and those who look downward
into heaven. We are all
invisible now, here in the common
solace of dark. A boy returns
to the man he has become,
the bronze on the leaves aching,
expectant as bells, as embers,
and we are all distracted.
Mouth sealed. Earth dismantled.
The weary limbs of Whittier
Gardens rustle overhead.
And then the rising of the rain.