It astounds me the ways
I scale the sky. Every day I have to
relearn my body.
Who will tell us to the world?
Our children whose heads we breathe into
like seashells casting those spells
our mothers once wooed us with?
A playground where we became the mist
hanging over everything?
We knew it was our insides
tugged inside out at last.
Once when I was a boy on the dodge
hopping fences, I let my leg hang over the lip
to that other world. I stopped
on top of that wobbly fence,
and hit the pause button on the world.
I held it all: the shadows from the plum tree
whose fruit we used to peg cars with;
the dust from my father’s broom;
even the boys chasing after me.
I knew the time was passing
and took even the shadows of the branches
into those pockets God had sewn
into my body for the traveling.
I kissed the moment flush
on the mouth then let it go,
surrendered again to the earth
with silencers on my tennis shoes.
Maybe time itself came brushing
the trail behind me until it vanished
clean off the grass, and I took up residence
with all the other balloons
floating along the landscape.
The poems of Larry Levis (1946-1996) and in particular his resplendent fourth book, Winter Stars, have been a touchstone for me in recent years as I think about how to grieve for someone I will never truly understand, how to balance the intricate darkness of the unknown with the pure, unwavering light of living.
My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife, and he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, & with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,
And, for a moment, the light held still
On those vines. When it was over,
My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,
Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.
He never mentioned it.
I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Then listen to Vivaldi.
Sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,
And stare through the wet branches of an oak
In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars
Again. A thin haze of them, shining
It used to make me feel lighter, looking up at them.
In California, that light was closer.
In a California no one will ever see again,
My father is beginning to die. Something
Inside him is slowly taking back
Every word it ever gave him.
Now, if we try to talk, I watch my father
Search for a lost syllable as if it might
Solve everything, & though he can’t remember, now,
The word for it, he is ashamed…
If you can think of the mind as a place continually
Visited, a whole city placed behind
The eyes, & shining, I can imagine, now, its end—
As when the lights go off, one by one,
In a hotel at night, until at last
All of the travelers will be asleep, or until
Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind
Of sleep; & while the woman behind the desk
Is applying more lacquer to her nails,
You can almost believe that elevator,
As it ascends, must open upon starlight.
I stand out on the street, & do not go in.
That was our agreement, at my birth.
And for years I believed
That what went unsaid between us became empty,
And pure, like starlight, & that it persisted.
I got it all wrong.
I wound up believing in words the way a scientist
Believes in carbon, after death.
Tonight, I’m talking to you, father, although
It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind,
The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again—
Which may be all that’s left of you & me.
When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.
That pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.
Cold enough to reconcile
Even a father, even a son.
“Poem for my Father’s Ghost”
Now is my father
A traveler, like all the bold men
He talked of, endlessly
And with boundless admiration,
Over the supper table,
Or gazing up from his white pillow —
Book on his lap always, until
Even that grew too heavy to hold.
Now is my father free of all binding fevers
Now is my father
Travelling where there is no road
Finally, he could not lift a hand
To cover his eyes.
Now he climbs to the eye of the river,
He strides through the Dakotas,
He disappears into the mountains, And though he looks
Cold and hungry as any man
At the end of a questing season,
He is one of them now:
He cannot be stopped.
Now is my father
Walking the wind,
Sniffing the deep Pacific
That begins at the end of the world.
Vanished from us utterly,
Now is my father circling the deepest forest —
Then turning in to the last red campfire burning
In the final hills,
Where chieftains, warriors and heroes
Rise and make him welcome,
Recognizing, under the shambles of his body,
A brother who has walked his thousand miles.