Self-Portrait in Aimwell, Alabama
Some words can kill: our mother’s insistence—
so aim well. A regular bluff: nightly, we find her
with the untouched rifle sleeping like a baby
at her breast. Gently, it snores and trembles
with breath, remembering my father’s fingers
on its neck. A lifetime ago, she folded herself
like a paper napkin into his grip.
In our house now,
a constant echo: quiet crumpling from our throats.
In your hands, Daddy, our origami hearts pleat
infinitely. Faithful to our mother’s advice, we hide
words like bullets under our tongues, repeating
only the one that must have lodged in her spine
before we were born—love, our aim
ever fixed on our father’s eyes.
It was the year of miracles
piling up inside you, tiny
and black as chokeberries.
One: your parakeet, deceased
but still wriggling in his shoebox
in the garage, feathers threaded
with white, nervous with worms.
Two: your cousin’s arm,
making its home in the dirt
somewhere across the world
as he dozed in your twin bed,
lopsided with bandaging,
the fan breathing a dance
into his one empty sleeve.
Three: your mother’s eyeball
in the casket, peeking white
from beneath her stone
eyelid, unglued—a wink. How
easily it could have been
a prank to you then. How easily
she could have risen, beaming
as you all bawled her name
in vain. And finally: the little egg
of rage you sat in, a yolk
the summer would incubate
until the day you were born from it
under a canopy of hands
as the pastor wept and pulled
the devil from your belly like a fish
caught in the grip of his tongue’s
Hallelujah. Hallelujah, they said.
Hands slicked in roof-gutter glitter—
burnt cigarette stubs and pop tabs mixed
with muck of birds and extant flora, the sky’s
unsentimental jetsam—I gave up.
That’s not what I was looking for, you said
when I climbed down into divorce,
your hands slowly slipping
from the ladder below.
Whose is the saddest
sadness, we ask for hours—mine
or ours? The ghosts on TV move their hands
through us again and again. We drowse
into them, their far-away urgency
like names from grade school we can’t recall.
The knotted strings gather on our fingers;
we’ll never remember to change.
Night’s horizon lets itself out like a waist,
in little grudges, and we don’t take each other
to the roof to drink or smoke or eat.
What did we think would happen
to all the things that fell from our hands
We gray into a next day. Untouched,
the lost ring dozes in its sluiced cradle
of maple veins and cigarette paper.
The Miami River Floods: Dayton, Ohio
for my father
Over the barkeep, the TV floats like a satellite, spinning
the flood as one of our many ends. Downtown, the Miami River
lifts from a buckled bed to lie in the rust-pocked arms
of its city. We consider the myths to be made from coincidence:
how many babies will be born tonight in heroic backseat
deliveries as cars float down the freeway? They will carry
those stories all their lives, I think, like everyone else—
not from memory, but narrative inheritance. How dutifully
we gulp down circumstance as fate. My mother
once claimed you came to her as a body to flight—in fits
of fear before you learned to hold your weight upright,
to steady your chest while death’s quick breaths pumped through
your throat in shots of rum—the constant threat of life
upending. The sewers’ song flows into the bar. I can hear
the river rising, I say, mistaking the sound of water
for a vessel it runs from. Marriage was my downfall, you insist,
and I don’t tell you how my mother dowsed for joy
beneath the pyre of her life after you, never divining
how many ways a world could end. In poem
after poem, I have let floods and cyclones carry you away.
The truth is you left on two feet, a simple decision.
Your own father escaped this place in a hailstorm, driving
his Ford off the road, believing heaven to be falling.
And what of the disaster at hand? Thales thought water birthed
the universe, you say, amateur philosopher of crises—
and so our bodies are mostly water, twin to their origin.
I can’t help but believe you are stamped inside me,
and I’m afraid of my home—its mirrors, its dependence. We leave
the bar to walk, but find the fractured face of the sky
in the brimming street—an optical trick I can’t quite believe,
though flotsam circles and dives just like birds,
acting out the lie. It is a weak excuse for flight—
this family mythology. I submerge my feet,
unwilling to wait for the water to recede.