When the third child in three months
died by dehydration
the mother saw signs
and summoned my camera to her dirt hut
where a chicken strutted guard
near the little corpse.
She laid him out for Easter
in blue satin,
his straw hat in his cold fist,
candles and tortillas
wrapped in last year's news
to light and fortify his soul.
Padre said the Nahuatl
were ignorant of hygiene.
Don't feed superstition
with snapshots of the dead.
But photos were all I had to offer grief
and when the flash lit the dark walls
the mother laughed.
Make the white light come again.
Make it come back.
The print came back
weeks later from a New York lab.
I sent it down believing
she would see her son again
but not his faint halo of flies.
You float up beneath my fingers.
I rub old sun into your hair,
hear bees bother our meal beyond the lens.
In the dust free air it is grass again;
it is years ago not this small night.
Your image whispers itself in silver,
the echo so perfect I leave the room.
CLEANING THE WOOD OUT UNDER THE PORCH
My friend listens to wood say
free me from too many shapes.
He crooks each board to the shoulder
and rifles his eye down, ear cocked.
He says, this edge is true, the grain
tight, an old plank, probably oak. Keep
this. Someday you'll be glad.
I say, take it. I don't know how
to turn anything into anything. To me
it's a home for bent nails.
Just wood with hard rain coming.
Most of it is junk already: the roof
of a dog's house, the end of cabinets.
We shove it back under to burn
next winter and shove back a few good
boards my friend respects too much to take.
Carpentry must have come easy
to Jesus with his many fathers
and mysterious ways. The rest of us work
for slow miracles: grapes that bloom
in the cask; one fish at a time;
the fetus beneath the sea.
How easily my friend's faith shapes
me: the good wood rooting beneath
the porch splinter by splinter.
When cities swell
with business, cramping
motion, men flow
through stone, pulsed
blood beneath skin.
The river parts
and we rattle the Times
in our fast seats, invisible
as a stranger's dream,
nodding on the aisle.
We lean toward each
stop as if with hope
while the train transfuses
itself. What enters
the heart enters between
beats. Above us doors
and faces wait to open
to our rising like flowers
dreaming. Sun blooms
over each stem at the same
deliberate speed. We
travel the winking lights
of the tunnel,
space between darkness.
WHAT HE GAVE UP
I was six when the doctor froze his smoke.
So mother burned cartons of Luckies
like leaves in the alley ash can.
And dad's colors drained--a brown
from deep within his fingers,
the yellow etched in the marrow of his teeth.
I missed the crisp cellophane shards on the sofa
and the earthy autumn smell
rising from the cushions in the lumpy green chair.
I missed the peace smoke seeped into his lungs,
how his chest filled at leisure
as the light dropped down the cozy blinds
in the little room
slat by slat.
For months we wondered at his temper,
how he inhaled candy bags
until his face, reddened by loss
of his cloudy angel
nearly burst into fire.
We forget the sacrifice a father turns to habit,
a kind of faith:
hiding ashtrays or wiping walls of nicotine.
Thirty years later when the cancer etched his bones
he offered up his testicles,
buying time with living coin.
No doctor knew what magic part to cut out next,
and when he finally went
I'll bet it was his lungs that held
the final pink inside him.
Isn't it a measured paring down we do
to save a hazy corner of the future:
from our fattest appetite to the final
belt-hole in the leather--a cutting back
to smaller rooms, fewer steps, a slimmer
piece of fish, until there's little left
to choose between--us and just the air,
just the smoke we're bound for.
Gary Stein's poems have appeared in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Antietam Review, Folio, Gargoyle, and other journals and anthologies. One of his poems, "Remembering the Rabbits," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, currently serves as Book Review Editor for Poet Lore, and co-edited a poetry anthology, Cabin Fever (The Word Works, 2004).
Published in Volume 5, Number 3, Summer 2004.