John Clarke




Straining to be retold precisely
in each other's words and eyes.
The ache for a past tale
is caked on our temples.

He once the slim, the dark young father.
I then the light round boy.
But now it is:
"I thought I had a son once"
"And so you do now,
whose father is stone-blind to him"

Mistellings press each other out
to an edge of the womb scream parlored back
beyond the shouts that chalk the summer night.
Each second's space of desperate rejoinder---
as we grope and twinge to touch at love---
only chokes anew at the years' bruised gaping.

My blood, his blood, ticks off the seed's time,
the slipping tide that strands bad fruit.
We age and bear it badly.
Ripening to love early
rots too soon.


Years later, through my slim youth's stage
and round again, I rode up to your funeral,
knowing grief as my body now. Too ill
to get to your deathside in time, now
I saw you laid out Irish (Spanish? Hebrew?)
at the wake. Then walked to the altar,
and stood and read or rasped aloud at Mass
the allotted verses– all flesh is grass–while all
along I argued to myself "But what grass!" -
splendid wrinkled radiance,
watered on earth and air to fire.

We'd always told each other, somehow,
I hoped, the love was there, amid all bitters.
Still, there'd been no time to tell now–
just an ache, and maybe the gift of that
old rhythm&blues "Daddy's Home" . . .
"Daddy's home to stay. . . ."
turning up on the car radio on the way up,
while Donna drove and not yet five Sean
consoled from the back seat as I sat numb.

Even more years later, driving up alone for a quick
family reunion after more deaths in between,
– hear it come again!–that old r&b tune,
somewhere along the road Ñ confirming
all I'll ever know or need outside of dreams,
– no love is ever always lost–
find it early, late it stays . . .


"Yes, individual creatures die, but that doesn't end the story of the world. The whole earth, all the stars, all the planets, all the comets represent within them one divine history, one source of life, one endless and wondrous story that only God knows in its entirety. . . .

"Lovely and pleasant in their lives
And in their Death
They were not divided"
--I.B. Singer

A friend suggests it
and suddenly
your teenage son
is five again
and leading you

by the hand down
into not Calvary
this time but St.
John's Cemetery in Queens
and even though they're

running out of spaces and
have to leave many above
ground now while waiting
for more holes to be dug
you both enter the ground

descending through a clean
mud tunnel flecked with grass
into the unmarked grave where
Mom and Dad are said to rest.
The boy's already comforted

you once by referring you
to passages at the end
of I.B. Singer's tale
of Nafthali the Storyteller
and His Horse, Sus,

with their lovely epitaph,
when he was really five.
Now he leads you bravely
up to the bones and all the rest
and you hear your mother's voice,

with your father humming in the background,
say "We're not here now,
you'll find us elsewhere."
And then you wake up.
A young girl stands by your side.


And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love
--William Blake

Time that warps
us out of shape
wefts us too into

a texture of communion
whose pattern we
barely see or suspect

--- gazing as we do,
pre-toddling, belly-whomping
rug-rats amid the pile

of carpet's splendor,
the very gardens,
waterfalls, within.

If we crawl as children
--- let it be our joy.
Discover in our cracked

plastic hamster's sphere
invisible silent ever prayer.
Hold us each by each.


Holding a hand
that held you
before it slips
into the dark -
that was all you could do
for each other -
it must be enough.


John Clarke is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. He works as a legislative analyst in the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, and lives in Montgomery County, Maryland. For the past several years, he's led a noontime poem-story-meditation group for LC employees and others, and maintains an e-mail list for poetry and other quotes and event notices. He's interested in connecting poetry, healing, learning, and community peace and justice work.

Published in Volume 1, Number 4, Fall 2000.


To read more by this author:
John Clarke: The Whitman Issue