After the bath I let the water out and draw another for my son, sitting like a buddha with his book in the living room, his mustard-stained long underwear up to his knees, not even seeing me when I cast my shadow over his lap, saying, Go take a bath, which he does, still reading as he rises. I let the flames in the fireplace go out and, resisting sleep, read of a mother in The Tuscaloosa News who watched her daughter slip through ice, not even screaming, then tried to die by swallowing lye days later, blamed for letting her get away. When I look up my wife is telling me to sleep. It’s then I realize my son is not in bed, he’s gone unless he lingers in the bathroom with the light still on glowing below the door I open to a thick mist. . . . I see him sleeping, his mouth just out of the water. His eye- lids twitch and his chest rises, falls, so I know he is only dozing, the bar of Ivory hovering beside him. For a second I bend over the edge of the tub and touch him once, on the forehead, but he is much too deep to feel my finger. How thin and unbelievably pale he seems, his legs sprawled and his genitals scarcely there, hairless and flaccid and vaguely swaying in the bath, lukewarm now, his palms spread out on the perfect surface. I wait for him to stir, staring at his face, and say to myself, softly, that I may or may not go on standing here until his eyes are opened and he knows . . . knows what? That not only Dante lost his way in a chorus of human screams and had to be redeemed. That I knew a man who never looked lovingly at his wife more than twice, chasing her with a butcher knife and holding her down and saying, “The only person meaner than me is the devil.” That this world we live in, however briefly, for better or worse, is where the loving mother comes to grief below what Shakespeare called deaf heaven and dies before the heart can comprehend the loss hating the God that made her. All this, for instance, until he lifts his dripping arms and whimperingly pleads for me, holding out his hand. Then, perhaps, I will take him in a towel and turn him around, drying his hair, and send him off to bed without a kiss. Till then, I say Take heart, even in so strange a place as this. I keep my vigil and refuse to move.
Coming Home Late And Alone
That was the summer my father had cancer and demanded to be left alone when he slept and my mother strung a cord from solitude to solitude, scolding us for making the slightest noise, bursting into tears when we sassed her. Crossing the kitchen floor and opening the refrigerator brimming with shimmering light I dared my mother to reproach me. “Is that you?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “It is me.” “It’s midnight, Dennis. You need to go to bed.” And so I slipped off my shoes and tiptoed past my father’s room and stopped as I saw him bent over reeds to his clarinet, all neatly aligned on his bedspread. I wanted to remember even the glow around him, the delicacy with which he fitted the finest reed into his mouthpiece. Entering my room without turning on my light, so that through my window I could see the lovely cup of the moon going down over Duncan’s grove, I sat on my bed and saw my father over a year ago, lifting his clarinet above the heads of the orchestra, holding the final note of the solo until the trombone took over and my father acknowledged the audience with a nod.
My father came home drunk and was dazed by my mother’s rage in the driveway, driven back into shadows by her hand while all the neighbors slowly turned to their mowers in the dusk and their garages shedding light on the lawns still spinning with sprinklers. I had never seen him so quiet before, holding carnations in his fist as she answered her own questions and called him inconsiderate for coming home so late, forgetting their dinner date and dance at the VFW. And when I thought she had finally stopped, striding toward the door, I saw her make the mistake of praying, arms uplifted to a starless night, that she be delivered from a sonofabitch. He turned, no longer apologetic, flinging the bouquet straight in the air. They did not live together after that for nearly a day, deliberately alone in the farthest corner of the house, my sisters and I conspiring to bring them together. That night, alone in my own room, half asleep, the full moon looming in my window, I felt the hallway light on my face when my father opened the door and opened my eyes, seeing him strip to his underwear and get in bed, saying Give me some of the covers. I could have begged him to go away and let me sleep, needling him until he mumbled for me to shut up but I stuck it out. When I woke his side of the bed was empty, the blanket whipped back, for he had gotten up in the dawn. I lay there in the light, awhile serene, then sat beside him on the davenport while he moped, not looking at my mother singing vindictively at the sink with suds up to her elbow. Taking my mother’s damp hand and leading her to the figure just as dazed as when she raved in his face the night before, my sisters on the other side, insistent, forcing her to sit in silence beside him until he gently touched her and they forgave, I realized that I could survive my father sleeping beside me through the night although I only wanted to be left alone, seeing them together once again, my mother ashamed, my father blushing, having no other alternative but to embrace.
These poems are from Dennis Sampson’s deeply-moving Forgiveness, published by Milkweed Editions (P.O. Box 3226, Minneapolis, MN 55403, $10.95 postpaid). Highly recommended.