KAREN

You sat with your chin on your fists
In front of the blue-and-white garage,
Your thin brown eyebrows tensed.
O’Bie asked what’re you doing?
To which the daughter with contracted brow:
“I’m thinking.”
What did you think about in seven years?
Your cowgirl suit, your bicycle, your room?
What else? You must have thought of me,
Your oldest brother paralyzed with polio,
And Ken, the middle child, bullying,
Exasperated by your girlishness.
Was life a better thing for being brief?
A document survives — a first-grade photograph
Showing a serious face and straight brown hair.
Helen said you pouted, but
Was there anything to laugh about?
Smile about?
You had some reason to be serious
With anger from Ken and nothing from me.
Your only playful sibling was your father,
Our father, who’s not in Heaven,
Who howled like a wolf when he learned of your death,
The most frightening sound I ever heard.
Death was waiting for me, I thought;
Imagine my surprise when death took you,
You, instead of me.
Imagine me imagining you,
You who lie in an unmarked Stoughton grave
In the cemetery on Washington Avenue,
Across the street from Cal’s ice-cream parlor,
Where you never spent a teenager’s afternoon;
It’s not too far from Whitney Avenue,
The blue-and-white garage.
Miles and years from where I am today,
Yet close enough to be my sister still,
The sister who has preceded me in death
As I preceded her in life.
I think of you as an older sister now,
Beyond my reach, as gone as childhood,
Acquainted with the ultimate, as I am not.
Pray for me, Karen,
Now and at the hour of my death.

 

BREATHING

Grasping for straws is easier;
You can see the straws.
“This most excellent canopy, the air, look you,”
Presses down upon me
At fifteen pounds per square inch,
A dense, heavy, blue-glowing ocean,
Supporting the weight of condors
That swim its churning currents.
All I get is a thin stream of it,
A finger’s width of the rope that ties me to life
As I labor like a stevedore to keep the connection.
Water wouldn’t be so circumspect;
Water would crash in like a drunken sailor,
But air is prissy and genteel,
Teasing me with its nearness and pervading immensity.
The vast, circumambient atmosphere
Allows me but ninety cubic centimeters
Of its billions of gallons and miles of sky.
I inhale it anyway,
Knowing that it will hurt
In the weary ends of my crumpled paper-bag lungs.


Striken by polio at the age of six, Mark 0’Brien has spent most of his life in an iron lung. To write , he strikes the keys of his computer with a mouth stick clenched between his teeth.

A collection of his poems called Breathing is available for $4 postpaid from Little Dog Press, 500 West 38th Street, Austin, TX 78705 . The poem “Breathing” previously appeared in St. Andrews Review.

— Ed.