Passenger Seat
Outside a hundred visiting Indian scholars sang to you,
mother’s voice surging before the others
like someone in a choir who forgets
and lets her voice lift above the rest;
even the hired help from town
carrying away pots of saltwater and lobster shells
joined in as if they were singing
for the one child of theirs to make good.

As a child I always thought of corporations
as lakes, corporate plants
lying outside cities like state parks.
When mother said you were speaking before one
I thought of you standing at the edge
of one of those narrow beaches that fringe lakes,
in the background the clatter
of waves dropping things, silverware sliding off trays.

Mother made us say outloud the names of businesses
you had saved, names of cities
you were traveling to; this is how we learned geography.
She peeled apples by the fire, Sundays,
her voice rising, “Your father is like God. I do not wish
you boys ever to forget that,” her voice
growing stern, reaching
into the unlit parts of the house.

You would be gone for days,
we used your furniture in place of you,
curling in whatever made a lap for us,
we took turns crawling into your bed,
scratching the finish off, its softened patina wadding
under our nails like sunlight
that had been caking there for years.
I hated silence.

Silence kept you well, kept you well-provided for
like interest from a trust
someone who had loved you long ago had left you,
silence, summer estate
you invested so much in, adding on rooms,
parading naked on its verandas,
silence my brothers and I trespassed on like tourists
asking directions.

I hated you for the shynesses I caused you,
listening to you belt yourself back
into the dark on the other side of the car;
we rode from Boston to Cape Cod,
every night, listening to each other’s hands. Father,
I thought you were waiting for me
to begin, for me to say the words
that would let you love me.

As a child I knew if I were to touch you
I would hurt you more
than could be borne; at thirteen knowing if I were to rest
my hand on your thigh, let it graze
the stubble on your cheek, we would swerve
be flung out of our seats
crashing, the space between us dissolving, its sugars
clouding the cold clear water of the poles.

We would drown, breaking through ice like brothers
trying to save each other,
borne down by each other’s weight
drowning in each other’s arms.

 

Lists
If we listed the right things,
if we calmed ourselves with long lists,
we need not be afraid
of girls in hallways,
of having to stand up and give our names

Lists of songs we could sing
all the way through, lists of earring boxes
of dirt our fathers brought us back
from Guadacanal, our uncles from Honolulu or Haiti
black sand, volcanic ash,
swamp dirt, dark brown soil from the houses
our fathers lived in as children,
a dry white dust from China

Do you see how even this list rescues us?
is spread out,
drawn taut at the corners, sags
in the middle a little
with our weight, covers us
sinking into it

it smells of old blankets

We listed girls we thought pretty,
boys we never dared invite over,
indexed file boxes of books we had read
and the date we had read them,
lists of places our fathers had been

baseball cards, minor league
prospects, trades, all star teams, scores
of games we played against ourselves, each
in front of his garage,
batting orders, defensive lines,
seating plans, guest lists
for parties we never dared have

We would come home from school
and sit by our windows and think hard
about when to place where

adding one, replacing another,
rearranging orders
until the light dimmed and the room was grey and cold
and we had to stop and lift our hands
to see what we had written

lists of sick animals we had nursed in cardboard boxes
from the state store, birds we had seen
and where, lists of knots
we could tie, of games we could beat our fathers at,
color-coded lists of dreams,
soft blue dreams, lavender dreams, deep red dreams,
grey dreams, dreams listed
in black permanent inks

Do you remember the names on your list?
I remember mine,
I remember what order they hit in,
in what order I would have danced with them

 

Physical Education
In the cathedral damp of gymnasiums
space guyed up and girdered
I learned to pray,
watching others sink to their knees on hardwood floors.

I was always slipping to the backs of lines
letting others take my turn,
fastening to the spaces they left.

Tell me how to live with these hands?
runts, puny wingless larva?
weak sisters, this litter
of fingers nudging and nuzziing each other?

I held my eyes shut till they stung
knowing if I opened them
I would forget everything

Watching boys go stiff in a man’s hands
be flipped over
slung back, slammed between rungs
boys twirling till they blur and flicker
like spokes

Boys swinging out at the end of heavy searope
the gymnasium listing
like an old fortress of a ship, a cathedral
swamping with too much ballast, boys clinging to its rigging

Our confessor, catechist
that father to whom all our fathers have offered us up
barely moving his lips
as if we were not worth the words
that would save us — children he was waiting to disinherit,
coaching us, drilling us
till our bodies fell away like temptations

I felt the air hollowed
peeled back from my arms and legs
— the lines teased forward
each boy twisting at the stem
breaking off, another
already healing behind him like the scar of a leaf.

I threw my hands before my face,
trying to field my father’s flies, trying to stiffen
into the recognizable shapes
of my classmates; I tried not to tremble, knowing
if you were to see me trembling,
to guess how much of my life is spent in dread
I would never heal over
into a man, I would never grow to be a man in that dim world
I guessed at as I guessed at God

Hands sweating, waiting my turn
like a boy before confession trying to remember sins
waiting, unable to move
unable to place my hands anywhere
as if I were wearing someone else’s body
I was afraid to touch

As if I had to lift someone else’s body off mine
before I could move.

 

Look, Look

(For E.H. B., d. 1972)

At four I made a pact not to see,
finding my way home blind,
practicing going blind as animals, blue-white
blurring over the irises of old cats,
dogs’ eyes, crusted like shells still hinged together,
I have made myself remember nothing

only this barn,
this ghostship long before Havens’ father shot himself there,
history landlocked
through whose cracked slats in the root cellar
we crawled, whispering each other’s name
in the troughs of darkness

our fingers curling our bodies rigid,
fisting, as if we could tighten our muscles
and make ourselves slighter
crouching after hands we lifted before our faces,
reaching into the haysweet dust,
afraid to run our palms over the sweaty shanks

of beasts more tremendous than any
ever stabled here; stealing among a shadowy livestock
as if their troubled thighs would sway
and sidle each other, crushing us between;
darkness hung over us like huge sides
of raw beef; you made me listen for the sounds of animals

being slaughtered, for the man with the apron
to swell out of dusky blood,
to stumble toward us, lifting his smeared apron over us;
you shrieking, “look, look,”
making me follow you up ladders, up the loose rigging
of your dreams, pulling me up

after you into all those high, forbidden places
you had to go, crowsnests
you yanked me up and into, brushing the cobwebs
from my face; if I ever catch you,
the hired woman scolded, if I hear you have bothered
those poor Havens, father threatened;

after their father’s suicide,
the barn was ours, queer town character whose face
leaned to one side, snow fences sagging
like argyle socks around its ankles, slow child
we threw stones at till everything
we could break was broken

manning the barn, urinating from haylofts,
raising each other up through
trapdoors, story by story, your hands curling mine
around the rungs that held, making me climb
chute ladders straight up, making me lean over landings
and look down

afraid to fall, to show how much I was afraid,
stiffening till I felt the damp spaces
between my body and my clothes;
I do not recall your face at 31, pale, chafed
by your refusal to cry, your voice,
patient, pitiless

as if it had been husked already of the love
we had felt for you,
I recall a few words, winnowings,
these hard seeds I hold now in my hands
only this barn, you leading me up ladders
to its loft

making me look straight down,
five flights down,
making me watch you swing over the chute,
your nine-year-old arms barely touching both sides,
letting your legs edge over into the emptiness,
your body almost bear you down

hanging there,
crying look, look

 

Namesake
Christopher, my godson, namesake
learn to make shift with names only,
households of gathered names,
buttercombs, coddlers, sifters, the names
of wildflowers, their kitchen sounds:
butter-and-eggs, bedstraw, partridge peas, may apple,
bee balm, milkwort, inkberry, innocence,
names cluttered like kitchens
that are always warm and steamy from being used,
the black under kitchen porcelain,
taste of apple and brown sugar on the sides
of wooden spoons, coffee and flour smells
of old cookbooks, smells of dishtowels drying,
stone steps just scrubbed
drying, warmth of gloves taken off radiators
and out on, of stones warmed
and laid under covers. You can live without these
but not without the thought of them,
the fragrances names recall
like old aunts talking about the first time
they smelled lilacs
or after a long journey the ocean long before
they saw it; the imported ales
of early afternoon, the last daylight
watered down like local beer,
homemade blackberry cordials
our fathers let us stay up and sip, whose peel
we could taste on our lips
all the next day. The aromas names add
to colors: saffron, ivory, turquoise,
cochineal, jasper, starflower, mandarin red, mauve,
beryl, burn blue, indigo, tangerine,
amethyst, amber. Even after our families shall vanish
like great ships built poorly
built hurriedly, arcs drifting,
old farmhouses floating away from their farms
we shall remember them
like the names of battleships that sunk in some great war
we forgot who started; the old quarrels
of our families forgotten
as we forget the stories we read as children,
we remember this: names of other children
on the inside covers of old books, the names
of characters our mothers
made up stories about, the names of drinking friends
of our fathers or boys
our mothers had crushes on in high school,
the names our mothers and fathers
used to fight about, names
we still remember like the feel of a grown-up’s pocket,
lint, keys, loose change
we were allowed to count out and keep.