Old poems: a twinge of embarrassment, some nostalgia.
In the weeks before The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems comes out, I thought I’d wander backward, choose one poem from each book included there to look at again. The first, Fishing With Blood (Purdue U. Press, 1988), to my immense surprise, won the Great Lakes New Writers Award, which got me a tour of Great Lakes schools giving readings. (Who knew I’d end up living in Michigan.)
Here’s the poem. Then I’ll say something about it. Above photo was taken probably before we realized the full extent of my brother’s brain damage:
To Mark, My Retarded Brother, Who Lived 20 Years and Learned to Speak 300 Words
Nobody has any business but me, to tell how
you came home, a white ball up pitted concrete steps,
home to our grandmother’s swirled carpet.
Knitted bundle, you wailed clues of that soft
rotten, that misconnection, that sever, that spasm
that broke your mother’s heart into blank starts.
You drug your feet, child.
Across the wood floor your twirling walker,
the rattling dance lurched down
fourteen steps: you were never lucky.
Your spilled blood flowed like menses, expected
rupture, bombardment of corners, ridges, juts.
The record player sat on the chest by the window:
blood, spit, and dirt where you plied
that delicate spinning with your scratched hands.
“Getting to know you,” know you, you and
Deborah Kerr on the vowels, one long happy drool.
Hollyhock ladies on the sill, I lined up for you.
With a towel, I held that white head
that smashed into the blank floor
and everything, I think, I could ever know.
You grew to be a crane, your head
bobbling on the tops of your friends
who took you to play with perfect aplomb.
Little citizens already, in the grass,
they calculated games you could not wreck.
I was the one who ran barefoot, terror light
to grab you loping onto Garland Street,
laughing. I could have bashed in your head,
unsubtle brother, smiling outline.
Angel face, pushing to break with rudiments,
the best word for you is unused.
So your ankles drew up solemnly,
wrists in. The spasm locked. When I came to you
in your sterile steel circus, the last clowns
had gone home. Malicious beard raked your face.
On your head, practical blonde hair razed
at short attention.
You seemed so heavy you would never float away.
Then you sank into your coffin in flannel pajamas,
the warmest bed you ever felt.
The poem still feels authentic to me, and I’m not ashamed of it. If I were re-writing it, I’d dig deeper, probably. It would be more complex and probably less accessible, so maybe it’s just as well I leave it alone. I did feel that something about my brother was somehow mine alone, that I was the one who could tell about him. That I was the one who would “keep” him in this small way. I’ve written an essay about my life with him, “Anatomy of a Seizure,” in Driving With Dvorak. I don’t write about him often. I said pretty much all I wanted to say in this poem and that essay. The anxiety and tension of that childhood is with me always, but somehow I haven’t wanted to say much more. I packed the poem and the essay as tightly as I could. Maybe someday I’ll want to get underneath this material. Maybe not.