forrest gander

[poetry month] "Son" by Forrest Gander


It’s not the mirror that is draped, but
what remains unspoken between us. Why

say anything about death, inevitability, how
the body comes to deploy the myriad worm

as if it were a manageable concept not
searing exquisite singularity. To serve it up like

a eulogy or a tale of my or your own
suffering. Some kind of self-abasement.

And so we continue waking to a decapitated sun and trees
continue to irk me. The heart of charity

bears its own set of genomes. You lug a bacterial swarm
in the crook of your knee, and through my guts

writhe helminth parasites. Who was ever only themselves?
At Leptis Magna, when your mother & I were young, we came across

statues of gods with their faces and feet cracked off by vandals. But
for the row of guardian Medusa heads. No one so brave to deface those.

When she spoke, when your mother spoke, even the leashed
greyhound stood transfixed. I stood transfixed.

I gave my life to strangers; I kept it from the ones I love.
Her one arterial child. It is just in you her blood runs.

— Forrest Gander, from Be With, New Directions, 2018.

be with.jpg

mostly I am thinking about your body, like a river burning underground

This morning, words do not come easily. I watch the time pass, anticipate the morning light. I will not leave this chair, I think, until I am done.

What I am thinking about this morning:

These lines from a Forrest Gander poem (“Prelude” from the book Deeds of Utmost Kindness):

Mostly I am thinking about your body
Which has run through my fingers
Like a river burning underground

Like a river burning underground
For which there is no hour no language
No ease from its molten glow, no music whatsoever

And also: I am thinking of the Roman Catholic mass. The Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy of the Eucharist: This is my body: Take and eat. Do this in memory of me.

Of my family in their beds, sleeping.

I am thinking about Timothea’s monologue from the play Sea Marks by Gardner McKay. After she and Colm spend the night together. When he is asleep, she tells him about her first time. About the boy who grabbed her in the barn. They had delivered a calf together – a difficult birthing. They thought the cow would die. They were so tired. She tells him:

I let the boy have me then. It was up in the hay loft – you might have expected that – and he seized me. You’re the boy. That boy was you. And all the time we were doing it up there, there was blood on us from the cow. Blood on his arms he was pinning me down with. Then there was my blood. Too. I just wanted to tell you that.

I am thinking about the stories we want to tell people about ourselves. That I want to tell. The things that we decide cannot be told.

In New York, people are marching in the streets, enraged. We have lived with this rage for so long. I watch from this distance – angry, but immobile. There are few places to turn for comfort.

The stream of news is relentless – New York. Saudi Arabia. North Korea. Egypt. Pakistan.

I wonder how the whole world is not on fire.

Like a river burning underground
For which there is no hour no language
No ease from its molten glow, no music whatsoever

Yesterday, more sad news. How is it that we go on, in the face of so much sadness? I am tired. I sleep poorly. Words fail me, every day.

Last night, I am sitting in my car at the train station, in the dark, waiting for Z. to arrive. I call my aunt, A., on the phone. I hear weariness in her voice, too. I ask her if we can come down to visit this weekend. “Oh, your big birthday weekend,” she says. “Your almost-birthday weekend.”

We talk a bit about my work. About the kids. About M. and his family. There is so much to say that it is overwhelming, so instead we speak in family shorthand: “I guess that’s just the way it goes.” “We’ll see what happens.” And, “Other than that, we are all fine.”

This year, she is 72. I think about M’s parents and their health; his mother near in age to my aunt. I think about the years ahead, how we will accommodate what is to come.

I hear the train announce its arrival, its low mournful whistle.

“Do you remember that priest, Father D.?” she asks, although I rarely remember them. “He died,” she says. “Suddenly,” she adds. He had a heart attack on the altar. It was terrible,” she says. “I wasn’t there when it happened, but my neighbor was there. She told me.”

“The man was standing there, giving communion, and he collapsed. He wasn’t very old at all.“

I bring dessert home, even though it is late. M. and I sit at the kitchen table, talk about the week ahead. A small quiet pleasure in a difficult day. He is wearing a blue t-shirt. His hair is disheveled. For just a moment, in his face, I can see the boy he was. At the age, perhaps that our son is now. The upturn of his lips. The soft roundness of his cheek. The way he tilts his head as he brings the fork to his mouth.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks.

Mostly I am thinking about your body
Which has run through my fingers
Like a river burning underground

It has been many years since I have been to mass. There was a time – brief, to be sure – that I thought perhaps I might live a life of greater faith. Might embrace this faith more fully, live in it as a way to manage the unknowable.

For many years, I loved the mass. The smell of incense. The swelling organ music. Being read to from ancient texts. The strange power of intoning prayers together with others, aloud. Of kneeling down, head in hands, to one’s own private thoughts.

Like a river burning underground
For which there is no hour no language
No ease from its molten glow, no music whatsoever

After taking the communion wafer on the tongue, letting it melt there, papery and tasteless, I would kneel in the pew for a long time. I’d think of it as a contest sometimes, looking down the row in each direction, watching as one by one, each person rose up, sitting back on the bench, arranging themselves, holding their folded hands in their laps. And even after the last of the faithful was seated comfortably, still I would be there, head bowed, on my knees – the most penitent, most faithful, most holy – of them all.