Sweet William


    My father laid-out flat on the mortician’s slab
    Looks purple and peaceless. He’s buried
    To the chin in starchy sheets. A small frown
    Is stitched into the middle of his brow,
    And his eyeballs are contoured roundly on each
    Eyelid. The floor crunches under our restless feet,
    As if the ground is eating, as if it’s chomping
    Bones. A thin window high above gives to tons
    Of cracked concrete. And there, in a fertile plot,
    A crowd of flowers that have vermillion flecks
    Stand on slender stalks, with broken necks.

    Viewing him later in his cherry coffin,
    Whorled with involuted knots and bird-eye dots,
    His moon-colored hair hangs frozen and waved.
    Two vertical grooves bracket the parted lips.
    He’s gaunt and shrunken, a shrunken man, waxy
    Now and fully fleshed. He’s beyond empty,
    I think: the case of a huge spirit gone cold.
    “It doesn’t look like him,” the widow says, transfixed.
    I agree: the rouged-up cheeks, the claret-stained lips,
    The evangelist’s hair, and a piece of tongue,
    Just glimpsed, the spongy texture of raw lung.

    So much changed from the year before
    In the lilac-scented spring following
    That brutal winter, when everything was crystal
    Gardens and suddenly lifeless upon the ground:
    A bloody climax to a bloody life,
    The eldest son dead — dead by his own hand —
    After which my father crawled to his bed
    And like a fallen tree lay himself down
    And waited to be dead. He said he carried
    A sadness too terrible to bear or beat.
    The planet wobbled beneath my feet.

    Flowers and incense. He moves to my mind now
    In context of these. A masculine man,
    So vital and lithe, that is how I remember
    Him. I remember my father in his
    Faded jean-jacket, with his military
    Posture that the famous General
    Once complimented him on. My father
    Kissing my mother. My lean-hipped father standing
    Alone beside the sea, watercolor-green eyes—
    Hunter’s eyes—thin as saber slashes;
    Big knuckles, bony wrists, hair the hue of ashes.

    But overnight his face went slack, the flesh
    About the bones, a padding, melting
    Like candle wax. Both temples grew indrawn, clustered
    With greenish veins. He breathed for a while through
    A snaky tube — fat, ecru, quickly rejected —
    His eyes wilting like grapes inside his massive gourd.
    The eczema-encrusted hands moved lobster-like
    Upon the sheets. A gothic silence locked him up
    As if he watched weird images flickering
    Across the bone concavity of his skull,
    Something horrible with, by turns, something dull.

    Late that summer, in the denouement of
    The August storms, we watched his Sweet William,
    Planted the spring before, rock back and forth beneath
    His windowpane. They stood on slenderness,
    All fresh and fair, like the summer, like him, beautiful
    And dying. They were his favorite flowers,
    I believe, those fume-packed lovelies quilled deeply
    With red. The blankets, meanwhile, stirred not
    At all with the rise and fall of his tiny breath.
    Each night the rain came down in a garish flood.
    The Sweet William looked spoked with blood.

    It was in this watery gloom beyond his room
    sunk so far from light that he faded away.
    Rain that night came slow at first, with a sound like
    The whisper of wind in the grass. Street lamps hung
    Like lunar globes caught in suspended flight.
    Softly you slept, softly you died. I thought for some
    Reason then how much you hated your name — Firman —
    How authoring your first child you said:
    “Name him William, call him Bill.” Simplify, of course.
    Of course. Your sharp mind knew no other way.
    I hope you found closure, that grainy day.


    Black-eyed Bill, William Harvey, RIP, Bill
    With his storied IQ. About him I recall
    Everything: his long wild hair, his tumbling
    Gait, the calm about the eyes — something strange there,
    None of us ever knew for sure what — a smile
    So soft, so rare; wormy veins, azure and long;
    Thin wrists, strong; how he used to eat his eggs blackened
    With pepper and spice; calloused fingers; smart at math,
    A fierce impatient brain that never forgot;
    All-pupil eyes that rolled like eightballs
    Inside his stormy skull. This and more I recall.

    Often I’d watch him — did he know? — standing
    At his window, cooling his forehead against the glass
    And staring down at the breakneck rocks below.
    This was right after he’d dropped out of high school
    And was working in the mines. Knifey light slanted
    Down outside onto the endless fields of snow.
    Bill in his undershirt and black slacks, flat-stomached
    And lean. Often he’d be reading some German
    Philosopher or the Gospel of John, which he,
    An atheist, always thought profound.
    He loved chapter seven with its Gnostic sound.

    I like to remember this now,
    Bill reading philosophy in his room.
    I like to remember how he’d pause
    Mid-sentence and stare up at the ceiling
    With a frown — as if trying to recall
    Something similar he’d once read — and of course
    That frown, that frown. You thought so much, brother,
    It was as if your brain would explode.
    What were you always thinking about?
    I wondered then. I wonder now. Did you,
    As it seemed, really know things nobody else knew?

    There was all this, yes, and other things as well:
    All the nights as a child I woke and went
    To you (eschatological terror was my cross
    To bear) — over icy kitchen floors where the big square
    Appliances loomed ominous, mute, and into
    The predawn dark so pure and absolute that for
    A moment the entire universe seemed struck
    Dumb. Belted vaults above, glowing fields below,
    Star-heavy skies, infundibular and vast, which
    You watched as if secrets prowled out there,
    Though nothing stirred but meteors slipping everywhere.

    Always I found you, cross-legged on your leprous
    Couch. A strange vigil you kept there in the arrant
    Dark, smoking Camel straights and sipping your
    Sour German beer. Brother, you never seemed
    To sleep. It was as if it didn’t apply. Your
    Long hair hung lank about your face — laced
    Already with skeins of gray — the foam of your beer
    Flashing like soap suds in the night, your cigarette
    A hot-pink eye where your mouth would be,
    Your shins chalk-white, like limbs seen in sylvan dream.
    The stars outside pulsed with a synecdochic gleam.

    Never once unkind to me burrowing into
    Your pit (while one of your hands still judiciously
    Smoked), though you spoke not at all. Your caved face
    Simply emerged and faded with each pull from the end:
    Like a jack-o-lantern in the room. Sometimes
    I still smell your tobacco, mixed with the flannel
    Of your shirt, oil and musk, and the odor
    Of the mine where you worked (and worked); gas from
    The mongrel bike you built and loved. I still sometimes
    See your wet cow eyes shining like jewels in the hall.
    But your warmth – this more than all I chiefly recall.

    Not long ago, in the innocuous bar,
    An acquaintance of yours said you played Russian
    Roulette every night. “One game before bed,”
    He said, tilting his glass in the mahogany light.
    “Didn’t you know? Also, he never smoked Camel
    Unfiltereds without lighting up the label end first.
    That way, he said, when you’re robbing banks they won’t know
    What brand you smoke. Born to lose, that guy. A smart
    Motherfucker, though. Cool as shit.” Above us
    A painted lady with a dimpled rear
    Stretches lewdly. I stare into my amber beer.

    So was it that? And why? That’s what we all wished
    To know. You were in your prime then, thirty-four,
    So serious and sedate. You’d grown very thin —
    Everyone spoke of this, and of how hard you worked.
    It was a Rocky Mountain winter night,
    The air outside standing cold and brittle
    As the little claws of ice which now, as I write,
    Crawl up my windowpane, and you shot yourself
    In the back of the throat, one bullet
    In your gun. Outside, the gorgeous snowflakes hurled
    Down: hushing, hushing the entire world.


    Now outdoors, same day after the funeral train,
    Under a broken sky, spates of rain,
    After staring into the clean-sliced pit
    Which at last has my father in it,
    Why am I not at all surprised to find
    The one image in my mind: his lined
    Brow, the questioning glare now stitched forever there.
    I’m in the same garden plot I watched him stare
    Across for days after Bill’s death, from his desk
    Scanning this scene that’s so picturesque.
    The desk is still there, still split with its fibrous gash.
    His worn books whereon his half-moon glasses flash.
    Through this door I once heard him say: “Lumbering Bill”
    (His voice gone soft and unbelievably real)
    “Is gone.” Now so are you. But I? I am not dead.
    Around me Sweet William are disgorging red.