A Crown of Broken Sonnets for My Father's Forehead*
When your father's ghost wants to
your infant son, one last time, to bear him
in insubstantial arms, you may acquiesce
and lend the span and feeling of your limbs
to his aery self, consent as his essence
flows into your flesh, or is it a dream
you dream in his chair, the baby coeval
with your father's sadness? He won't wish
to let him go, will begin to home with
ghostly fingers at a spot above your heart.
He'll try to draw you out of your own
fatherly life, like a string on a spool,
a nucleic thread being wound back, all
the way back to the loom of the fathers.
On the loom of the fathers, the sharp
of ink made me love the words: my father—
Arthur, Author, on his linotype—all
I knew then, the plaid dresses my mother
sewed, the toy pistols, the paired dolls,
always dark for me, blond for my sister,
the new black and white saddle shoes, the small
charred patties of hamburger, began
in that pungency. As I watched, line
after line poured from the crucible
of the machine, molten as the Milky Way.
But when my father rolled up his sleeves,
I saw the cost, burnt in his skin, a galaxy
of wounds that never formed into words.
Word—that avalanche season at
that the ski troops would soon be sent to war—
made my father immerse his feet in a pail
of dry ice. He spent the rest of the war
fighting for his legs. . . the rest of his life,
at the nail of his one remaining toe,
pruning scar tissue away. As the socket
filled with blood, not tears, I didn't know
if, night after night, he used the pocket
knife to feel again his extremities
or if he was just practicing numbness.
No one was invited into that house:
my father lies there, wearing new shoes,
a coffin, unworried, resplendent.
Resplendent with this week's lesson,
the self drowning in the lukewarm water
splashed on a baby's forehead, the Father
wonders at Christ's struggle, that figure
on the western wall, as if those hands were
mere illustration of an idea nailed.
He means the final harrowing, the fear
of coming to an end, not the passion
to become, not the fury of the newborn
crying himself awake, his limbs flailing
as he spits up the curds of the undigested
milk and honey. Birth? Death? What is
the difference? The baby is fighting his
way into the body; we agonize the way out.
Out of world and words, the chant
of the monks
seems wordless, one syllable of endless
thread. Since his birth, my son's heard those voices,
male, emerging, low-pitched from their bowels
and from the earth, the way his father sings
along, knitting him to sleep, the sound of bees
humming in a lion's skull, making a sweetness
out of death. That sound is the vein that weaves
within the womb or unknits a dying ear.
It takes forty-nine days to be reborn,
death's unraveling as embryonic
as the process of birth. And as we pray,
our only accompaniment, our only
instruments are made of human bone.
Bone clicking beneath the skin, we
a moment when our skulls met in a soft
rap, warm, unwrinkled. When my father taught
me, as a baby, to butt heads, our foreheads
tapped together, our eyes sprang open or shut.
One day as he slept on the couch, I ambushed
him, sent crashing all my toddling weight
into his dreaming head. Infuriated,
he never again played, though we kept
cracking heads for years in other, coldly
determined, ways. Now that his forehead's
a chilled dome, I learn the lesson he meant
to teach, tapping our skulls together gently,
kid goats playing in the kingdom of death.
Not in the kingdom of death, in
of my childhood, a male seahorse floated
like debris. Solo, thickening, in a tear
of Morton salt and tap water, he snorkeled
up pink clouds of shrimp, and gave birth to four
children, each a tiny Pegasus, whirring
through a bare and gelid world. Who was I
to fathom such a creature, concoct a sea
within a jar? When I lifted the glass,
the tide of my touch sent him crashing. He
could only drift in the directionless ache,
as his young vanished, one by one, his pouch
filling with nothing but the current itself.
The current itself, his whistling
my mother in the park, an ancient ballad
bearing her away, a melody that called
me into being. Nine months later, propelled
into the light, I nursed to that warbled
sole mio of lip and tongue. But later
in the airless years, our mother would hush
us before he came home. His lungs wheezing
like a broken accordion, he would refuse
to waste his breath on beauty. No wonder
I was surprised this morning, bird song
in the blue ash, wet with wonderful rain,
to hear— so many days dead— my father again—
O Dad, O Arthur—whistling, strolling away.
Away, the baby seems to slip away,
as I ease him into the bath, his limbs
rising to the surface drift uselessly,
until he seems to remember the dim
paddling, his legs all frog. Just days
out, what does he remember of the womb?
His limbs drum the waters, as if some joy
knit his fetal dark and he could swim home
in what drowns, still breathe the holy
waters. As he's lapped by these lukewarm
waves, something like ecstasy shines in his eyes.
When bald with age, he lets go of this world,
will it be like this moment— floating free,
buoyed by a memory of deeper depths?
*The Music We Dance (Sheep Meadow Press, 1993).
Copyright © 2004 REbecca Seiferle.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
"Let us go then, you and I"