Sweet William

I

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,
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.
My father crawled to his bed then
And like a fallen tree lay himself down
And waited to die. 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.
And 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
That was 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.

II

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.
And 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.
The nights as a child that 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; only 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 suds in the night, your cigarette
A hot-pink eye where your mouth would be,
Shins chalk-white, like a sylvan dream.
And 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, faded with each pull from your smoke:
A jack-o-lantern in the room. Sometimes, frankly,
I still smell that 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, indeed one bullet
In your gun … Outside, the gorgeous snowflakes hurled
Down, hushing, hushing the entire world.

III

Now outdoors, same day after the funeral train,
Under a broken sky, spates of rain,
And 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 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, split with its fibrous gash;
His worn books whereon his half-moon glasses flash.
Through the door, I once heard him say: “Lumbering Bill”
(His voice soft and unbelievably real)
“Is gone.” Now so are you. But I? I am not dead.
Around me, Sweet William are disgorging red.

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