The Poet Spiel: “War Zone” and Other Poems

Good evening. America is fucked. Please enjoy these crazy-ass angry and true poems by my friend Spiel, who has lived through this madness for 80 years as a proud homosexual. Transition goals, baby.

War Zone

“My therapist said,
‘Sometimes I think you believe you live in a war zone.’
And I said,
‘I do. Doesn’t everybody?'”

****

Chain of Blood

This bucket of blood
chained to my neck,
same as the buckets
hung to the necks
of my siblings
passed on by our mother
hung to her neck
just like her sisters.

Passed on from their father
same as his sister,
chains from their mother
dragged and dragged on
from their father’s mother,
her mother’s mother and so on.

Each attempt to move forward
clouds my eyes
so I barely can see.
Friends walk away
in dread of mother’s gift.

Why hate her for what
no one knew
of the poison
of her madness?

As I turned dark,
none questioned my blood,
instead whipped my ass
to straighten me.

****

Witness

In innocence, as you crayoned on the floor,
she emerged from her dark closet to reveal
what she knew were forbidden–her petals of flesh.
She planted a wanton glance with nowhere to settle but upon her firstborn son.
Your bewildered face between her space–for her, a lily in her valley.
Your eyes aghast, replete with games, repeated over time
in a shame you could not name in crayon-speak
and your crayon days were early done.

Now, after all these years, you wonder, which hurts the most?
Perhaps those vital tidbits you can’t recall to reassemble nor recant;
or is it the reverberating odor of the absolute volumes you cannot forget?

****

First son

They said on TV that winning champion cow at State Fair
is like something they’d worked toward all their lives–
like when they give birth to a son.
Someone to plow, someone to milk the cows,
someone to carry on the farm when they are gone.
They likely said similar decades ago when you were born,
the first son, fourth generation on the farm.

But you had no inclination to become a farmer.
You were an artist at heart from your first spanking.
They said it broke their hope of what they expected a son would mean to their tradition.
Yup, they said on TV that winning is like getting a son.

They said this in America, not China, where they threw the baby girls away.

****
carne

after The Corvo Brothers art exhibition at the Sangre de Cristo Art Center

indifference in the eyes of the frilly-frocked child refuses you,
refuses also the flop-eared cotton-stuffed bunny she has already
half disposed into a pot-metal meat grinder she cranks without passion
feeding fresh ground rabbit meat out its gaping end onto the flat stump
of an old oak tree long ago erupted up and through the white slate
tile floor of her reckless playroom.

only the wistful eyes of one of her three captured teddy bears connect
to you as you wish the lack of spaces in its bent wire cage might provide
an out for mr. soft-pink-ear elephant if only he were not so deflated
but he proves to be no inspiration for his innocent bear companions
who already recognize their fate is no doubt recorded in the history
tamped into strings of turgid sausages suspended directly above them
and possibly her motivation for not demolishing the weighty antique
butcher’s drawing of a quartered hog barely dangling from old twine.

then of course the significance of the steel roast pan at her side bearing
an enormous sun-bleached skull with a dark eye-cavern that never ceases
its gaze upon a gleaming slaughterer’s axe driven deep into that stump,
the fine splinters of the skull’s own snout forever aimed at new red meat
squishing from the grinder as a constant reminder just how dead the skull is,
how long ago its own live meat may have flourished on its desiccated bone.

but this aloof peach-ribboned child was not there when the tree threw up.
the floor was not there when this skull’s live nostrils flared at the slightest
hint of life and its thick lips feasted upon moss like the moss that even now
still prospers on the roots of the butchered tree.

and certainly she was not there when those peculiar brothers spelled carne
with wooden christmas blocks across the floor way back
when the white slate was new and the wire cage imprisoned,
a perpetual rotation of yellow-fat-dripping fowl.

and if you dared to ask the child
where does the fresh ground rabbit meat come from
it will be as if you were never there.

Two Poems from Pamela Uschuk’s “Refugee”

Pamela Uschuk’s latest poetry collection, Refugee (Red Hen Press, 2022), is not a subtle book, but we don’t live in subtle times. For me, these poems re-enact the emotional whiplash I experience when scrolling through social media, where uplifting images of nature and family intimacy are suddenly and repeatedly juxtaposed with the crude horrors of politics in the Trump era. Uschuk’s skills are most on display when describing her Southwest environment in striking, precise imagery: “Corona of ice, the invisible moon/ blesses supplicant cacti offering thorns to heaven,” she writes, or “Sun lifts machetes of light over the Rincons slicing through oleanders.”

I did wish for equally creative language in the political references woven through these poems, which too often didn’t rise above images familiar from the news: Trump’s spray tan and small hands, children in cages, etc. I wanted to see these phenomena through new eyes, learn something new about them, but didn’t always get that from the brief allusions in the poems.

The middle of the book pivots around a sequence of gorgeous, poignant poems about illness and healing, including Uschuk’s journey through ovarian cancer, her brother’s death from after-effects of Agent Orange, a beloved dog’s surgery, and a friend’s bereavement. These hopeful elegies, if I may coin that paradoxical phrase, seem perfectly placed in a book about healing the body politic. Refugee makes the case that our whole earth is one organism, fragile and beautiful, still able to be saved if we look at it clearly and tell the truth.

Pam is an American Book Award winner, and the editor of the well-regarded literary journal Cutthroat. She kindly shares two poems from Refugee with us, below.

Shapeshifter

Each day I climb onto fear’s broad shoulders, tape
my fingers to fragile reins, weaving them through
the unpredictable angry mane.

The future is a cracked ice cube
plunked in the imagination’s teeming water glass.
Chemo’s breath stinks, could take my life with no regrets.

Fear is a shapeshifter with bloody teeth
or no teeth at all, just a broken jaw of anxiety.
Holding tight to grief’s violin, its arms bruise.
What ifs are its favorite cuisine.

No one can predict how fear can leap
up from a birthday cake or laugh like a monkey on fire.
Fear is a horse starving for grain.

Fear grinds down the raw ore of the heart,
smelting each nodule of grief, removing
its aggregate shield.

I have to make you sick to make you well,
the oncologist says, five months
we’ll scour each cell of your abdomen clean.

****

Finding a Moth Dead on the Windowsill

for John Uschuk, d. 2010

Astonishing this cecropia, the color of juniper bark,
its thin wings thrust back as if it dove through the stars
just to die here. What broke its flight
while night froze around its intent? I wait a breath
before I touch its final beauty, wonder
if my brother’s broad chest thrust up
to expel the moth wing of his last breath
in the Veteran’s hospice, where Agent Orange
could no longer scar his hands, where
napalm could not scald the scalps of children
he watched incinerating all his life, so that
orphanages called him in dreams, so that he
could not bear the slap of moth wings on his porch
beating insistent as the blades of the helicopter
he shared with body bags going home.

The Poet Spiel: “Roots”

Here’s a thoughtful poem about endurance from friend-of-the-blog Tom W. Taylor, The Poet Spiel. The times we’re living through make me feel helpless and fatigued. I refresh myself by connecting with the trees, who experience time on a different scale from us humans, and presumably are not as afraid of death, either.

Roots

Not like the stench of that early place,
being downward bound,
insistently struggling toward a skimpy well of doubtful tomorrows,
the leaves of summer wore masks of pain
where roots grew deeper than trees grew tall,

but like that reassuring smell of yesterdays
where no matter how fearful my nightmares had been,
I knew at least that I would waken
and they would end.

Two Poems from Suzanne Ondrus’s “Passion Seeds”

Suzanne Ondrus is a poet and literary scholar whose work explores cultural exchange and understanding, intimacy, oppression, and history. Her poetry book Passion Seeds, about love and longing long distance between an American woman and a Burkina Faso man, won the 2013 Vernice Quebodeaux Prize from Little Red Tree Publishing. Suzanne has taught writing and literary theory in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Russia, Benin, Ghana, Uganda, Italy, and Germany, and was a 2018-2020 Fulbright Scholar to Burkina Faso in West Africa.

Her new collection, Death of an Unvirtuous Woman, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in September 2022 and will be available for pre-order in May. It is a true story of female resistance to domestic violence involving an 1881 Ohio-German immigrant couple. Read three poems from this book in the feminist journal S/tick.

Suzanne kindly shares these poems from Passion Seeds.

Let’s Go Green

Dante had Beatrice blazing blond before him
guiding him from the ice of hell to heaven’s
summits.

Beatrice burned forever in his heart.
Her hands filled with air
and her smile shouldered the world.
From afar he would watch,
happy for a view of her on Sunday.
In the Duomo, his heart arched over
the bridge his eyes made to her,

silent,
unaware
he prayed.

My black angel, you are afar.
How shall I say you burn for me?
My love for you glows like coal or
you are my black angel of coal glow?
But you are not coal, licorice, chocolate,
tar, oil, rubber, sod, tires, or asphalt.
You are seed in my heart,
the green promise.
I want to be the seed of your heart;
I believe I am the seed of your heart.
Please water me with your tears
and bring your heart to the light
so our seeds can grow and glow green.

****

Bleached History

I.
White through fire circles,
mud houses, lingering handshakes
white through indigo, slit goats’ necks
and the dolo-filled calabash.

II.
A congregation so large,
piled high up to the sky
for only one step to his throne,
to finally come home.

III.
Missionaries pleaded, cajoled
for their congregation to reach that throne!
They even stole boys to enroll
and control,
promising parents future rewards.
Their heads were shaved
and their mother tongues shamed,
with the antelope skull worn at least
once by all.
Cultural carving beyond bones,
branding
Jean,
Marc,
Antoine
over Narelwindé’s
wings
to God,
on top Awa’s whisper
to the river
and Yalle’s hope risen.

IV.
The red soil with its orange puddles
held this pain,
so full from
what the whites called religious school.

They tried to stitch boys against the hum
of their ancestors in the wind,
and with white cloth, bread and wine
wind their minds for Christendom and
the French curriculum.

But whispers of songs
sung in the field,
lingering handshakes,
compounds with family
and thatched roofs commanded feet
home, through thorned brush

stealthy under the moon,
back close to Mother’s womb
from where solid like the baobab
they did first bloom.

 

Author Note: This poem was inspired by Burkinabe shaman Malidome Patrice Somé’s autobiography, Of Water and Spirit. Somé was kidnapped as a young child by missionaries and taken to missionary school; he escaped in his late teens, returning to his village. In the 1950s children were punished if they spoke their native languages at school; French was the language of instruction in Burkina Faso. Dolo is homemade grain alcohol. Calabash is a gourd. Calabash are dried and used as bowls, among other things. Wearing an antelope skull signifies shame, akin to wearing a dunce cap. Narelwindé, Awa and Yalle are Burkinabe first names. Baobab is a tree of utmost significance to West Africa, signifying strength and groundedness.

Poetry by Helen Bar-Lev: “The Wrong Tree”

Israeli poet and painter Helen Bar-Lev was born in New York in 1942. She has held over 90 exhibitions of her landscape paintings and published eight illustrated poetry collections. She kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below, inspired by Russia’s war against Ukraine. It was first published in ESRA Magazine.

The Wrong Tree

Look at us humans
bones and blood and skin
eating fruit from the wrong tree,
sailing arks to banish the bad
but we are fools and sink with the ship

Prayers unheard clog the earth
war after war and the world whirls on
a murderer in every corner
superheros vanished or banished,
refugees like the rest of us

Atlantis has disappeared
Saints burned at the stake
Shangri La never was
think Hiroshima, my love

Mozart was recalled at thirty-five
Moses forbidden the promised land
slavery and plagues still alive
and no one to raise us from the dead

Look, Henny Penny
the ruble is falling
the wall is wailing
the pipes are calling
Danny, the boy, the soldier
tells Mama he’s frightened–
then the missile explodes

The sun shines and regrets and retreats
the crocodile cries and destroys
this is not the planet of free choice

News news everywhere
on buildings, in bunkers,
oh how the world has shrunk

We are all golems
slumped on the floor
waiting for instructions…
or our own destruction

April Is Poetry Month: Two Poems from Mahnaz Badihian’s “Ask the Wind”

Since April is National Poetry Month, it seemed like a good time to run excerpts from some poetry collections I’ve recently enjoyed. Mahnaz Badihian is an Iranian-American poet, translator, and visual artist in San Francisco. She sent me a copy of her new poetry book, Ask the Wind (Vagabond Books), to review for Winning Writers. I was pleased by her original turns of phrase, delight in nature’s signs of renewal, and hopefulness about peace in our tortured world. She has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems below. I love how she takes an expression that usually denotes sadness, “not belonging,” and rethinks it as joyful non-attachment.

NOT BELONGING

Like a bird, she floats in nature
like water, she seeps through the earth
the cells in her body,
do not identify with anyone
she is everyone

She has no motherland
she’s free from friends and enemies
the recycled woman rises to far horizons
with no destinations in mind

She’ll not be wounded, not be sad
she’s free of old memories,
from belonging to one particular land
from heavy gold necklaces
her ancestors left behind

Now she puts her feet on fresh grass
opens her arms and lets the sun plant
flowers on her fingertips

Gives her naked bosom to the hands
of the breeze under the glory of
the apple trees
giving herself to the flowing creeks
letting the fish swim in her veins
for the birth of more new happiness.

****

DNA

It was Monday morning and
I was passing the big statue
In the lobby of Johns Hopkins hospital
searching for Room 202,
the first interview with Mrs. Willis

She had a kind smile on her lips
her hands were wrinkled with red nail polish
Mrs. Willis looked me in the eyes,
how do I pronounce your name, dear?
I said, MAH NAZ,
the exact same way it’s written

Mrs. Willis with her M.S. degree said, I’ll try
MENAZ Manos, Maha-noss
then gently she changed her voice and
said, Can I call you Mary?

Marry? Merry? Morry? Echoed in my head
I felt like evaporating morning dew,
like a branch of a tree under heavy rain,
like fruit just fallen from a tree

I looked Mrs. Willis in the eyes and said,
“But my name is the charm of the moon
the name I was called by my mother
and by the man with black hair
dark mustache and brown eyes.”

Mrs. Willis was looking at me
with wide-open eyes
I said: “Mrs. Willis,
is my name more difficult
than Deoxyribonucleic acid?”

The Poet Spiel: “Returnee” Series

Time for some more hard-hitting poems about war and American manhood from my friend The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom W. Taylor. Watch this space for news of our collaboration on my next poetry book!

returnee: commandments 6 and 3

on his knees,
in reverse
of the sacred thou shalt commandments,
first taken to his heart as an innocent,
he killed for you
on lofty commands
drilled deep
in the immediacy
of fear and steel
and fire.

he’d come back home
and robbed you
of what he thought
he’d fought for;
and when he found himself confused,
he cleansed your colon
with his 9 mm glock.

so he fell to his knees —
like when he was a child —
to humbly wash your feet
of what he’d done;
but recognized he’d finalized
his shames
when he exclaimed
his first lord’s name
in vain.
___________________________
returnee: last words

he is so glad to be free
of those god-forsaken sandstorms.

glad to sink heels into real dirt
he’d worked
before he was called.

but he cannot know these bodies,
occupying the same address
where they all watch tv,

where he’s been pissing away big rents
from over there
for all these years.

these aliens have the same names as those
who have been shipping monthly selfies
and xmas goodies to him:
jen and tiffy, billy lou and little john.

though they have
somewhat familiar faces,
he wants nothing to do
with these strangers.

the square truth is:
he just doesn’t have to kiss
nobody’s ass
no more

he’s already said his last words
every ten breaths of his life
for the past one thousand days.

August Links Roundup: Ship It

Better get this post up before the month is over! Here’s an eclectic list of good reads around the web.

At the Iowa Review, Amanda Peery-Wolf’s “What Can I Ship” is a witty found-poem based on the Union Pacific Online Customer Handbook from 2007. The reader may be alternately numbed and delighted by the sheer volume and random diversity of items that human beings have invented and sold. Strategically placed linebreaks lead one to imagine additional strange mash-ups of existing products:

toasters walking sticks with rubber tips video games mattresses hd

screens jeans green bicycles for boys rubber hands for halloween minidresses

for when she’s starting to come into her own pocket pill containers

horse blankets rabbit biscuits jingly balls for cats eyebrow brushes

keyboard covers car accessories menorahs plastic bags pen caps worry

dolls folding fans molding clay ac units fuel charges apply to all shipments

balled-up tissues tootsie rolls rolling papers live rabbits beach umbrellas…

At the Ploughshares blog, Pepper Stetler‘s essay “The World Will Be Tlön” compares the DSM-5 to the aliens’ rewriting of human history in Jorge Luis Borges’ surreal fable “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. The human psyche craves order and categorization to such an extent that we confer authority on “expert” psychological diagnoses and overlook their contested political history. As the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, Stetler can’t ignore the labels that will help her family navigate the medical and educational systems to get the resources they need. However, she remains skeptical enough to value aspects of her daughter’s mental life that the DSM would pathologize. “Intellectual disability is still described in terms of deficits and a failure to meet certain standards, rather than language that might suggest that the environment, the conditions of our modern world, might be what is deficient, which would open up the possibility for social change.”

At MEL, a men’s magazine, Chingy Nea opines that “‘The Sopranos’ Belongs to the Gays Now”. Gay popular culture loves references and memes from the Mafia drama because it’s a show about masculinity as high camp. “Even if they don’t realize it themselves, every man and woman on The Sopranos is performing gender at such a high level that the show smacks of the stuff. And because many queer people live outside the confines of traditional gender roles, we’re more used to recognizing that all of us are performing gender, whether we know it or not.”

I got halfway through Season 4 when “The Sopranos” originally aired, quitting because I didn’t want to see Adriana get whacked. If we go on lockdown from COVID again this winter, or even if we don’t, I suspect I’ll be bingeing the show from the beginning. I have HBO Max now–I am fancy. No more bootleg videotapes from my parents’ friend who had premium cable.

My new passion as of last year is making collage art. My handmade greeting cards are everything that my writing isn’t–upbeat, popular, and easy to understand! Via Poetry Daily, I discovered the online journal Ctrl+V, which is dedicated to creative writing that incorporates visual collage elements. I particularly liked this flower clock poem from Nora Claire Miller, “To Understand a Tendency Consider Its Conditions”.

This cheerful non-manifesto by poet Maggie Smith, part of an interview in the “Stopping By With…” series from the Poetry Society of America, lightened my anxiety:

What do you see as the role of art in public life at this moment in time?

A question I’ve heard asked a lot over the past year (but also in most hard years—which is most years, period) is “What is the role of the poet in these times?” I suspect the expected answer is something about expressing collective grief or outrage, or speaking truth to power, or providing comfort. But my answer is usually, “To do your work.” Any world worth living in and fighting for is a world full of art.

So we do our work, whatever it looks or sounds like, without expecting it to fix or solve anything, without expecting it to heal someone. We just do our work, and perhaps it will mean something to someone else, the way we find art that means something to us.

LitHub published the winners of this year’s Insider Prize, a writing contest sponsored by the journal American Short Fiction for incarcerated writers in Texas. Eva Shelton’s story “Bottles of Grief”, about solidarity and loneliness in a bereavement support group, and Keith Sanders’ essay “The Myth of Me”, about being a rebellious teenage atheist, are both worth a read.

Classicist and poet A.E. Stallings shares a bit of forgotten queer history in “Warrior Eros” at The American Scholar. Reviewing James Romm’s The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom, she describes the real-life inspiration for the thought experiment in Plato’s Symposium about “an army of lovers and their loves” who would be bonded by affection to fight to the death.

In Athens and Sparta, romantic, erotic, and sexual relationships between men were largely countenanced and conventional: a couple was composed of an erastes (the lover), the older partner, and the eromenos (the beloved), a youth on the cusp of manhood; “lovers and their loves.” The pro-Spartan Athenian historian Xenophon seems to have been atypical in his disapproval of male-male sexual relationships; in ancient Greece it was arguably unwavering heterosexuality that was “queer.”

But if, as Romm points out, in Athens and Sparta “male erôs was ‘complicated,’” in Thebes and Boeotia it was sanctioned by the state. Male couples could take an oath at the grave of Iolaus, Hercules’s own beloved, to live together as syzygentes—yoke mates—a term that elsewhere indicates a lifelong marital bond. It is etymologically related to “conjugal.” (The modern Greek word for “spouse” is still syzygos.) After running a junta of Spartans out of Thebes in 379 BCE, the Thebans turned their attention to defense. What Thebes needed to keep Sparta’s hoplites (heavily armed infantry) at bay was an elite squad of its own; thus was born the Sacred Band of 300, its couples having sworn the “sacred” oath at Iolaus’s tomb.

When will we get a movie about this??

Poetry by Victoria Leigh Bennett: “The Nature of the Offense”

Winning Writers subscriber Victoria Leigh Bennett recently made my acquaintance online to announce her forthcoming collection, Poems from the Northeast (Olympia Publishing). She is a fellow Massachusetts poet, though born in West Virginia. Victoria says, “A poet’s spiritual homeland is oftentimes not exactly the same as his or her homeland by birth. This book is a book of poems composed over a lifetime lived entirely in the northeastern United States and Toronto, Canada.”

Victoria has kindly allowed me to share this new poem of hers, which appealed to me because of its wordplay and gentle but pointed repartee.

The Nature of the Offense

Well, the most you can say for him is that he’s inoffensive,
Fairly inoffensive,
Pretty much noncommittal, and
Well, just inoffensive,
You said.

That’s a hell of a lot to say,
Say I,
And after all,
Think of how everyone in our world
Who’s parleyed and had to negotiate
For a cessation of the offenses
Committed against them
In perpetuity from the past, at least,
It seems,
Would like him,
Find him a valuable asset
As a companion.

Oh, yeah, you say,
He’s pretty wishy-washy,
And everyone complaining these days
About everything ever done to them
Whether on purpose or not,
Maybe just in a moment of inattention
Or thoughtlessness,
Yeah, I can see how they might value him.

Well, say I,
As to the “wishy” part,
I think he wishes a lot for others
To be comfortable and happy
In his presence,
And for the “washy” part,
He’s continually washing
His own soul hands
Against the washing away
Of others’ vital differences,
Which are important to them.
He wouldn’t give offense,
Is the issue.

Maybe not, you say,
Maybe not.
Though some would prefer
An outright enemy
To a halfway committer.

But he’s not falsely committed
To anything,
Say I,
And anyway, people
Really don’t want enemies.

Some people just like to quarrel,
You decide.
Anyway,
You say,
I’ll just bet you’re tired of him
In a year, or a month,
Or a fortnight.
I can still call it a fortnight,
Can’t I,
Without giving offense
To your peace-loving friends?
I have no idea, I say,
No one’s ever told me anything
Different from that yet.

Yeah, I’ll bet you’re tired of him
Before long.
Where’s the passion,
Where’s the thrust of sexual contention?

Where’s the love,
Where’s the melting-togetherness
Of passionate agreement? Say I.

You’ll get tired of him, I’ll just bet.
I’ll take that bet, I say,
All in one breath,
See you and raise you,
As maybe your parents
Should’ve seen you
And raised you better,
To be more inoffensive.

The Poet Spiel: “On Swallowing”

As Father’s Day is this weekend, here’s a poignant poem by longtime reader and contributor The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, about role reversal and a kind of closure for a difficult father-son relationship. Spiel’s recent books include the illustrated retrospective Revealing Self in Pictures and Words.

On Swallowing

To think on such a day that I might make a joke about the Jello,
about it being what I liked about my stays in such sterile facilities.
How they bring you Jello on a tray.
But my father’s mind was traveling elsewhere;
was wondering if I’d walk him down a hall that was not there
to someone only he could see—
he was leaving us but barely knew which place he was,
nor did I.

So, I tempted him with milk, I said:
You remember how we’ve always loved our milk, you and I,
here, take this straw, can you hold this in your mouth
between your lips. I know you’ve always loved your milk, Amos.
Try a sip of milk, I’ll help you with it.
Try it from this straw.

But he had no suck and it dribbled down his chin;
his throat forgot to swallow and his eyes wandered down a hall
that only he could see, wishing that I’d walk with him
to where he thought that it was time to go.
Let’s go, he’d said:
this man who’d told me just the day before
he’d had enough of life
and now it was his time to go.
Let’s go, he said,
but I was baffled by the plural of let us.

I simply did not know to whom he spoke nor whom
it was that he might see to walk with down that hall
that only he could see,
and yet he’d earlier called me by my name,
just as the day before when much to my surprise
he had given me the gift that surely every son must wish:
he had told me that he’d come to see me as a man,
that he honored me—
this man who could no longer swallow,

whose trembling disease would also rob his heart of the impulse
of when to beat,
and it would happen in this place
and on this day with milk upon his gown and green jello on his tray,
while I stepped outside his room to breathe
and consider what I’d seen
in a decade where his body lost its tune and he could not hold it still.
His mind on track but could not send its signals
from a soup spoon to his mouth;
humiliation at the spills upon his lap,
coordination lacking at his knees.

Can I help you, I would ask.
Then anger in his eyes that he might need,
that he would need at all.
This determined man who taught me as a child
how to swallow milk shakes from a straw.

No, I can do it, he would say, I can make my knees go,
as I stood aside and suffered with him as he fell off of his bike.
As he taped his bleeding wounds,
as he lamented he’d no longer have the pleasure of a spin
down to the Platte River to watch the waters that he loved,
where he loved to rest in peace
off on his own away from Fern and her restlessness of mind.
That he no longer drove a nail without a finger getting smashed,
his hands so out of sorts that he could not turn a screw.
That he would never ride another horse, nor tend the birthing of a calf.
That in a restaurant, the children stared because he shook so bad.
That even though he wished that he could live to care for Fern,
he’d reached the point where he was through;
he’d had enough of what he could no longer swallow,
and I understood,
I truly understood
as I wandered round those halls.

So much of life I had complained of all the horrors of life
I could not swallow.
He’d insisted that I look upon the brighter side.
But now, he said he too had had enough of what he could not swallow.

Then, I heard the code blue call.

I knew it was for him
but by the time I got back to his room,
his doctor had blocked the door; the door was shut.
His doctor’s face was telling me
my father’s life had ceased.
I pressed my head against the door
as his doctor spoke, He’s gone.

I banged my head against the door
and loudly uttered fuck,
the word my father most despised
but might expect me to have said;
I shouted FUCK
but never doubted that he walked on down that hall I could not see
with a companion at his side;
and of my shout, he’d found a way to swallow it.

And on the day before this day,
he’d honored me as man.