THE VIGIL

After the bath
I let the water out and draw
another for my son,
sitting like a buddha with his book
in the living room,
his mustard-stained long underwear
up to his knees,
not even seeing me when I cast my shadow
over his lap,
saying, Go take a bath,
which he does,
still reading as he rises.
I let the flames
in the fireplace go out
and, resisting sleep,
read of a mother in The Tuscaloosa News
who watched
her daughter slip through ice,
not even screaming,
then tried to die by swallowing lye
days later,
blamed for letting her get away.
When I
look up my wife is telling me to sleep.
It’s then
I realize my son is not in bed,
he’s gone
unless he lingers in the bathroom with the light
still on
glowing below the door
I open
to a thick mist. . . . I see him
sleeping,
his mouth just out of the water.
His eye-
lids twitch and his chest
rises, falls,
so I know he is only dozing,
the bar
of Ivory hovering beside him.
For a second
I bend
over the edge of the tub
and touch
him once, on the forehead,
but he
is much too deep to feel my finger.
How thin
and unbelievably pale
he seems,
his legs sprawled and his genitals
scarcely there,
hairless and flaccid and vaguely
swaying
in the bath, lukewarm now,
his palms
spread out on the perfect surface.
I wait
for him to stir, staring at his face,
and say
to myself, softly,
that I may
or may not go on standing here
until his eyes
are opened and he knows . . .
knows what?
That not only Dante
lost
his way in a chorus of human screams
and had
to be redeemed. That I knew
a man
who never looked lovingly at his wife
more than twice,
chasing her with a butcher knife
and holding
her down and saying, “The only person
meaner
than me is the devil.”
That this world
we live in, however briefly, for better
or worse,
is where the loving mother
comes to grief
below what Shakespeare called deaf heaven
and dies
before the heart can comprehend
the loss
hating the God that made her.
All this, for instance,
until he lifts
his dripping
arms and whimperingly pleads
for me,
holding out his hand.
Then, perhaps,
I will take him in a towel
and turn
him around, drying his hair,
and send
him off to bed without a kiss.
Till then,
I say Take heart,
even in
so strange a place as this.
I keep
my vigil and refuse to move.

 

COMING HOME LATE AND ALONE

That was the summer
my father had cancer and demanded to be left alone when he slept
and my mother strung a cord from solitude
to solitude, scolding us for making the slightest noise,
bursting into tears when we sassed her.

Crossing the kitchen floor
and opening the refrigerator brimming with shimmering light.
I dared my mother to reproach me. “Is that you?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It is me.” “It’s midnight, Dennis.
You need to go to bed.”

And so I slipped off my shoes and tiptoed
past my father’s room and stopped as I saw him bent over
reeds to his clarinet, all neatly aligned on his bedspread.

I wanted to remember even the glow
around him, the delicacy
with which he fitted the finest reed into his mouthpiece.

Entering my room
without turning on my light, so that through my window
I could see the lovely cup of the moon going down
over Duncan’s grove, I sat on my bed and saw my father

over a year ago,
lifting his clarinet above the heads of the orchestra,
holding the final note of the solo
until the trombone took over
and my father acknowledged the audience with a nod.

 

FORGIVENESS

My father came home drunk and was dazed
by my mother’s rage in the driveway,
driven back into shadows by her hand

while all the neighbors slowly turned
to their mowers in the dusk and their garages
shedding light on the lawns
still spinning with sprinklers.

I had never seen him so quiet before,
holding carnations in his fist
as she answered her own questions and called

him inconsiderate for coming home so late,
forgetting their dinner date and dance
at the VFW. And when I thought

she had finally stopped, striding toward the door,
I saw her make the mistake
of praying, arms uplifted to a starless night,

that she be delivered from a sonofabitch.
He turned, no longer apologetic,
flinging the bouquet straight in the air.

They did not live together after that
for nearly a day, deliberately alone
in the farthest corner of the house,

my sisters and I conspiring to bring them together.
That night, alone in my own room, half asleep,
the full moon looming in my window,

I felt the hallway light on my face
when my father opened the door
and opened my eyes,
seeing him strip to his underwear

and get in bed, saying Give me some of the covers.
I could have begged him to go away
and let me sleep, needling him

until he mumbled for me to shut up
but I stuck it out. When I woke
his side of the bed was empty, the blanket

whipped back, for he had gotten up in the dawn.
I lay there in the light, awhile serene,
then sat beside him on the davenport

while he moped, not looking at my mother
singing vindictively at the sink
with suds up to her elbow.

Taking my mother’s damp hand
and leading her to the figure just as dazed
as when she raved in his face the night before,

my sisters on the other side, insistent,
forcing her to sit in silence beside him
until he gently touched her and they forgave,

I realized that I could survive my father
sleeping beside me through the night
although I only wanted to be left alone,

seeing them together once again,
my mother ashamed, my father blushing,
having no other alternative but to embrace.


These poems are from Dennis Sampson’s deeply-moving Forgiveness, published by Milkweed Editions (P.O. Box 3226, Minneapolis, MN 55403, $10.95 postpaid). Highly recommended.

 

— Ed.