A Pile of Fish

for Paul Otremba

Six in all, to be exact. I know it was a Tuesday 
     or Wednesday because the museum closes early
on those days. I almost wrote something 

     about the light being late—; the “late light”
is what I almost said, and you know how we 
     poets go on and on about the light and 

the wind and the dark, but that day the dark was still 
     far away swimming in the Pacific, and we had 
45 minutes to find Goya’s “Still Life with Bream” 

     before the doors closed. I’ve now forgotten 
three times the word Golden in the title of that painting
     —and I wish I could ask what you think 

that means. I see that color most often 
     these days when the cold, wet light of morning 
soaks my son’s curls and his already light 

     brown hair takes on the flash of fish fins
in moonlight. I read somewhere 
     that Goya never titled this painting, 

or the other eleven still lifes, so it’s just 
     as well because I like the Spanish title better.  
“Doradas” is simple, doesn’t point 

     out the obvious. Lately, I’ve been saying 
dorado so often in the song I sing 
     to my son, “O sol, sol, dorado sol 

no te escondes...” I felt lost 
     that day in the museum, but you knew 
where we were going having been there 

     so many times. The canvas was so small 
at 17 x 24 inches. I stood before it 
     lost in its beach of green sand and 

that silver surf cut with pink. 
     I stared while you circled the room 
like a curious cat. I took a step back, 

     and then with your hands in your pockets 
you said, No matter where we stand, 
     there’s always one fish staring at us.

As a new father, I am now that pyramid 
     of fish; my body is all eyes and eyes. 
Some of them watch for you in the west 

where the lion sun yawns and shakes off 
     its sleep before it purrs, and hungry, 
dives deep in the deep of the deep.

Before the Airport, Sushi

The old man sitting out front
on the empty patio eating
fried chicken or something or other,
bought up the block probably, and not
from the house of sushi
we were entering,
didn’t inspire confidence exactly,
but when you returned
from the wall of fame to our table
with your chopsticks
in the box you decorated
how many years ago I forget,
and told me regulars from way back
need never use the disposable ones
wrapped in paper like straws
that are not smooth
like yours that looked polished
and like they were cut from a yew,
unlike my conjoined sticks
that were little more than gargantuan
toothpicks for some race of giants
that I had only to separate
with one clean snap
and prove were fool proof,
only the engineer who had retired
on the patent for the design of my chopsticks
never met a fool such as I
and so the operation was a failure
except for your laughter,
an unexpected development
for which I would have botched the next set
on purpose, and the next
only our seaweed salad had arrived
and it was time for me, a lifelong worshipper
of the miniature shovel and pitchfork
to stumble across a tiny plate
with my Chinese finger crutches,
only I didn’t and before I knew it
my hand was Fred Astaire on stilts
and the seaweed salad was gone,
followed by half the maki,
and there was only the one pink piece
that separated from the crunchy roe
and its rice wheel that I spit out
because it felt like a tongue
and tasted of death,
which makes perfect sense
because it was dead,
and had our meal ended there,
I would now be celebrating
the virtues of keeping an open mind
to new food, instead of how
life can surprise us so much, one day
I’m not eating maple syrup on a steak
or cheese by the block like everyone
who’s never been to Vermont
would expect, rather sushi
and mastering chopsticks and looking up
to see a golden braid of hair
I had never noticed was golden
unraveling against your shoulder
so slowly that it looks alive
so much that for a moment
there are suddenly three of us
at the table: me, you, and your braid
that you don’t seem to care
is losing what only a few minutes
before I would have called a battle
with gravity, except now I understand
the pull of the earth
isn’t always harsh and impatient,
that it can be gentle, can nudge
a twist of hair loose
and in so doing, slow down time
and that song about goodbyes
and the heavy wrap of winter
that fills the sky of every airport town
in late summer, slow that music
down just enough to make a soul
with two left feet like my own
jump up and dance.

Related Poems

Pintura Negra

—After Francisco Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Son"

We follow the porcelain
column of a child's arm

into time's mouth, desperate
Titan, runnel of inked tear

spilling from his eye.
This feels like the beginning

of knowing death. It digs
nails into the small

of a child's back, white-
knuckled grip of a father

arthritic from holding
dead things. The whole scene

weeps a blurred body,
brings a child into the world

embalmed by the deaf. Death
and artist, two skulking

lumps, billow canvas curtain.
These are the ghosts

that move marrow, fingers
that slip the knife point

into a notch of soft bone,
and lift the broken end

to our lips to drink
this dark paint that fills us.

Yolanda: A Typhoon

How much our hands are God’s

to be running fingers over braille cities.

We are this hand pushed through our womb.

Weeping with each other’s blood in our eyes.

I dreamed that I slept with the light on.

I was asleep in my mother’s bed because my father was out to sea

and my claim on him was to feel the frets of my death sure to come.

Sweet, small fishing rod. Ears of wind rushing through many jellied trees.

We were on this cardboard earth with its puffing volcanoes

miniature baseball players and horrible winds

scored by musician’s hands.

Stand in the strong ear of this love.

Portrait in Nightshade and Delayed Translation

In Saint Petersburg, on an autumn morning,
having been allowed an early entry
to the Hermitage, my family and I wandered
the empty hallways and corridors, virtually every space

adorned with famous paintings and artwork.
There must be a term for overloading on art.
One of Caravaggio’s boys smirked at us,
his lips a red that betrayed a sloppy kiss

recently delivered, while across the room
the Virgin looked on with nothing but sorrow.
Even in museums, the drama is staged.
Bored, I left my family and, steered myself,

foolish moth, toward the light coming
from a rotunda. Before me, the empty stairs.
Ready to descend, ready to step outside
into the damp and chilly air, I felt

the centuries-old reflex kick in, that sense
of being watched. When I turned, I found
no one; instead, I was staring at The Return
of the Prodigal Son. I had studied it, written about it

as a student. But no amount of study could have
prepared me for the size of it, the darkness of it.
There, the son knelt before his father, his dirty foot
left for inspection. Something broke. As clichéd

as it sounds, something inside me broke, and
as if captured on film, I found myself slowly sinking
to my knees. The tears began without warning until soon
I was sobbing. What reflex betrays one like this?

What nerve agent did Rembrandt hide
within the dark shades of paint that he used?
What inside me had malfunctioned, had left me
kneeling and sobbing in a museum?

Prosto plakat. Prosto plakat. Osvobodi sebya
said the guard as his hands steadied my shoulders.
He stood there repeating the phrase until
I stopped crying, until I was able to rise.

I’m not crazy, nor am I a very emotional man.
For most of my life, I have been called, correctly, cold.
As a student, I catalogued the techniques, carefully
analyzed this painting for a class on the “Dutch Masters.”

Years later, having mustered the courage to tell
this ridiculous story, a friend who spoke Russian
translated the guard’s words for me: “Just cry. Just cry.
Free yourself.” But free myself from what, exactly?

You see, I want this whole thing to be something
meaningful, my falling to my knees in front of a painting
by Rembrandt, a painting inspired by a parable
of forgiveness offered by a father to his lost son.

But nothing meaningful has presented itself. Even now,
after so much time has passed, I have no clue
what any of this means. I still haven’t figured out
whether or not I am the lost son or the found.