The grief, when I finally contacted it decades later, was black, tarry, hot, like the yarrow-edged side roads we walked barefoot in the summer. Sometimes we’d come upon a toad flattened by a car tire, pressed into the softened pitch, its arms spread out a little like Jesus, and it was now part of the surface of the road, part of the road’s story. Then there was the live toad I discovered under the poison leaves of the rhubarb, hiding there among the ruby stems, and if you ate those stems raw, enough of them, you’d shit yourself for days. It isn’t easy to catch a living thing and hold it until it pees on you in fear. Its skin was the dull brown of my father’s clothes, my grandfather’s clothes as he stood behind the barber’s chair, clipping sideburns, laying a warm heap of shaving cream over a bristly chin, sharpening his straight razor and swiping it over the foam-covered cheek of my father, who often shaved twice a day, his beard was so obstinate, even in the hospital bed. When I laid a last kiss on his young cheek, the scraping hurt my lips. Do you ever wonder, in your heart of hearts, if God loves you, if the angels love you, scowling, holding their fiery swords, radiating green light? If your father loved you, if he had room to love you, given his poverty and suffering, or if a coldness had set in, a cold-bloodedness, like Keats at the end, wanting a transfusion of the reader’s life blood so he could live again. Either way, they’re all safely underground, their gentleness or ferocity, their numb love, and my father’s tar-colored hair, and the fibers of his good suit softened by wood tannins, and grandfather’s glass eye with its painted-on mud-colored iris, maybe all that’s left of him in that walnut box, and Keats and his soft brown clothes, and the poets before and after him. But their four-toed emissary sits in my hand. I feel the quickening pulse through its underbelly. Hooded eyes, molasses-tinged, unexpressive, the seam of its mouth glued shut.
Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid
Some women make a pilgrimage to visit it
in the Indiana library charged to keep it safe.
I didn’t drive to it; I dreamed it, the thick braid
roped over my hands, heavier than lead.
My own hair was long for years.
Then I became obsessed with chopping it off,
and I did, clear up to my ears. If hair is beauty
then I am no longer beautiful.
Sylvia was beautiful, wasn’t she?
And like all of us, didn’t she wield her beauty
like a weapon? And then she married,
and laid it down, and when she was betrayed
and took it up again it was a word-weapon,
a poem-sword. In the dream I fasten
her braid to my own hair, at my nape.
I walk outside with it, through the world
of men, swinging it behind me like a tail.