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.
There is a force that breaks the body, inevitable,
the by-product is pain, unexceptional as a rain
gauge, which has become arcane, rhyme, likewise,
unless it’s assonant or internal injury, gloom, joy,
which is also a dish soap, but not the one that rids
seabirds of oil from wrecked tankers, that’s Dawn,
which should change its name to Dusk, irony being
the flip side of sentimentality here in the Iron Age,
ironing out the kinks in despair, turning it to hairdo
from hair, to do, vexing infinitive, much better to be
pain’s host, body of Christ as opposed to the Holy
Ghost, when I have been suffering at times I could
step away from it by embracing it, a blues thing,
a John Donne thing, divest by wrestling, then sing.