Prayer for a Birthday
My privilege and my proof, pressing your eternal skin to mine— I feel your fingers touching down on the crown of my head where I pray they remain during this life and in the next. The intricacies of your world astound me. You flickered through the rooms where my mother dwelt, when I was naked and formless as a seal, sensitive to the tides of her body. I did not come too early onto land, did not emerge until my days were written on the translucent pages of your enormous book. The great lid of your eye peeled back to see I was not yet whole. I remember today the day of my birth. Your words washed that which clung to me from the other side, bound to me the promised ghost. I was dipped and sponged, cut free, delivered as I was like a lamb lodged in his dam. Tears and pain were her price, and I was handed over to be wiped with straw. You built me, bone by bone, counting the hairs that would one day thatch my crown, building cleverness in my hands, weakness in my knees, a squint and a taste for cake. You showed me the dip of a man’s clavicle, arrow of ankle and calf, weaving in me a love of those bodies like my own, yet not mine. When you turned to your next task a shadow crossed the room stirred from the muddy banks rimed with ice. In the spot where my skull was soft it set down its stylus and inked a bruise— a scrap used to blot a leaking pen. Since then my mind has raced toward the brink, spun and knit and torn out the same silvery threads only to wind them up again. Still, the bargain you made without my consent has left me here to ponder your airy limbs striding through the sky, the red rustle of your gown. A season ago, I looked out upon the verdure of the small meadow below the house—boggy in parts— the pollard willows gnarling and sipping from gnat-speckled pools, the turkeys scratching under the sweep of green as it prepared to die back for another year, littered with mute papery tongues. You are easier to see when you denude your world with decay. And so I saw you there, flashed in the shallow water, parting the curtain of the willow fronds and warming my face with light. My mother and father call me and sing, sweet and tuneless, their voices worn down by your turning wheel. You have kept us together for half a man’s natural years, these last the tenderest as their bodies break and their minds dip deeper into dust to bring forth the features of distance. My day will be spent here, in the middle of things, feeding split logs into the stove, cats coiling through rooms as the snow ticks at the windows’ double panes. I will read a book with snow at its center, in a forest lost inside a forest in the north, the sun an afterthought in the darkest days of the year. I am thankful for all that buffers me from the cold, all that binds me to my clan, though I see a future strange and tuneless as I push forward into the mind’s blinding field of white.
About this Poem
“‘Prayer for a Birthday’ is part of a larger project I undertook in which I freely adapted prayers from a German-American prayer book published in 1873. I wanted to make a poem that moved forward and backward through time, that rendered and refracted contemporary experience by placing it in a rhetorical structure from the past. I needed to turn back to another century to grant myself permission to write poems to a God I don't believe exists.”
Born in 1968, Mark Wunderlich won the Lambda Literary Award for his debut collection, The Anchorage.
Date Published: 2013-12-09
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/prayer-birthday