The Silence Teacher
Seeing friends for the first time after his death
tested the silence a room could hold. The rest
was a kindness like holding our breath.
My wife’s oldest friend offers her best
brave smile, tells us about the first time
her daughter, in new hearing aids, passed a nest.
Pitched as high as a tin wind chime,
in a sphere beyond the rumble of speech
she only knew “tweet” from what mother had mimed.
But birds’ hunger songs seemed as far from reach
as the angels Blake saw perched in a tree,
and sweeter than any science her mother could teach.
Her world was based partly on what she could see.
The rest was a guess — the flailing of a street preacher
seemed like the swats of a man attacked by bees.
Quick lips make it easy to misread a speaker,
and once at a party, based on what she had seen,
the girl introduced her mother as a “silence teacher”.
Grief’s small hands cupped before me,
reliving the news of our infant son’s tests,
his brain as quiet as her soundless sea,
and still as winter in a robin’s nest,
I did not say: I was the one who held him last
until the ticking heart stopped in his chest
or what that silence taught, and how it pressed.
(from a sequence about The Lewis Chessmen)
Most unlucky lump, already a headstone,
a milestone of your own progress, which
must always be forward, facing the hell.
Did they say going first was a privilege?
Tusk-tips and flat-bottomed stones come
to life, you live for the lucky side-swipe
of your betters, facing the same-height enemy
in impasse, double-step, and en passant.
Three of you together make a fort. Three
can mob a knight and pull him down.
Standing in one row, beating your shields,
“the last shall be first” seems plausible.
Peons turned to soldiers, bear up proud.
Round lumps, you are the fire in the coal.
Road Sign on Interstate 5
San Diego, California
They are holding hands, or rather, their silhouettes
are joined at the arms like a chain link fence.
Their bodies lean forward, italicized.
They are running: the man is pulling the woman,
the woman is pulling what must be her child,
and the child is lifted, by the speed, off her feet.
It is the same type of sign that might contain
the antlered shape of a generic black buck,
or tell drivers that the road could be slippery when wet.
It is a warning sign, it says: watch out for this.
Every time I pass, I scan both sides of the freeway,
expecting to see a family of three, gathering
up loose belongings, timing the cars, preparing
to run across eight lanes of high-speed traffic.
I have never seen them, this desperate family.
I only know their shadows, how they tilt toward
the bright yellow space in front of them, scrambling
to reach the outlined edge of the thin metal sign.
I have never wanted anything this much, for myself,
let alone to pull those closest to me into flight.
There is so much I could say about growing up
on the border of Mexico. It is not the corrugated
fence, or even the river of sewage, that defines
the scar that joins one world to the next,
but a one-hundred-foot width of sun-soft asphalt,
streaming with commuter traffic, day and night.
The man is pulling the woman, the woman is pulling
her airborne child, whose pigtails flail back.
On the other side is the ocean, salt marsh and a beach
that stretches north, into the source of the wind.
They are holding hands, and smelling the salt in the air.
At night, their pupils contract as the headlights expand.
What begins like a distant starlight grows to a spotlight,
a floodlight, a wash of whiteness, and engines made of wind.
Then reddened, like coals, like dying suns, the lights
recede, a river of cherry redness, a syrup of taillights.
The man is pulling the woman is pulling the child,
who rises as though winged in a blaze of light.
Rattle Poetry Prize Honourable Mention
Available in Human Shade