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Poetry by Beth Ann Fennelly

I Would Like to Go Back as I Am, Now, to You as You Were, Then--

then when you bagged grit at the sandblasting factory,
loading train cars that took as much as they could stand
and got the hell out of lower Alabama, as you dreamed of doing,
watching them rumble North with your haiku on their dusty sides
written with your spit-wet finger, before changing from your coveralls
for your night school Literature class, your shame, your hope--

Or back, further, to when your mechanic father gave you
a fixed-up car--what you had asked for all through high school,
except it was the first Japanese car the county had seen, a Toyota,
and when you drove by, the boys called it "the rice burner,"
and the girls--pretty, pious, black-and-white as Dalmatians--
wouldnšt get inside of it, so you paid five dollars in your empty car
to watch Planet of the Apes at the drive-in alone--

Or back even further to you in your plaid pajamas
sitting up half the humid night because asthma sat on your chest
and crushed no matter how you cried Uncle, so you drew
comic books bulging with muscled heroes until the blue rumble
of logging trucks signaled dawn, and better breathing,
and you could sleep, your chest heaving with its tiny
boy nipples, your legs sticking out with their leg bones--

I have loved you for your shame and for your busted body
which aches for three days after we help friends move,
because for years you were valued, like a donkey,
for how much you could carry on your back. I have loved you
for your freakishness, your exile in that homeland
where you hid your paperbacks, spoke the local language,
rose early and carried a gun if you wanted to walk in the woods.

I would like to go back as I am, now, but not as I was then--
unsure what I was prepped for in my Chicago prep school,
where girls skipped Chem to watch boys play soccer, boys
who pulled in our driveways in Benzes then beeped to have us hurry,
I wanted to be one of the thin girls dazzling in their meanness
but learned my tongue's too slow to suck that venom, I needed
to fail before meeting you, before learning myself the lucky one

I would go back as I am, now, bend over your ribs,
lift the damp V of your pajamas and blow on your neck,
blow a breeze smelling like snow, sounding like somebody
whistling far away--I would go back for a ride in your Toyota,
beat time to your eight track of Styx with my feet on the dash,
wešd cruise the drive-in and park, back row center,
let the girls gawk at the windows gauzy with heat--

I would go back and find you at the simmering factory
and free your wet curls from the clench of your hard hat
and unlace your boots almost lunar with red mud
and unzip your coveralls, a zipper long as lower Alabama--
go back as I am, now, and reach in, and kneel down,
and lick you to life, the life we couldnšt know we were heading for,
a timely, lucky, life, just beyond the margins of this poem.


The Cup Which My Father Hath Given Me

I. My Father's Pregnancy

It was no false alarm. We barely got there in time. He had that glow, a yellow one. His belly was swollen, his skull was prominent, his eyes bulged like two yolks. Beside him on the hospital night stand there was a cheap vase filled with droopy, father-colored daffodils that someone had been overcharged for. Hooked to IVs and monitors, knowing the end was near, he was beatific, had labored toward this, pressed his hot mouth to the slick O of his love, consuming it, swallowing, swallowing, grown sick with desire. He lost the will to conceal, taking it at work, in the car. He must have known how this would end--the whispering neighbors, the elaborate cover ups, the family trying to interfere, him at last sneaking away to wait it out alone. So there couldnšt have been much surprise when it finally planted itself in his body. The delicate slug of his liver speckled and festered. The other mossy organs curled aside so it could grow. And this brave father, tinting pollen-yellow, carried it to term; he endured the thin nights of sleep, the mornings of vomit and headaches, the clumsiness, the weakening bladder, the body not quite his alone anymore. Toward the end, all he could stomach was a mouthful or two of ice cream. But my father had fidelity. It was the greatest love he had ever known, and even then, he was not scared. He was groaning, we were counting his breaths, he was bearing down.

II. Cremains

I've made you ugly as you never were in life,
this tacky word, this
neologism youšd have hated.
I've burned your beautiful body
to rubble, Dad,
burned you until you rattle, a jar of marbles
a child could scatter,
a pile
to be swept under the rug,
or sneezed to the four winds,
I've seen to it
that nothing will bloom
after rooting in your rich loam.
No stone
with your name that's my name. No home.
But still there's the matter of matter.
Even now
you are sifting over Vienna,
powdering the parasols.
Even now you are snuffing
the dog curled at his master's feet
beside a workbench in Pompeii.
Even now
you have come close, closer--
the ash that apes
what once was there, massing
at the end of my husband's cigar
from its glass coffin,
thrust into the fire.