You who love to climb
the mountains you live among,
now you are roped to someone;
and when one day you fall
as you will,
why, you've a son to swing from.
I love with an almost fearful love
to remember the first baths I gave him,
our second child, so I knew what to do,
I laid the little torso along
my left forearm, nape of the neck
in the crook of my elbow, hips nearly as
small as a least tern's tail
against my wrist, thigh held loosely
in the loop of thumb and forefinger, the
sign that means exactly right. I'd soap him,
the violet, cold feet, the scrotum
wrinkled as a waved whelk, the chest,
hands, clavicles, throat, gummy
furze of the scalp. When I got him too soapy he'd
slide in my grip like an armful of buttered
noodles, but I'd hold him not too tight,
I felt that I was good for him,
I'd tell him about his wonderful body
and the wonderful soap, and he'd look up at me,
one week old, his eyes still wide
and apprehensive. I love that time
when you croon and croon to them, you can see
the calm slowly entering them, you can
sense it in your clasping hand,
the loose spine relaxing against
the muscle of your forearm, you feel the fear
leaving their bodies, he lay in the blue
oval plastic baby tub and
looked at me in wonder and began to
move his silky limbs at will in the water.
There was a great tenderness to the sadness
when I would go there. She knew how much
I loved my wife and that we had no future.
We were like casualties helping each other
as we waited for the end. Now I wonder
if we understood how happy those Danish
afternoons were. Most of the time we did not talk.
Often I took care of the baby while she did
housework. Changing him and making him laugh.
I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburgh and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.
Rushed all morning, I leave the house
without buttoning my coat, drive into town,
am waiting at a stoplight when I see
the shadow-mother in the car behind me
twist and lean to check her sleeping infant.
Suddenly I know—more fundamentally
than I've known anything—I've left
my baby home. The dream proceeds,
an underwater dance in which each step
is languid, hampered, infuriatingly
slow. Traffic swirls like storm debris,
my car is blunt and useless as a raft.
Awakened by the shriek
of the morning's first shower—
angry mix of air and water
in the bathroom pipes—I hear
the sullen movements of my full-limbed,
full-grown daughter in her senior year.
She's overslept, she's overtired,
I know that if I try to speak to her
I'll get an angry, muffled Mom—her signal
for an end to conversation. So I let
myself fall backward into sleep,
and like a book whose pages separate
just where the bookmark's wedged
its narrow foot, the dream takes up
the story of my mothering, along with its
familiar consequence: I never get her back.
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack in the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.