Fear Now is Never Foreign To Me
In Laurie Garrett’s book, The Coming Plague,
death is microscopic, indifferent,
hovering in a friend’s sneeze
or riding piggy-back
on the kiss of reassurance your husband gives you
before he leaves for work in the cotton mill
Joe McCormick named in the 1970s
the epicenter of N’zara’s Ebola epidemic—
a microbe no one in Sudan had seen before
and so, in the makeshift hospital
that took your husband in the day he started bleeding,
how could they have known what they were facing?
And when nothing they did to treat you helped,
and you died a few days after they buried him,
and your family came to push and pull the waste from your bowels
and to make your corpse vomit
the food sitting undigested in its stomach,
how could they have known
that curled inside this cleansing
meant to send you as pure to your grave
as you were when you fell from your mother’s womb
a death waited to be born
that would cleanse the earth of them as well,
and of all who came to make sure their dead too
had left behind in this world
the last things they’d taken from it?
Or sometimes death is a darkness honing in on you,
a Muriel Degauque, whose Roman Catholic life began
in the coal-mining black-country corner of Belgium.
Handpicked, The New York Times suggests,
for the way her whiteness
and the voice she spoke her language in
would pacify suspicion,
Muriel stepped off the edge of her days
on November 9, 2005 in Baquba Iraq,
a Muslim come to kill American soldiers,
choosing—though no one knows why—
the world-to-come promised to its martyrs
by her new husband’s faith.
Now, here, sitting by myself
in the garden’s south end,
the morning quiet more quiet than usual,
the death I imagine
is like the spray of bullets
you and Shahob ran from
years ago in Roosevelt Field.
“What if he’d been bigger?” you asked,
the fear that follows survival
tightening your throat. “What if
I hadn’t been strong enough to carry him?
Where would we have hidden? Stray bullets
kill no differently than well-aimed ones.”
I walked out after we hung up
into the glow of the closest full moon I’d ever seen,
followed down to the lake
the tree-lined campus path
of Colgate University—I was there
for a poetry conference—
and passed the swan’s nest
the activist poet from Buffalo
had shown me earlier in the day.
I stopped to take a breath, my own smallness
suddenly a weight I had to balance,
and the cob was hissing at my back,
spitting my death into the air
if I did not move a safe distance away,
which I did. I stood there
plotting a path back to my room
that would not disturb him again,
thinking as I watched him return to his post
that it didn’t really matter.
No vigilance can ever be sufficient.
The ending aimed at each of us
will always finds its mark.
A child’s laughter spills over from the north end.
Then, an adult woman’s voice,
“Careful! Don’t swing so high,”
and the squeak of the swing itself,
the same one my mother pushed me on
when I was younger than Shahob is now.
I match the beat of that rusty metronome
with my foot in the grass, marking time
till you return with him from Barnes & Noble.
I picture you paying for the book he’s chosen,
crossing the parking lot, his hand tight in yours.
You forget for a moment where you parked,
fumble your keys when you find the car,
dropping them twice because he’s pulling at you
with a question he will not let go.
I’m guessing ice cream for the ride home.
Telling him no,
you strap him in,
kiss his forehead,
into the driver’s seat,
and turn the key—
all of which places you
precisely behind Nancy
in her white Nissan Sentra,
both of you heading west
on the Grand Central Parkway.
Nancy’s got two kids in the backseat
and a week’s worth of groceries
in the trunk. Her son,
straining against his own straps,
crying like he’s lost his best friend,
reaches for the Buzz Lightyear
on the floor in front of him.
“But he’s only gonna throw it down again!”
his sister complains. “Why do I have to pick it up?”
The holler that starts to rise in Nancy’s throat
never leaves her mouth, becomes instead
the aneurysm that’s been waiting for days
to go super nova between her eyes,
and so she doesn’t see the blue Honda Civic
slowing down in front of her,
or feel the air bag hit hard enough
to snap her glasses in two.
What happens next scatters in slow motion
across all three lanes at Francis Lewis Boulevard
the broken bodies and shattered glass,
the scattered bumpers and orphaned tires
of every car that couldn’t stop
or swerve out of the way in time.
I’m just starting to force myself
not to see what lies among the wreckage
when Shahob calls out
from our building’s back door,
“Richard! We’re here!”
—and I let this waking nightmare go,
and my notebook and my pen,
and I run to meet the two of you halfway.
He talked about her like she was a boat.
You just loaded the ship, son. Where the wind
takes it is out of your hands, hear? She’ll find
a port to dock in. Just be glad you got
what you wanted without getting shot.
Her parents were no better, as if I’d planned
to make her pregnant. We begged them not to send
her away. Once she was gone, they moved out.
Not long after the birth-month, her single
letter came: I named him Bill. Then they took him.
Years later, I drove to where the postmark
pointed. No one would speak to me. I still
hope, though. My son is old enough to look,
and I deserve to tell him who I am.
My Father Loses His Grip
You can pee in the ocean but not in the pool.
Waves are bigger than I can hold my breath.
Out there, a boat in a bathtub, the fourth
one today. The water’s fingers pull
my father’s arms apart. Be careful:
The sun bakes little boys. Salt in my mouth,
sand in my swimsuit. Do fish have teeth?
I’m waiting for God to wrap me in a towel
and carry me to heaven. I’m tumbled,
grab rocks that don’t grab back, gulp air:
My lungs are too small to float. Above my voice,
I know I can’t be seen. I hear my name crumbled
and the water parts. Hands and my father’s face
descend, lift me to his eyes, wrap me in his fear.
“Fear Now Is Never Foreign to Me” appeared in For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press, 2016). “Bill’s Story” and “My Father Loses His Grip” were published in The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press, 2006).