“They tell me I was down in the tomb an hour and a half.
That must be a mistake. I was down there a year.”
~ Charles P. Everett, bell diver who explored
the sunken steamer, General Slocum. 16 June 1904
Fire, yes. But first there was water
and early summer sky, an unblemished blue
offered back to itself as if from a mirror’s
reliable surface. Onboard—music,
bright confections and the liquid-silver refrains
of laughter. Then something soft as
the sound wings make as they lift,
then pull towards light. The swift sizzle of a
match spark on the hay-tindered floor
of the forward hold, heavy hinges swung
toward the hasp, sealing everything poised
that side of regret in breathlessness
which might have choked on its own ill intent
were it not for the deckhand who threw back
the hatch, fed that infernal blossom
just as the ship’s great wheels churned
into Hell’s Gate, thick with white-knuckle waves,
the sinister suck of whirlpools, and the clutch of
swift currents just a hand’s-breadth beneath.
Unaware, the passengers danced until
the floorboards began to bow and blister,
the band’s music halted, the dance itself,
not stopped, but transformed
into something macabre, five-hundred
spinning skirts and wide sleeves flaring white to
black through a toll of ochre, almost chartreuse
at its core, while the captain steamed upwind
toward North Brother Island, fresh paint and bunting
shedding a shawl of blood-orange in its wake,
the Slocum itself, one plumed, searing torch,
open decks flooded with men and women
who clasped their sons and daughters
or tore at each other, their choice—fire or water—
the means through which each would rise
or fall into eternity.
One-thousand twenty-one souls.
And few who could swim. And few who could
tread water or fight the rotted cork jackets
as they filled with East River tide
that pulled them down like anchor chains
past the light’s myopic reach.
Twenty minutes and most of the dying
was over, the steamer impaled on mossy rock
in shallows too deep for wading.
On shore, nurses and patients spilled
from the doors and lower casements
of the island’s quarantine, bearing ladders,
spools of gauze and clean linens,
a froth of white that rushed down past
the sea wall where the Slocum’s hulk smoldered
at a starboard list—hundreds still held within
that timber tomb—while above their quiet forms
eddies stirred the drifting dead, unpinned tangled
tresses to traceries. And the white blooms
of petticoats, bonnets, child-sized blankets, opened
against the liquid blue, as if a throng of revelers
had just passed through the gates of hell,
casting handfuls of pale roses as they went.
(Rosalia Lombardo, 1918-1920, Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo, Sicily)
Nothing so coarse and fumbling
as the rituals of Pharaoh’s high priests
with their hooks and blood-stained bowls,
the dreary drawing out of brain
through nose we name excerebration.
Nor would the simple black sleep
of graveyard earth do for his darling Rosalia,
seven days shy of her second birthday,
choked by serous fluid that filled her
scarred lungs so she drowned
on dry land, a mile’s remove
from the glint of Sicilian sand.
How could any father countenance
the amplitude of such loss,
all the long days that seemed
assured and spread out
like ripened fruit on a picnic blanket
as if by a sudden summer storm?
What remained was stillness
quiet as the star-strewn galaxies,
his unspoken prayer, if not for return
then at least suspension
of such dreadful undoing,
a deal struck with a lesser god
who guided the hands of Alfredo Salafia
toward mad artifice, a new formulary
to perfect a ghostly stasis:
glycerin to keep the flawless
flesh from dwindling to dust;
chloride and zinc sulfate
to harden all that would go slack
and fall away;
formalin and salicylic acid
to hold back those things unseen
that would consume her
from within like slow fire
that chars deep seams of anthracite.
And now, nearly a century has passed
since they tucked her in this slight sarcophagus,
sealed the glass above that placid face
with paraffin and petitions
to her sainted namesake that she might
keep the black watch of the catacombs
beside this child who’s become
little more than a weary cliché,
a girl barely past the cries of infancy
who, it seems, might rise at any instant,
slip shyly down the long corridors
of the dead who regard eternity’s endless
endlessness from hooks on the ancient walls.
Rosalia, daughter of airless dark,
patron saint of desolate fathers
and unfaltering denial, what should I say
to the woman who kneels dumbstruck
beside me, who does not know
your perfection is fragile
as the glass that guards you,
that your sleep is a delicate deceit
a simple hammer strike would shatter,
unloosing the dogs of decay?
Tell me, when should we stop
letting grief tell us its beautiful lies?
(Yagamata Prefecture, Japan)
Begin at sunrise
with a handful of stiltgrass,
hazel, and pine nuts.
Near midnight, before you
lie upon the forest floor,
fill your palms with nutmeg
for a repast.
In the hours between, run
until the fire in your chest
extinguishes breath, then walk
until your diminishing legs
will take you no further.
Sit where you fall—dung heap,
moss bed or snow-bank.
Repeat this for 1,000 days.
Next, strip off your clothes
as a snake molts its diamond-plate.
Let sun or ice flay you.
Let rain spill like quicksilver
over the rising bones
of your back and number your ribs
like mala beads—a sickled mantra
that circles you at the core.
Tear bark from trees or
take their roots for sustenance.
When your tongue grows thick
with thirst almost a madness,
stoop to lap from puddles
carved by deer that passed
beside the river.
Repeat this for 1,000 days.
Now you must be done with eating.
Let nothing pass your lips but
the bitter sap of the lacquer tree
which will sicken you
nearly unto death, scour you bright
and hollow as a begging bowl.
Be still and feel yourself begin
to petrify from the inside
so that when you stand after
meditation it will be as if to a chorus
of cracked offal and breaking bone.
Repeat this for 1,000 days.
Finally, enter the chamber
you carved in root-thick earth,
a space so small the crescent
of your shoulders spans
from side to side. Settle like a lotus,
the pads of your feet turned up
as the face of a flower that follows the sun.
Permit no final glance at distant clouds
before the stone is set above you,
nor flinch as the bamboo rod stabs
a sluice of light into the black
to siphon air enough for you to keep alive.
Ring the bell at your side
when you hear the forest stir to life
again when the owls cry each to each,
so the priests who press their ears
against your tomb
will know you are still breathing.
Repeat this until you can no longer
Now the reed will be withdrawn
like a sword yanked
from a grievous wound.
Now the holy men will
fill the gap with dead leaves
and thick resin.
Now they will wait 1,000 days
to open the mouth of your grave
and behold what has become.
You will either glow
with the hard-won polish
of 3,000 agonies, or you will not.
You will be a thing to be praised
or reviled, to be enshrined
in bright robes or covered
with mud and forgotten.
No matter to the blossoms
that scatter their colors without
fanfare. No matter to the stars
that shine without artifice.
-from Obscura (Orison Books), selected by Assistant Editor, Karen Carr
Frank Paino holds a BA in English from Baldwin Wallace University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College low-residency writing program. While studying at Vermont, he had the privilege of working with poets Richard Jackson, Mark Doty, Lynda Hull and David Wojahn. Following graduation, he eschewed a teaching career in favor of a non-academic position at a university where he continues to work to this day. Frank's volumes of poetry are: Obscura (Orison Books, 2020), Out of Eden (1997 - Cleveland State University Press), The Rapture of Matter (1991 -Cleveland State University Press). He has received a number of awards for his work, including a 2016 Individual Excellence Award from The Ohio Arts Council, a Pushcart Prize and The Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature. His chapbook, Pietà, won the 2023 Jacar Press Chapbook Competition, and will be out in 2024.