The physician tells me much I know already:
These structures of your mind correspond
with women’s, his illustrations clearly lined
in color quadrants, lobes lit up, explain.
Life won’t be simple either way and, it’s an
impossible choice. I take a year. Then advice.
Lose weight now. Grow out your hair. Unlearn
hiding. Mostly fear will pass. Passing’s always
a state of mind, though you may require surgery.
The list of surgeons lengthens without end.
Choose. This one Boston. This one
Wisconsin. Save your money. How’s your wife?
IN THE OLD METROPOLITAN HOSPITAL
Look, my friend the security guard said
in the operating room of the abandoned hospital
as he swung surgeon’s lamps—incapable
of casting shadows—over my two dumb hands
illuminating them by vein and tendon, crease
and caffeine tremor bluing in the cold like patients
lost beneath those lights or our faces mirrored
in the row of monitors staring down the stairs
we climbed up to the psych ward—sectioned
into cells and a sideroom covered in padding,
long-clutching panic and withdrawal scratched
in unfamiliar glyphs across the plastic window—
where I remembered Alice, who was always just
released on good behavior, lost near Boulevard,
and needing money for tampons. And though it was
a child other children uncovered in play sand
at the elementary school years ago, for months
I remembered the story wrong and saw instead
Alice’s cane-thin forearm, thick in the boy’s palm
and her jaw as full of clotted silt as it must’ve been
the morning she was found under the grassy bank
below the last fall line of the James, undressed
by current or the man who placed her there.
Down then, already near dawn, we descended
to the morgue, where my friend withdrew a tray
from the lockered wall to show me where the last
body had been kept, a man who woke to flames
in a geriatric tenement, his skin charred to scales,
and remnant scales flickered back beneath our breath
on the unclean pan which hung stupidly between us
until I understood I wasn’t brave enough to gather
what was left of him, cupped in my palm, to take
beyond the large parking lot and scatter through
the courtyard walled in juniper—a simple courtesy
even Alice would’ve carried out, portioning him
among the empty thrushes’ nests for luck,
because it would be easier for her—late in spring,
when bird wings sound like water across
the outer brick of run-down buildings and not
like an arsonist wading untended fields
or the onrush of burning—if she wandered there
to sleep beneath the cooling granite bench, and first
had to hush him from her thoughts with reassurances,
repeating: Friend, my only friend—the thing
she always said when crossing the street, broken curb,
yellow and white weedbloom in the ankle high grass
from which she stepped, her arm outstretched
those many afternoons I would refuse her anything.
Your daughter showed me the ones you kept
as proof that you sold those parents the pictures
they asked for, their instructions in brackets
at the glossy-white margins:
[Blush/Powder] an infant whose eyes could not be shut.
Another, a girl who would be ten this year, [Dress/Blanket]
glowed in her yellow gown, over-exposed
after the run red light and sutured mother. [None] worse
than the rest: gone in utero, its flesh still womb-water taut,
the wrested expression of its purpled face not to be believed.
Never an explanation. She said the parents were led
out a side door, released to the mornings or late afternoons
of their loss, to take themselves home before you arrived.
No one stayed for that. And the body, if what remained
could be called a body, was left alone in the darkened room
and that often, you had to wash it yourself:
lower it gently to the stainless sink, cupping the neck,
careful of the soft skull, the water warmed to your wrist.
Only now do I understand why you let us wander
alone so many nights through the warm fields and stables,
and know what you hoped for from the tallgrass pastures
while her father slept, drunk and barely rising
rom the couch. I return to these thoughts when I wake
and stare with fear and then wonder at my wife’s stomach.
In the morning dark I am waiting with a hand at her navel,
for the subtle kick, a heel swung out from the suspended dream.
There is nothing to do but wait. In the doctor’s office,
we watch the shape of our child form in the black and white
resin of sound on the little monitor we all must look up to see.
The sonographer’s face is as impassive as a mechanic’s.
Then flow chart and pen scratch, the transducer lifted,
and our daughter recedes, kilohertz at a time.
Those first years after your daughter, I knew a girl
whose boyfriend was in the Army, then gone for war.
He came home twice before mortars or the broil
of a blown up vehicle kept him. The last time he left
she was sleeping. This was their agreement, since
she could not willingly let him go. Rumor was she quit
the pill weeks before his last furlough, then met him
at the airport and took him home. And of course,
of course she didn’t tell. You’d have to know her
as I knew her then, to see how years piled under her eyes.
Her hair thinned with waiting. The boy was healthy
when he came, and she brought him around.
The other story followed. She could not leave him
in his crib to sleep, but woke to check his breathing
every hour, obsessed to know that he lived, even when
he wailed to be changed, or took to her breast, or began
to crawl a little. When she turned away, he was gone.
He’d been on the bed. He had been lying on the bed
near her. With her hand on his back, she’d counted
breath-falls and minutes of heartbeat. When he woke,
she would tell him another story of his father
coming home. He was gone. She’d left to take a call
and come back and found him face down in the folds
of a plastic bag between the bed and wall.
When I’m driving home after work, and think of this,
I swerve to keep course, and sometimes wander
the aisles of superstores filled with gadgets and toys,
plush clothes pressed to the shape of six months,
nine weeks, one year, stand gawking at self-rocking cribs,
the crystalline rows of bottles and modestly packaged
breast pumps, pacifiers and bibs with lion or chicken or frog
or innumerable constellations of stars stitched in their corners.
After your daughter showed me the snapshots
of what had been lost, neither of us asked why
anyone would want such a portrait. To frame
and have blessed, or keep locked and untouchable,
preserved like a promise held in the silences
of unspeakable memory, it didn’t matter
to us then. We walked out together, toward
the stream at the edge of your land. It was
Summer. The heat was unbelievable, even in
the coolest place we knew. We pulled off our shirts
and spread them under us to lie down.
Though there was no moon, we did not kiss
or touch each other, wanting only our own silence
in the scald of such knowledge we should not have.
-from Constellarium, Orison Books, 2016
BIO: JORDAN RICE is the author of Constellarium (Orison Books, 2016), a finalist for the 2017 Kate Tufts Award. She is an executive editor for Dublin Poetry Review and lives in Richmond, Virginia.