2/18/2020

Jordan Rice

MY LIFE

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.

 

 

MEMENTO MORI

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.