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Sheryl St. Germain
A Perfect Game
—after Robert Hayden
Sundays too, I tell my son, your grandfather drank—
at the bowling alley between strikes and spares and claps on the back.
I loved to watch him make the approach for his shot:
how serious, how attentive to his posture,
the placement of his hands, his eyes never
wavering from the pins, the ball sent on its sure arc,
hooking into the head pin at just the right angle
for all to fall down. Often, in the early years,
he would bowl a perfect game, twelve strikes
in a row, no matter how much he drank. Somehow
drink and skill merged for a time into the poetry
of a flawless act. Sometimes we would drive with him
to tournaments far away, fear gripping us as he woozed
back home, barely avoiding the crashes he would have
in the future. Time passed, he bowled fewer strikes,
and his trophies migrated to the hall closet,
piled up one on the other, so many forgotten
bodies: bronze statues of the same faceless man
with the golden ball, his name plated at the bottom.
Before he died he met me for dinner
one last time, hands trembling,
voice quaking, almost incoherent. He couldn’t eat,
would only drink cup after cup of black coffee.
I was still a child. What did I know,
what did I know, of a father’s Stygian alleys,
of drink’s guttered offices?
Summer Solstice, 2015
You’ve been dead six months and twelve days. I draw back the curtains and open the window as far as it will open to breathe in the morning air. The sun’s rising over the treed mountains as far as you can see. Enthusiastic birds sing as if their lives depended on getting the song just right, insects buzz as if already drunk on the day, roosters crowing. It’s morning in rural France, the longest day of the year.
You would hate it.
I head out for my daily walk, choosing a winding path where I’ll have to brush rosemary bushes as big as small cars, and budding lavender bushes. I tread on wild mint, spot tiny wild strawberries and foxglove, roses and grape vines. The air is redolent with the wild perfume of morning.
You were always a person of night, even as a child, before the drinking, the pills, and all the rest. When you grew to be a man, it got worse; it was almost as if you were allergic to sunlight. Some days you never saw sun at all.
This day, the longest of the year, you would understand as the shortest night of the year. I stay up until the sun goes down, watching outside the window as the sky darkens.
Today, I’ll walk another day without you.
I’ll carry you in me, like before you were born,
on these walks.
It’s night everywhere in me,
so it should feel like home.
Prayer for a Son
May your soul now be with the creek,
may it swell and flood in spring, brimming
with excitement and wildness
as you sometimes were in this other life,
ebbing and emptying in winter
to reveal what had been hidden
in those spring floods—
the wounds and bones of your heart.
May the small fish that live here
nibble at your ashes, finding them
sweet and filling,
and may the dusts of your body fall
like pollen on the spring wild flowers,
deepening the pinks, yellows,
and lavenders of their petals
until their colors are like wells
that lead to another way of knowing.
May the insects sense the presence
of your spirit as they make trails
through your leavings,
may summer rains join with you, and
together may you enter the thin crusts
of this soil to reach the roots of oak
and cedar, juniper and cactus.
May you overfill their veins with that joy
you sought but rarely found
until you burst into acorn or berry or fruit.
And when the wind blows, may it catch
and scatter the dust of you on wing of bird
or butterfly, on fur of squirrel or rabbit,
coyote, cougar or wild horse,
may you fly with them to strange places
those you have left behind can neither know nor imagine,
and when you are root and wing, seed
and flower, when you are bone and breath,
then may we be blessed to hear you
in song of bird and cricket, may we see
you again in the mad blinking
of the fireflies, and in the silence after
the poem's last word.
-from The Small Door of Your Death
PROMPT: What is a prayer? According to George Herbert it is "the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage," and that is certainly true of Sheryl St. Germain's "Prayer for a Son." In this heart-breaking poem, she says a prayer for a dead son, hoping that his soul can "now be with the creek," and that the "small fish" living there will "nibble [his] ashes." In other words, a prayer is our most secret, vulnerable longing put into words.
Send your heart on a pilgrimage. Write the prayer you're afraid to write.
BIO: Sheryl's poetry books include Going Home (Perivale), The Mask of Medusa (Cross Cultural Communications), (chapbooks) Making Bread at Midnight (Slough Press), How Heavy the Breath of God, The Journals of Scheherazade (University of North Texas Press), and Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems (Autumn House Press). She has also published a chapbook of translations of the Cajun poet Jean Arceneaux, Je Suis Cadien (Cross Cultural Communications).
She has published two memoirs, Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman (University of Utah Press), and Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair (Louisiana Literature Press). She co-edited, with Margaret Whitford, Between Song and Story: Essays for the 21st Century (Autumn House Press). With Sarah Shotland she co-edited Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence and Incarceration, (Trinity University Press).
She published a new poetry collection, The Small Door of Your Death, in Spring 2018 with Autumn House Press. A collection of essays, Fifty Miles, is forthcoming with Etruscan Press in early Spring 2020.
A native of New Orleans, Sheryl has taught creative writing at The University of Texas at Dallas, The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Knox College, and Iowa State University. Her work has received several awards, including two NEA Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, the Ki Davis Award from the Aspen Writers Foundation, and the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay.
She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University where she also teaches poetry and creative nonfiction. She is the co-founder and director of the Words Without Walls Program.