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Peter died in a paper tiara
cut from a book of princess paper dolls;
he loved royalty, sashes
and jewels. I don’t know,
he said, when he woke in the hospice,
I was watching the Bette Davis film festival
on Channel 57 and then—
At the wake, the tension broke
when someone guessed
the casket closed because
he was in there in a big wig
and heels, and someone said,
You know he’s always late,
he probably isn’t here yet—
he’s still fixing his makeup.
And someone said he asked for it.
Asked for it—
when all he did was go down
into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted,
giving himself over so drunk
or stoned it almost didn’t matter who,
though they were beautiful,
stampeding into him in the simple,
ravishing music of their hurry.
I think heaven is perfect stasis
poised over the realms of desire,
where dreaming and waking men lie
on the grass while wet horses
roam among them, huge fragments
of the music we die into
in the body’s paradise.
Sometimes we wake not knowing
how we came to lie here,
or who has crowned us with these temporary,
precious stones. And given
the world’s perfectly turned shoulders,
the deep hollows blued by longing,
given the irreplaceable silk
of horses rippling in orchards,
fruit thundering and chiming down,
given the ordinary marvels of form
and gravity, what could he do,
what could any of us ever do
but ask for it.
It’s a trick question. One we can only answer for ourselves. For me, it begins in the past.
My parents were born in Alabama in the 1920s. Their parents were farmers. They were poor and poorly educated. My mother never made it past the eighth grade and my father earned his high school diploma when he returned from the war. Their lives were made up of dramatic stories: the early deaths of their mothers, brothers who fought each other, brothers killed in the war or by their own hand. There was my mother’s childhood stigma of a crossed-eye from measles and my father’s war wound that sent him seesawing between pain pills and alcohol. In some ways my parents’ childhoods were straight out of the story worlds of Faulkner and O’Connor.
But when I was a kid, I didn’t know that. I just knew there was a lot of drama in their pasts, and sometimes in our present. Continue reading