For beauty, I had four healthy teeth pulled,
and each morning since I spit blood
pooling like regret’s venom
at the back of my throat, wondering
why I wanted all my life
a straight smile. Sure
the drift of years tugged all the front biters
to the left and the molars bent
like supplicants in toward the tongue
so that I chewed on the thrust up edge
of the right side, but haven’t I always lived
on the edge with my bad enunciation,
a rebellious overbite?
In college I was sent to a speech therapist
who could not manage to create
around my uncooperative teeth
the perfect s or delineate an f
without the whistling music that waltzed
between the gaps. She gave up,
handed me a sheet of exercises that I soon forgot
in lieu of how to keep boyfriends
from running off with girls whose canines
were tamed to round, less prone
to tear into chunks of bright red meat.
For beauty, I worked out, lifted
weights, ran full-out miles,
capped a stray tooth,
tried various mascara tints, dyed
my lips the color of a fresh stab wound,
then finally landed a real job and learned
to smile without exposing those strong
and wolfish fangs. Now, in the mirror
it is absence I see, four clots
like black lakes of terror in my gums
and what I will have gained
when the metal cages are gone–
a smile straight out of Vogue,
Hit and Run
or Stewe and Ingela
If there’d been wind, the black
nexus of a hawk’s eye refracting
a kaleidescope of blood, but
there was no wind, no blood, just EMTs
cracking the sternum of the shoeless young black man
sprawled on the berm while
traffic crawled like drugged beetles
around him, just firemen’s helmets,
yellow slickers and Sunday’s impatient hands.
The soles of his feet were exactly our color.
If sun hadn’t amplified all the fushia cheeks
of wild geraniums, the stiff tongues of protea
wagging from arthritic stems, had dust
not spun gold between the charred trunks
of African pines on Signal Peak, we’d have seen
even the brightest pigments ignore the broken
as they ignore our happiness.
Don’t we all need
light, even though light is
indifferent to everyone’s grief?
If we hadn’t been headed to the bluff
for wedding photos above the rippled blue
Atlantic, where Wright Whales sound,
no longer pursued by harpoons
for rich perfume, we’d never
seen the end of this man.
In the book of politics, poverty
is the last sin to die.
Who notices one more nameless death
these days. He was someone’s son.
At the scene, no police, no
culprit, just the beginning of rictus.
Whoever hit the young man is long gone
inside a coward’s shoulder
turning away. There was, that day,
just the road and all of us climbing the mountain
and sorrow digging suddenly at the trees.
Cape Town, South Africa
for George Uschuk
A bassoon dropped to the bottom of Lake Michigan
your voice returns in the rain that reduces the world
to amorphous cold smoke I cannot shape.
Shape was never indistinct in your hands that
sculpted everything from kitchen cabinets to built-in beds
and writing desks; those fleshy lathes as
tough and heated as steel poured into molds
for car frames you lifted at the Olds, where you
put in more years than I have teeth
to bite through the stinging barbwire of loneliness
that binds my heart. I recall Sunday
morning phone calls, our bad singing
war stories better than any church-
bound sermons, laughter huge as any savior
that brought me back from tightrope walks
across those myriad ice bridges of self-doubt
swayed by disillusionment’s raw wind.
Sometimes, Dad, there is no loneliness
like an ad for the Superbowl,
all those coach’s blunders you’d cuss out
or the lies of politicians on TV
smiling as they staggered like possums
on the sides of reason’s highway.
Remember driving cross-country year
after year from Michigan to Colorado, the Cutlass
a waxed pendulum ticking to the rhythm of your stories–
the way Johnny Weismuller taught you to swim
in ninth grade or the time you flew the bomber
all the way across the Atlantic from Brazil
to the coast of Africa, spread gold
as a lioness against a gigantic wash of blue–
stories to keep each other awake
as we sucked orange wedges, licked
Snickers bars from our fingertips
numbed on the humming wheel.
What did you say to Mom, who sat
knitting or reading in the back seat, when
she’d startle like a rock dove, head
jerking up at us with her shriek,
“We’re going the wrong way!
That field’s on fire. It’s heading
right for us!” Maybe her delusions knew that
the fire was always heading for us, her heart
that you’d always keep her from the flames.
Today is your birthday, Dad, and what heads
for me is memory’s long smolder
damp as campfire coals
on a star-spidered Michigan beach
where somewhere offshore your voice bells
from its submarine cave
my forgotten loved daughter’s name.