â€”for my brother
The air was suddenly still and green.
The tornado approached invisibly
beyond the magnolia trees. The hairs
on our arms stood up, and we didnâ€™t move,
though safety was twenty yards away.
Something suspended us in that strange
air. If you had not reached for my hand,
would you have stayed frozen? The look
on your face was terror, but not
of the storm. I felt it too: fear of
myself. We ran the rest of the way
holding hands, and Iâ€™m not sure if I
dragged you or you dragged me. You said,
Someday the elements will kill me.
What was it like to be struck by lightning
twice and live, a child crackling with
the miracle of survival?
The first time, our mother held you. She
said your face lit up like a light bulb,
and I still think of her arms as circuitry
and that crooked, white-hot finger
touching you like a baptism.
Later, you were older and alone,
running home before the storm set
itself loose. When you woke, aching, rain
stroked your forehead like anxious hands.
Did you lie there watching the drops spiral
down to you, magnified, silent
in the electric ringing of your ears?
Did you think, just for a moment,
of never coming in?
The car that killed our sister struck you
too. I remember clay streaked your arms
and legs the color of sunset. Your
mouth was a hole, and, for a long time,
I heard thunder in the absence of words.
Buying the World Book Encyclopedia
The salesman was enormously fat and gestured
widely with chubby hands glittering with class
rings. Over his head, wires hung where a ceiling fan
would someday hang. The plaster on the wall
waited to be sanded while my mom and dad sat
raptâ€”her smile stretched and eager, his cheeks red
with sun and after work scrubbingâ€”imagining
reports my brother and sister and I might write,
the things we might knowâ€”who knows
what we might need to know?â€”the places
we might go in those World Books.
But the salesmanâ€”good Godâ€”the salesman!
He wore a suit, black jacket and all,
like a minister, like a funeral director, like nothing
so much as a door-to-door salesman.
It was Florida , early September. We had
no air conditioner. Box fans in the windows
stirred a cross breeze, but he was so fat
and in that suit and gesturing like thatâ€”standing up
and sitting down, flashing illustrations
at my mom and dad in their seats, at me
in the hallway in my nightshirtâ€”when he sat
back down and the main brace of the couch
broke under his weight and he landed flat
on his ample ass, he must have thought
heâ€™d wandered into hell.
But my parentsâ€”good Godâ€”my parents!
They bought the books, the whole set, five yearbook
updates and the four-volume medical encyclopedia
because at that time I wanted to be a doctor
and they believed with all their hearts
that I could do it. What luck! What suckers! What
fat, fabulous fortune! The salesman must have wished
he had more to sell.
My parents paid in monthly installments for those books.
The house remained unfinished. The couch my mom had built
from her own design was broken and never properly repaired.
My sister was too young for encyclopedias, and
my brother and I didnâ€™t use them for school reports.
But we read them. We flipped through those magnificent
pagesâ€”twenty-four volumes of knowledge, useless
and magical as our birthstonesâ€”and read the subjects
that grabbed us. Argentina, Yorkshire Terriers,
Mere Cats, Cannabis, Vlad the Impaler, Peter the Great.
My favorite part, though, the reason I wanted the books
even as the couch broke and the salesman
crashed to the floor like a comedian, was the section
on anatomy: a sheaf of transparent pages, each
showing a system of the body in full color, each
page partially hiding the one beneath, peeling back
to reveal muscles and veins and organs and bones,
layer by layer, like memory. I started this poem
thinking of my mother building furniture.
Our yellow-haired daughter
is growing like a weed,
so say my fatherâ€™s people, my blood kin
whoâ€™ve grown corn in Kentucky,
Iowa and Florida,
even with sandy soil,
insects and blazing heat.
I think of blossoming and taking
root: a tree blooming: the froth-covered
cherry trees in France,
my grandmotherâ€™s yellow-lamped
rain tree or the bougainvillea
I planted on the front porch
our fifth year in this apartment,
the year our daughter was born,
its elegant branches not yet
trailing flowers I imagined
bursting forth like butterflies.
But it wouldnâ€™t bloom, restricted
in the biggest pot I could buy.
I dreamedâ€”literally dreamedâ€”
of putting that plant in the ground,
but itâ€™s all sand here, and the groundskeeper
will weed-whack anything.
I know what our relatives
would sayâ€”You need a house.
Alice needs a yard to play inâ€”
but this is not about ownership.
A deed doesnâ€™t make roots
stretch and dig. This is about love
and the plain bull-headedness it takes
to grow this close to the sun.
We have wind here, too,
and drought sometimes and
sometimes too much rain.
The violets my mother gave me,
cut from my grandmotherâ€™s violets,
spread purple lace across my window sill.
I separated the new growth
from the old, nine plants in two clay pots
no bigger than a manâ€™s fist,
My grandmother complains
that corn is never sweet in Florida,
but who cares?
We eat bananas for sweetness,
touch their broad leaves,
feel the hurricane waiting
off shore and the roots spreading
and the threat of rot and sinkholes.
Ten birds of paradise bloom
under the cabbage palm,
and my grandmother plants mint
under the rain tree. I coax
this bougainvillea up its trellis,
its flowers, jewel-bright and racing
up the branches, our girlâ€™s favorite
color: passion pink.