THE PORTRAIT OF AN ENGLISH POET
ON THE COVER OF A PAPERBACK
Only his hands are in focus. They are not
the hands of a surgeon, or mechanic,
but ostensibly clumsy,
even at rest. He poses
for the "faithful, disappointing
photograph," his body wrenched
in different directions, legs twisting
around each other,
going left, torso leaning right.
His eyes choose yet another way,
looking at something we cannot see,
something he may tell us about—later.
His body is such an ambivalence…
but even so, he looks propre,
(which means clean in French).
Except his hands—what have they touched?
Whose skin has he tried to touch?
What he knows, he knows because of his fingertips.
After all the vellum of ancient books,
after rolling tobacco,
and toilet paper, after filing documents
archived in his library…
they hang as though they were clenched
in prayer until a moment ago—
or prepare to clutch.
How can they ever be clean again?
We dipped bread into our bowls of chili,
the meat, a bear Carl shot in Newfoundland
that spring. Before he left on his hunting trip,
he took me to the shooting range.
A week later, he sat waiting, camouflaged,
covered in green mosquito nets that veiled his face—
still, the black flies swarmed him, and bit his hands.
He was a near-perfect marksman.
When he fired at targets, silhouetted deer, or elk,
he always hit the heart.
I walked with him over the grass, gouged
by buckshot and stray slugs,
and saw where his bullet had torn the paper open—
red rings encircled a fatal shot,
yellow, if the hit was only a wound.
My shots were always yellow.
Poor aim, I know—he was unimpressed,
but too fatherly not to nod, and remind me—
I would have hurt the animal,
left a mark it would need to live with,
but live it would, limping maybe,
scarred. In consequence,
I never will use a gun,
although I learned the other, inevitable
ways of causing pain…
I ate slowly, and avoided looking at Carl for fear
of laughing because, when I did,
I saw him, not as he wanted to be seen—
not as he was in the photographs taken by the guide,
posing with that a stocky mass of fur—
you can’t see the wound—
I saw Carl, a little coy, sitting in the shrubbery
with those green veils—like a bride—
waiting for a short marriage.
Out there, you knew you mattered.
People listened. When you spoke,
letters flew halfway around the world.
There were consequences
if you opened the foil backing
of acetaminophen tablets—
this house was paid for, that claim denied.
You enjoyed yourself to a certain extent.
When people at work teased you,
you teased them back, everyone got along.
It didn’t matter if they called you Weathervane,
old rusty rooster, because yes, it seemed
you would not turn, even during storms,
and kept facing East long past dinnertime.
But here, in this quiet room you love,
where you feel you are almost yourself—
the flowers do not care how you arrange them.
They go on wilting. And to your family,
your rhythmic prayers are just
the mutterings of a drunk father. So few,
so few take on the fiction of their lives.
The flowers arrive fresh every day, but
where are their roots? What force can keep
their petals from dropping to the floor?
CRITERIA FOR DREAMING
He dreamed of it again—the green tool box
he could not open, beneath an apple tree,
and shunned the easy symbolism of such dreams
once he woke, ashamed he could not produce,
even in sleep, an image without explanation,
one that resonated in his flesh the way a tone
can fill an instrument. He dressed. He drove
to work where all day he listened to the pulse
of pneumatic impacts, whirring like iron birds,
and dry rust broke off between his fingers,
stained almost permanently with motor oil.
His hands found tools he needed without him
looking inside the box. One after another…
As evening advanced, and rain turpentined
the streetlights, each running like a molten pin
through the dark fabric of asphalt, he saw
a cow rise up dripping from black water,
and after it a young boy ringing a bell.
Because of how hot the forecaster says it will be,
and because the heat takes away my appetite
for anything other than cool salads, I boil eggs
for tonight’s supper early this morning—the time,
exactly 0652 when water starts to roil in the sauce pot.
My windows are fogged, as though an animal
of enormous size stood overnight looking in
the house, its breath steaming up the glass.
Looking through this mist at an overcast sky,
which may produce storms, if only the temperature
would drop one degree, I listen to eggs tapping
against each other, tapping against the pot.
The sound is so close to that of hard-pouring rain
against my roof, and metal flashing around the flue,
that I pretend the storm has come—
and feel comfortably snug, and small, the way I did
as a child on those summer mornings with nothing
to do, just a little practice at listening,
while the slow simmer of distant thunder heightened
the stillness. Here I am, enjoying my delusion,
enjoying, even, the mild discomfort of being
a little too warm—so it’s hard to imagine now,
at 0657, with five minutes more to wait,
that people are dying in Yemen, in Gaza, and Ukraine—
that come Sunday, it will have been two months
since nineteen children were murdered. These lives
ended in less time than it takes to cook an egg.
What can I do? How small a kettle rage is.
It’s 0702, and no rain. I drain and rinse the eggs
in cold water, then open the porch door.
Outside, the air is over-laden with moisture. Everything
is dripping wet. In a pot, four young milkweed plants
show signs that monarch caterpillars have hatched.
I bend a leaf upward carefully and see one,
a small life, like ours, with an uncertain future.
William Welch lives in Utica, NY where he works as a registered nurse. His work has appeared in
various journals, most recently in Nine Mile, Rust+Moth, and Stone Canoe. New work is forthcoming in The Healing Muse, Willawaw Journal, and The Comstock Review. He edits Doubly Mad for The Other Side of Utica (doublymad.org).