A father pins his son against a wall
and wraps his hand around that little throat
to squeeze it only once, as if to say
I cannot take this wildness of your wings.
An hour afterwards, he wipes a cloth
across the stinging eyes his boy can’t close
enough, the soapy rivulets a burn
that rinses with the ducky song they make
together out of time. In thirty years
looped tubes and wires of the ICU
will worm the father’s bed. His son will hum
until the nurses flutter off like wrens,
until a final thirst surrenders light
like feathers fanned across the star-burned ice.
A Drought September
I wanted the bank agent to find me in pieces
down by our mailbox, just as the crows
came hopping back after the blast
like gossipers at a wake. We had paced
three weeks without rain. Each cabbage
was a kindergarten shoe charred
in a school fire. My wife begged all month
for me to telegram her rich uncle
in Columbus. She rocked, fretting needles
on the porch. Whenever a distant tractor
rumbled on a neighbor’s hill
she’d shiver at the billowed lion-manes
of dust spun up by its wheels. Nothing
was paved then. No one thought to name
the numbered roads. My quail shotgun
was a Christmas gift I hunted with
once. Two shells clacked in my pocket
through clouds of gnats. The bank man
was due at four. I broke the chamber
and stared into its empty wells
when, echoing off the barn, a breeze
brought my youngest daughter’s voice
from her knotted rope swing
singing olly olly oxen free.
The Loneliness of Kings
Each duchess twirling through the masquerade
avoids their gaze, a pale refusal.
No rain weeps down their shirts, darkening
the dreariness of magistrates who flit
and tattle by the fireplace. New chefs
express their pedigree with greasy soup.
Daughters fritter velvet afternoons.
Secluded in their towers with lorgnettes
it’s hard for lords to see the terror frieze
of lopped-off heads that tumble down to straw.
At night no distant cannon’s song can crack
the moon. Our kings all lie awake, fatigued
that some lands throw their sons against machines
to drown in blood before they’ll hail a crown.
June 11, 1963
It must have stung Duc’s eyes, the gasoline
other monks poured down his head that ran
to soak his robes and puddle in his pose.
Did he try to blink them clear and take
one final look at June, a cobalt sky,
the palace down the boulevard where guards
kept watch for their buffoon? Might he have grieved
for prayer beads his fingertips caressed,
the clack they’d never make again for night
like bones a shepherd tosses at his dogs?
Inside his budded hands the match stayed dry.
Ogling whisperers clogged the road. If god
spoke then, he raged at death with death and blazed
a second sun to curse us with its flames.
On What Would Have Been My Father’s 65th Birthday
Minnows scrawl cold hieroglyphs
across my feet. Invader, I enter
their stream, having come to rinse
hike sweat in this glassy burble,
a postcard serenity. Father,
I crouch and splash, remembering
how ashamed I was to ask,
and the insistence of the undertaker
that someone identify your body.
When he wheeled you out, cocooned
in sheets, your scalp turbaned
with a towel, I admired the farcical
concealment of an autopsy.
The stream quivers its silver skin.
Your pale, unmade face was one
of these stones, whiskered with moss.
I have carried your lesson here,
inside the mountain’s thousand greens
so I may try to refuse
the uselessness of awe.
Adam Tavel’s third poetry collection, Catafalque, won the 2017 Richard Wilbur Award (University of Evansville Press, 2018). He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, 2017) and Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015), winner of the Permafrost Book Prize in Poetry. His recent poems appear in Verse Daily, Willow Springs, Crazyhorse, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, 32 Poems, Third Coast, and Arts & Letters, among others. You can find him online at http://adamtavel.com/.