Oh, Hell I Guess…

dante-inferno
Dante has his seven circles
Homer his Hades, Isaiah his Sheol,
Jesus a Gehenna of unquenchable fires,
Muhammad a threatening Jahannam,
and John a Lake of sulfuric Fire
for a Disney Land of torturous pain
too much for old-school ameliorists
just wishing for annihilation or the
Great Nothing which means so much
more nothing when capitalized, and
it’s Joseph who gives us two hells – one
temporary for pain and anguish in-between
and romantically tolerable like another
purgatory, but the other a serious forever
of outer darkness for Saints gone astray
or souls beyond their reach or anyone’s;

we have nothing of the kind today,
no gnashing of teeth, unquenchable fire
to torment the wicked and straighten
our ways today by some pragmatic and
self-audited karma of paying it forward
to match the bitch of being paid back,
or peril of judgment tomorrow or
the childhood threat of Santa keeping lists,
instead we have dreams of nothing
like falling asleep – a long rest
or life simply not being so complicated,
a benign-ness beyond feeling, even a light
that everyone wants to walk toward
all met by the certainty of some
that the world is ever-worse
because hell is no more and you’ll see;

but what if – and this is what sticks – what if
even a hint is true of the unknowable,
that’s Pascal’s wager I guess because that’s
all it can be – a guess of what I should
or ought or must do today
while Joseph’s haunting outer darkness
makes me wonder of an even more
lost and irredeemable wilderness,
something beyond the imagination
and that’s what keeps me wanting,
guessing, believing there is more to
believing than believing in hell.

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When children have cancer…

 

 

 

 

Can it be what is deserved
by a four-year-old child?
The cells distorted and
deteriorating inside, from
inside her bones still soft in
youth, but fragile from birth;
some signal isn’t working,
white cells that won’t mature,
too full and crowding life;
and the word everyone
uses is ‘acute’ – a bad and
unwelcome thing with too
many synonyms to count,
all troubling and painful things
with a mysterious origin than
no one knows so there’s no
one to blame except God;
she only has strength to
smile through dry, cracked lips,
her skin is taunt over thinning
features and only her cheeks
show her adolescence, while
adults are masked to protect
her from what’s always worse,
more tiring, more frightening;
it hardly seems right she is
unafraid and just needs to
rest, while everyone around
her is just terrified and can’t.

When family photographs mattered…

Before everything was photographed only
certain things were, special occasions and not
people laughing uncontrollably or our lunch,
people posed, not candid or cute or coy, but
smiling practiced smiles at the prompt ‘Say cheese!’
and we did because it would be weeks before
we knew if someone’s eyes were closed
or Mom would say ‘You didn’t get my good side’
and Dad would be obliged to offer, ‘You don’t
have a bad side, honey’ and that was about
as public as their romance was allowed to be,
sulky children, on the other hand, only had
sour sides, pouting or nonplused standing
stiffly in uncomfortable shoes you couldn’t
even see in the photograph (‘but I know you’re
wearing them’ Mom would say), and they were
primped in starched ‘outfits’ instead of ‘everyday
clothes’ that they were never allowed to ‘play’ in,
as in, just do what it was that a child did, and
this photograph would be pressed into a book,
the corners tucked into those sticky darts
attaching it to the parchment to be viewed on
special occasions or the day after someone in the
photograph died like Dad did and some old Aunt
looking over Mom’s shoulder would say something
like, ‘He always looked so handsome in that suit.’

Death chose me…

 

 

 

 

Preoccupation

I am accused of
having a preoccupation
with death,
the dead,
the anticipation of dying
(which we call birth),
bereavement intrigues me,
hospice and palliative care
I consider bemusing,
even amusing at times;
death and what it means
and doesn’t mean
(everything),
who it involves
(which is every single
last one of us,
no matter how much
we ignore it, which we do,
we all do),
but death waits for no man,
or woman,
so before I could
invite it in for a drink,
a conversation,
it chose me,
when I was just a boy,
disguised at first,
but today bold and sociable,
yet never
on my terms,
and that’s how it all began
and that’s how it all will end,
and I’ll admit
the accusation has a ring
of truth to it.

I knew he’d live forever…

Knob of Pearl

I was eight, maybe nine, and it should have
changed my world to see that my father was
a mere mortal – flesh and bones and blood,
but it only made him more of a superman
to me, impervious to torn flesh and oozing
blood – deep red and opaque seeping from
the gash on his knuckle, layers of skin torn
away by a trowel as he gardened and I played
nearby; “Look,” was all he said and I peered
into his wound to see the bright white of his
bone exposed, a little knob of pearl between
the serrated opening, he bent his finger
and it danced, and for once I said nothing,
for almost fifty years; such a display should
cure the myth of paternal immortality,
but it’s effect was the exact opposite.

The day my Dad died…

June 28

It was a Monday,
hot and humid and still
while I slept away the morning
unaware of the dawn screams, begging,
the ambulance, and slowly gathering family
as everything in my young life fell apart.

I had a new clock,
plastic, yellowish, with numbers
that would flip to the next minute
and I woke to the arrival of 11:28 am
looked out my window to see a dozen cars
I didn’t not recognize or care to care about.

Everywhere I looked
people were whispering,
standing and listening and careful
and when I appeared they turned to look
but didn’t acknowledge that I was the last one
to know, to hear all that had happened.

Even before Mom
could get the words out
I started to cry, but must admit I
just knew it was Nana who had died
because she was old and getting older
but never thought it could be Dad.

He was just 49,
and important and busy,
and when he was home he was home,
with us always with him, but no more,
and an Aunt fed me weak tea and dry toast
because somehow that would help.

When Mom said that earlier…
I felt guilt, of course I loved him,
but with my last words yesterday
I’d cursed him for refusing me something,
kicking and promising my hatred,
now unchangeably my testament.

That was in 1971,
and I was young, naïve,
now wondering if I can still remember
his face, rubbing his whiskers at day’s end,
cooing love instead of what I did,
praying every day he’s forgotten my words.

Is heaven supposed to be a lovely place…

Heaven has become a parody
A lampoon of itself somehow
Beulah land made a game show
Answers in question and you’ll know

Why? is answered with clarity
But why? receives a rationale
It’s better, and it’s a better place
Spared this life, saved disgrace

Priest consoles parents bereaved
Much suffering babe’s been spared
And preacher of dear Emily’s fallen life
Remembering all Lot’s wife

Why face it true while dance macabre
Baptism the pyre for faithless bourgeois
Gnosis the alms of this shangri-la

The deserved grave of richly aged
Welcomed passing when well passed
Only then is rest the Bard’s silence
The grave deserved comeuppance

It is no longer God’s cemetery
Adoration is drowned by homily
But in this veil the last enemy prevails
Mocking clerics spinning tales

We gather because we must
To speak dearly of the departed
Doubt given sense, answered pence
Death is living in past tense

Rejoinder due this bare pain
Fear that nothing wounds as nothing
Ignorance defeats death’s diffidence
Banqueting with wink and wince

Welcome must a proper death
Blessing one’s own Golgotha
Barn sour is requiem’s pale horse
Pall bearing a tour de force

Through hallowed valley I charge
Lively in my step, brave of heart
No Ilyitch be I, ending friendless as he
Receiving viaticum finally and finally

I love the blank page…

It happens quite often, and I hope it never stops,
that pang of jealously that I want to feel
when I’m reading someone else’s work,
someone else’s words,
someone else’s words that I didn’t write,
and I catch myself wondering if I could,
if I could do something like that, somehow,
because I love the way these words go
and I need that on my page – the page I write;

there’s a theory, a bad theory that lies,
that it’s something that I just need to find,
or let out, or is inside me somewhere,
and no jealously is needed, no jealousy is
called for, because this is no competition
and we are all players in a bigger story
where all words are borrowed, all pages already
filled, and creativity is the lie;

but when I turn the page there’s nothing there,
until a small child bends to pluck a dandelion,
building a priceless bouquet, and
the dog keeps chasing the squirrel but never catches it,
and you start calling your children’s names into empty rooms,
sometimes at night when you sleep less than you should but
not for lack of trying, and try to remember when you
finished the things you started – like life,
and the page fills up, and then another, and another
where there was nothing there moments ago, no thoughts,
no stories, no words, and you wish to remember
the jealously that made you love the page.

I might try praying… again…

Let’s Try it Again

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord that’s what I’ll be able to do,
sleep, because that would probably do wonders
for my soul, my health, my marriage even,
I hope; and a kept soul sounds nice,
so I’ll have one of those too,
they’re so slippery, souls that is, and
hard to keep track of or even imagine,
thus (that sounds like a ‘soul’ kind of word,
doesn’t it, ‘thus’), if the good Lord
would keep mine, I’m guessing that
I’d prefer that to having to track the
untrackableness of said soul;
now what comes next about mortality while
asleep, seems heavy-handed
don’t you think, and I wonder if any
child can appreciate the funereal muse
as they kneel bedside
dressed in warm pajamas, hair
still wet from a bath and bubbles
lingering in their ears
reciting the plea that a God who is good
would stoop to take their soul,
but as vague as that sounds,
having your soul taken seems the
best option at this point, so tonight
I might take a bubble bath
and kneel bedside like a child and
try praying again because
I’m concerned with my soul
and it would be nice to sleep well too.

An old man’s arm…

His Arm

The skin thinned as I grew older
and veins were easy to trace
my small finger along as if following
the invisible stream of blood
that must be coursing through them,
bruises and scrapes from
his weekend gardening lingered in
earthy hues of purple fading
into tanned greens into the sun
baked crust remembering
burns and deep cuts from times
before I was me and sitting
close to him mesmerized by the way
something so strong could
become so frail and fragile, and I
wondered at the perfect
plumpness and muscle of my own
so ready to remain young.