We watched strangers in a graveyard of historical significance pose their daughter by a tombstone taller than she was and snap a dozen pictures. And why not. She glowed in the gust of its ambient menace. Maybe they spend entire vacations doing this, recording the way she deflects grim proximities— rocks that leer, coy precipices, waterfalls breathing on her. Things that should swallow her up but don’t. Maybe a father’s job is to build, or try to build, some rapport with all such predators. Maybe that’s why, in a massive hanger on D.C.’s outer rim, my nephew’s father stood his son beneath the Enola Gay, its taut silver belly throwing that pretty light on him. And took this. Look at the sweet kid, beaming there. Look at the plane smiling back.
Like all the overly confident you seemed insufficiently lonely and ashamed, sitting there looking made to sit there, missing no body in particular. I’m the hat, you preened, the ground was meant to wear, the earth was forged to hold me up. But you are cheap, we said, and fake, lightweight, extravagant—and we feel about you the way we feel about all false extravagant people and books and magazines and Christmas trees and car commercials and friends and family and strangers: Disapproval, and Disapproval’s bonus tracks, Panic and Wonder—at the fact that you keep trying to sell us an ounce of something pretty, something potent—keep nudging us, There are joys I might speak of if only you darlings would listen. As though we haven’t been, and hard, ever since our heads could turn, and hands cry, and eyes beat, and hearts clasp.
A thunderstorm tricks the streetlamps into blinking on so I wonder if you’re pregnant. I have no evidence other than the streetlamps blinking on and the headaches I get every day and for those to count there would have to be some tenuous diaphanous thread subtly linking us over distance. The day before you left for Canada you saw, on the research triangle’s lonely cone-strewn path, a dead goose, and wondered what it meant, so I told you—Don’t Go to Canada. But you did, and lo and behold came back, in one piece, so I guess there’s no diaphanous thread, no cruel etherous ribbon of logic linking you and me and the goose, one twinge, one pain to another, making us signs of each other. The goose died, my head hurts, the rain breaks, the streetlamps blink off, the phone doesn’t ring, a great V creaks and wobbles across the bedspread sky, the phone doesn’t ring, the rain starts again, my head stops breaking, and nothing, I’m almost positive that nothing, begins to divide itself in you.
When did we last see the stars throw down their old photons like spears— got us a kid, a furnace of joy, and never the same contraption twice will hoist her to the attic of sleep. So when did we last see the stars— what are stars—every night new beasts need reining and new knots inventing to lash them to barges as yet unbuilt, to import some tenuous volatile dream in glass still boulders, in plastic still dinosaurs on canals undug on water unwrung from pending clouds. But let us emphasize the miracles: We are tongs arranging the flames in a furnace of joy. Anvils don’t weep when a hot tongue of new metal licks and glories in the sparks all night. A grindstone stands its ground when a raw new blade angles into it, hungry for the edge it gives. Who needs stars—we are tongs, we are anvils, we are stones, singed by duty, darkened by our specialties, living in a darkness filled with molten light. If we could go outside on a winter night like this, like men punching out at the foundry, our eyes would take forever to adjust and see what we think we have missed, and what would we say except what we already say? When did we last see the stars, What are stars, but a country of leftover fire, overthrown long before we were born?
Christopher Todd Matthews’ work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Crazyhorse, FIELD, The Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Massachusetts Review, and Shenandoah among other places. He lives with his partner and their daughter in Ann Arbor, Michigan.