Susan Kelly-DeWitt, Turning Away from the Past
My father had a Librium and Phenobarbital cocktail to wash down the Seagram’s and Cutty Sark— so many bottles, so many pills, all mixed together in some soul-killing dark. Open a door: War breathed there. Open another: His crazy mother. Once we thought we’d killed him, egged him on to knock him out, then called the doc. Old fashioned stomach pump, Dairy Queen after. So it went, and so I passed up those boys with innocent mugs— their long shots, their whiskeys with beer chasers.
My father lived like a monk in a cell— whiskey was his demon. He was also good at the other Deadly Sins. Christ! how fear’s bells wrung him.
The house was quiet but breathings lifted the coverlet of hush. I imagined my parents twined leafily together in the bedroom’s dusk. But underneath the private hush my father growled, Why don’t you die? and my mother slept with fear under her side of the bed where dust balls scudded to the gloomy symphonies of their bedsprings. Outside the moon bound us all in its sling, even my brother, unborn but tethered, like a tiny rider, still tucked up snug.
He prickles your skin with his breath, tickles you hard on the bed—so hard he leaves blue thumbnail sketches of his mirth. Sometimes he chases after you like danger, lopes after you through the dry summer grasses— the whiskey surge of adrenaline pumping up his crazy wrath, your heart ballooning inside you; the two of you casting grotesque shadows in the moonlit schoolyard behind the house. It’s late. All the lights in the neighborhood have gone out: Good. No one must see you here, or his twisted face— this moment when your knotted muscles start to cramp, and you pant like the hopeless animal he must want you to be.
I keep the memory of you without the You. I keep your pillow and the deep depression your head scooped into its fluff. I keep the weight of your skull and every last hair that ever fell out. I keep your face in the medicine chest mirror, and the painkillers that waited behind the mirror to bring you sleep. I keep your dog tags, your driver’s license and the picture of your mother before she died crazy. I keep the double barrel you used to blast a hole in our kitchen ceiling. I keep the spent shells and those starless nights that fell through. I keep all the small hard bits of our life together, which may surprise you.
My geography is spread open before you— the map of stones, the gutted hills. Don’t call me flood of moonlight or great calm pasture. I am the train that rattles your windows all night—- the crowded tunnel leading to the empty passageway; the black labyrinth of forgetting. I am not a bouquet of white lilies today, or a vase of Polar Star roses. No. I am the coldest morning—the longest, frostiest night in Hell. I am an old flag today, faded glories. Call me Mr. President, or Inmate Number 999. I weigh like evidence— the nuclear warhead praying ardently for peace, the cooling towers, the toxic dump site. An omen, a warning, a sign. A river rising silently, nervous tongue of water. Don’t label me an amateur naturalist of suffering. I am the round seed of mystery with murder at its center, the House of Convicted Laments.
What if this is your last day to see the sun? I asked the coward-self crouched inside me. The dog-self I sometimes am did not answer nor did the saint in her niche, nor the hundred other selves crowded into the one-room tenement of the inner life. All was fever and silence, sweat and ache, and that vague feeling that time was irrevocably passing. Meanwhile the sun ticked on toward extinction across a clear blue sky; the buds on the sycamore slipped out like little stitches and the willow catkins furred.
He taught me to hold its light like fireflies in my palm, flatten the beam to a thin gold coin. (The dollar of his love was a darker thing.) He said clamp it tight until my fingers streamed luminescence. My whole hand, even the plump Mount of the Moon and the cold-hearted Fate Line, flushed with meaty red- gold fire, as though a hundred candles blazed there to celebrate our blood.
You watched her cross the barren universe of their dark bedroom each night, saw the thin skin of moonlight peel itself away, the illuminating rind becoming less than nothing, even as starlight salted their tangled bodies among the sheets; and in the morning you observed, through the telescope of love, how she shed her chill and magnificent gleam of ghostly radiance over the kitchen stove, cooling whatever it was that simmered there.
A girl who runs through the wild grasses of a dream. She is three again. The noise of the falls her father calls Kalihi batters some rocks which have risen like lava up out of the grassy dream-sea. Cattle egrets strut all around her with their golden crests. (The curtains blowing in her room at the Luana almost wake her.) Thunderheads. Rain on the island of a house. Someone is tearing the walls down, only now it is thirty years later. But I lived there! she screams with her little girl dream-voice. A stream rushes past her. The ocean appears: gull-cries, whale-spume. Mano the shark god grins at her from behind a red wave. “Blood,” he announces. “There will be blood.” Where is the house? Where, now, are the falls?
modeled on Trakl’s “The Marshy Pastures,” translated by Bly and Wright
It is humbling to stand here in the presence of the Buttes. The sun crawls along overhead— too carefree to be an ant, too brazen to be a centipede: Only a sun. My shadow stakes out its territory, shakes out its shrink-wrapped ghost. My feelings radiate wildly like chrysanthemum petals.
Susan Kelly-DeWitt is the author of Spider Season (Cold River Press, 2016), The Fortunate Islands (Marick Press, 2008), and nine previous small press collections and online chapbooks. Her work has appeared in many anthologies and in print and online journals at home and abroad. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Northern California Book Reviewers Association. For more information, please visit her website at www.susankelly-dewitt.com.