Friday Poem


After so much time you think
you'd have it netted
in the mesh of language. But again
it reconfigures, slick as Proteus.

You're in the kitchen talking
with your ex-Navy brother, his two kids
snaking over his tattooed arms, as he goes on
& on about being out of work again.

For an hour now you've listened,
his face growing dimmer in the lamplight
as you keep glancing at your watch
until it's there again: the ghost rising

as it did that first time when you,
the oldest, left home to marry.
You're in the boat again, alone, and staring
at the six of them, your sisters

& your brothers, their faces bobbing
in the water, as their fingers grapple
for the gunwales. The ship is going down,
your mother with it. One oar's locked

and feathered, and one oar's lost,
there's a slop of gurry pooling
in the bottom, and your tiny boat
keeps drifting further from them.

Between each bitter wave you can count
their upturned faces–white roses
scattered on a mash of sea, eyes fixed
to see what you will do. And you?

You their old protector, you their guardian
and go-between? Each man for himself,
you remember thinking, their faces
growing dimmer with each oarstroke.

by Paul Mariani
from The Great Wheel
W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.