Bio Note: I teach English at Manhattanville College and live in Norwalk, Connecticut, with my wife, Laurel Peterson, and our yellow lab, Calder. In addition to trying to satisfy Calder’s insatiable desire for catching frisbees, I enjoy kayaking on the Sound, seeing art and theater in New York City, and imbibing the occasional martini. I was born in Ohio, grew up and went to college in California, lived for a couple of years in France, attended graduate school in North Carolina, then finally settled in New York/New England for the past forty years. I’ve published two books of poems, Shiva Dancing (Texture Press, 2007) and Riptide (Texture Press, 2016), and a chapbook, Between What Is and What Is Not (The Last Automat Press, 2010), along with poems in a variety of journals.
My grandfather was embittered by the time I came into his life. Index finger lost to a splinter or a saw, jobs lost to the Great Depression, marriage gone mute, face boarded up against the past, he haunted shops, factories, and lumberyards where men still worked, staring silent through doors and windows, withholding comment on a joint too loose or board poorly cut. But he did teach my father, who taught me, to slide a wood screw across a bar of soap to lubricate stubborn grooves that refused to turn into the tight clenched grain of unresponsive pine or oak, a trick that’s served me well, but one he couldn’t apply to his own gnarled gruffness clenched tight against the world’s unyielding fact, except for the teasing he sometimes pulled from his frayed vest, the thumb stuck between two of his remaining fingers that he claimed was the nose he’d pulled from my face, a trick that always dissolved my little self into giggles.
She asked, How many times have you fallen in the past six months? I assumed the question was not theological but concerned facts of gravity and mass, noting that our gross bodies are always downward tending, a fact itself not without theological implications, so I tried to recall the couple times I was pulled unexpectedly to earth. Once, shuffling backward on a tennis court, the edge of a shoe caught the Har Tru turf. Once, while descending some gentle classroom steps, I mis-stepped and tumbled nearly head over heels with enough fanfare to prompt a young student to leap with great gravity to my fallen aid. That hardly seemed sufficient, though, for the eager physician’s assistant taking the measure of a man of a certain age, one whose life had seen its falls. Then I recalled my father-in-law who, during our final visit, slid ever so slowly down his recliner, like a wilting plant in need of water, to the carpet littered with crumbs he’d dropped during lunch, his earthbound descent mirroring the sun’s declining light as the window sill’s rising shadow rode time up the far wall, first from the floor, then from the chairs, table, and faces, at last consuming the photograph his wife had hung of him in his fullness, partner, pilot, father, man erect standing in the world.
For most of the day, the fog lies heavy on the Sound, thick gray cloth settled tight over our loss, muffled lip of the Atlantic, tongue-tied voices of distant continents whispering grief, the line between being and not blurred by numbness, listless lapping of labored waves spilling absence onto the shore, we almost too weary to mourn. You were loud with laughter, clown-schooled, filled with comedy, present as the wind ripping through tall grass, brash as a waterfall tumbling down our hungry lives, boisterous as the geese that patrol the shore, heads high on upstretched necks, looking every bit like you on a unicycle scanning the horizon for the next adventure, your face a sunburst repelling silence with your full-throated voice. Late in the day, the sky reopens, custard-colored clumps of coastal rock splashed yellow by the new sun thrust the land’s bright fist hard against the water’s blue slate, waves crash back, pushed by the wind, pulled by the moon, the old war between land and sea, silver spray lashing stone, low dirge giving way to our wailing, your laughter loud against our chorus of grief.
©2021 Van Hartmann
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