I live in Norwalk, Connecticut, with my wife, fellow poet Laurel Peterson, and I am a Professor of English at Manhattanville College. I have published two books of poems, Shiva Dancing (Texture Press, 2007) and Riptide (Texture Press, 2016), a chapbook, Between What Is and What Is Not (The Last Automat Press, 2010), and individual poems in various journals.
Our plane slid down the Hudson,
at the mouth, banked east,
its shadow traversing Manhattan,
shrinking, expanding, breaking into fragments
on roofs and sides of buildings,
then settled on a crevice
where it seemed a tooth had been extracted
from the city’s jaw.
A year before, the wreckage still exhaled
an acrid breath; smoke and ash and swirling cells
spun a savage dance;
air was thick with supplication
for one more gasp, touch,
chance to ask forgiveness;
mingled whispers, muted howls
rose in dark plumes from the hollow throat.
Now, from half a mile above I gawked
dumbly at the remnants of their passion.
At LaGuardia, baggage, bustle, embraces
brushed away the shadow that briefly touched their dust.
You weren’t there to greet me,
having passed through your own catastrophe
a full year earlier than theirs.
I knew that time was slipping forward,
the present pressing on the past,
relentless, indifferent, like Merrill’s torn up block,
the massive volume of the world
closing shut again, even on our grief.
Now more years have crumbled.
I strain to see your face
through the ash and dust that you’ve become.
It was springtime,
that morning you lay dying.
A college festival outside our window
brought a brightly colored balloon filled with heat
that rose and fell in a nearby field;
shadows danced across the grass
from laughing students a hundred feet above the ground.
You had had a dying night,
shredded lungs and ragged breath
subsiding to a silent fever;
you wanted water desperately
but had no voice to ask.
The morning clouded up and rained,
which stilled the balloon but did you little good.
I wet a cloth, laid it on your forehead,
squeezed moisture from a dropper
to clear your clouding eyes,
soaked a sponge-tipped stick,
swabbed your mouth, and talked
to keep you tethered to the earth.
It was the sponge that held you.
On that you wrapped your tongue
and clamped your teeth so tight
I had to use some strength to extract it.
You clung to water at the end.
I left the room for one brief chore;
you drifted free.
When I returned your face was bent
to where I’d sat.
Red laced saliva slid onto the pillow.
A single tear wet your cheek.
Your fleeing molecules left a hole
that lay agape, dark matter
whispered into my nights.
I took to sleeping in the space you left behind,
trying to use my bulk to hold ajar
the door through which you departed.
But inexorably it closes.
Who can build a monument
sufficient to what we want:
the breath of their desire,
the grip of teeth on moistened sponges?
Instead, we’re left to imagine them
from shadows left behind.
We’d like to think they’ve mingled in a graceful
minuet with those whose anguish
came before and after. We’d like to think
they fill a universe of particles
that gyrate in counterpoint to ours.
We try to picture Shiva dancing
madly in love with them, tossing
their fragments about the heavens,
preparing them for our reunion.
But we move on to others
who embrace us at airports,
help rebuild our homes.
What is this tale I’m telling you
who have no ears to hear?
A slim wedge I’ve set against
the volume of the world,
a little dance of images,
a fragile house of words.
©2016 Van Hartmann
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