The lineup of snubbed-out butts in
the empty cigarette box, hard evidence
of how many per day & not what he tells the doctors.
Beer bottles tossed in the trash bin;
I’ve lost count.
“Such constitution,” say the doctors, “You’ve done everything
you can to kill your body, & still it won’t quit!” But
he’s afraid of the needle. It has to be something
so thin & sharp to get into that thick skin.
This man who travelled with a gun under the driver’s
seat. The zippered bag I remember seeing
in his night stand, feeling the burnished leather
with a single finger. Does one hand know
what the other hand does?
He tells a story: “When I was a boy, my friend & I used to go down to the Mississippi River. We spent all day digging in the muddy bank with the idea of building a cave, our clubhouse. The plan was to sleep there, but my friend chickened out in the end & I followed him home. The next day the whole thing had collapsed. Luck or fear kept us alive.”
He rubs his hands on his knees as if he’s warming himself up before a long walk.
He wanted to play classic guitar, listened to Gitano music & Don Mc Lean’s “American
crying out its chorus about the devil & the end of the American Dream.
The dead musicians flew to North Dakota in bad weather, the song 8 1/2 minutes long, a
hit in 1972, the year I was born,
my father’s first, a daughter. “There is no poetry & very little romance in
anything anymore,” said Mc Lean.
Moon clouded over, I play my father’s song
on the drive home. He’s fallen for the third time
in one month, syncope, cut his forehead & broken
his arm & somehow managed to drag himself
to bed, a soldier to the trench, too drunk to feel pain
until he wakes up the next morning & calls
out to us saying his body is useless.
He’s unraveling while I’m still knitting us, the cloth pulled &
snagged, letting in light. I undo my mistakes, trace
back to the first stitch.
When we speak of you
in the third person, you are
in the room the way a stone
marks an absence.
As I pass through the hall, my father
is the one I see in every doorway, sitting
on the edge of the bed, & when I return
to check, he’s gone, like a haze
of insects, more air than body.
He tells another story: “When I was a boy I used to climb the giant elm in our front yard. Near the top, a branch broke & I fell till I was about one foot above the ground. I hung there in disbelief, suspended by the belt loop of my Levi’s that had caught on a snapped branch.”
My mother says he has to be in the ground
for these poems to be born.
The tree in our front yard
to its milk heart.
Portrait of My Father X Days Before Dying
He has been dying for six years. When the first cancer took hold in his throat, the tumor like a pit of amber, all the things left unsaid. Those who are of a religious persuasion would say he began dying the day he was born, he will be soon be reborn; that tireless circle, fluff he would wave away, all that unseen/unproved business not for his engineer mind. In this life we need to first build, then inhabit, till its use runs out. My father is here in a photograph, exactly as I last saw him: in the leather recliner, his balding head the only thing not swallowed by a puffer jacket, the brick background of the fireplace, the fixture a joke of our Miami childhood home & the two times a year we set a fire: Christmas & New Years. But he is cold every second of every day of what is left of his life. He has his eyes closed, swallowing that bite of whatever they’ve served him on that folding side-table where he keeps always within reach the TV remote, lighter & Marlboros, nail clipper, & folded stack of paper towels—those he will use to spit out whatever he can’t manage to nash with his gums. Don’t write of those things my mother will say. You cannot publish any of this until he’s dead, she says. We have been trying to bridge the distance before that happens, but he goes further into silence, deeper into that down jacket. In this photo it is only his profile, stark shadow of cheekbone cut at a knife’s edge, the perfect angle of his nose sloping from his wide forehead & his open mouth, bowing his head down, as if he cannot bear the weight of holding himself up any longer. His mouth open, a sad-eyed giant grouper in an aquarium wishing for the hook & the yank into the crushing sunlight. He balances a fork in his right hand, some unidentifiable morsel he forces himself to fake-eat for our sakes. How I saw him last time, backlit & smoking on the terrace, the silhouette of his curved back & hunched shoulders, already imagining that I’d remember exactly how he pulled on the cigarette like he was at the bottom of the abyss, that pull the deepest inhale, the tightest kiss of his lips, his fine fingers holding the cigarette tight, & then the exhale of smoke rising stories above us, more things unsaid. He leaned forward & let out a fine stream of drool, & there was terror & beauty, all perfectly illuminated in his silhouette. I have to describe it in detail, though no one will want to read this, my mother assures. But in the photograph I now hold in my hand, behind my father is my mother’s self-portrait on the mantle, strokes of Chinese ink, her long neck & bobbed hair looking away from my father, towards the window & the backyard that is surely dark, where they both sit & share cigarettes, the few words they trade back & forth about sleep & pains, & the things that are missing. My father handed me the list of these things in the form of a haiku— Need: // Beer // Cigarettes // Wine. That is what he needs, in his perfect handwriting, small pad of lined paper & blue ballpoint. It is clear, Father, what you need. Mornings you greet me with one word: coffee. No time for pleasantries; you wait in your chair, in this room that is not a living room, but a waiting room. There, in the bookshelves are the mystery novels, the detective novels, the war novels, all the books you’ve read in the waiting, rubbing your knees with expectation, for the tall figure to creak open the door & call your name. X days plus X days plus X days is the solution you cannot solve, cannot find X, you, my engineer father who filled pages with numbers trying to teach me while I muddied the page with tears. I could not understand all those numbers, that was your language, the things you were certain of, that you could prove, & for me those computations were spiderwebs, tangled & shredded by wind.
Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s second poetry collection, Relinquenda, is winner of the National Poetry Series (Beacon Press, forthcoming Oct 2022.) She is the author of Matria, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). Alexandra is a CantoMundo and Letras Latinas fellow, winner of the Coniston Prize, and her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets, Narrative, Gulf Coast, and Creative Nonfiction among others. Her poetry has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry, The Wandering Song, Misrepresented People, and others. Co-founder of Kalina publishing, Alexandra is author, editor, and/or translator of more than fifteen Central American-themed books. She is chief editor at lapiscuchamagazine.com (a literary magazine dedicated to the Salvadoran community) and she is assistant editor at SWWIM (Supporting Women Writers in Miami). Her ongoing photo-essay project about El Salvador, through_the_bulletproof_glass, is on Instagram. For more info: www.alexandralyttonregalado.com