for Joseph Keffer
I broke an oath when I wrote this poem,
a vow of silence first voiced in the oblivion of fetal distress,
uttered before I was born, and dispersed within my blood,
circulating, always vigilantly circulating within me.
It comes out now, as a warning and an heirloom,
because my son, now two weeks old, has taken your name.
You, spirit that I neither see nor sense,
spirit all the same I am told, share a name with a great grandson,
who will never know you, except through the stories I tell him,
except, and now you begin to see the crime, through these words.
I can tell him that in all your seventy years, you never raised your voice.
I can tell him that you drove me to college on my first day,
and the words of advice you gave me on my wedding day,
"Hold your tongue". I can tell him how every time I saw you
there was nothing but your wry smile and the joy in your voice,
the joy at the continued good fortune of being alive.
That joy has vanished with you, now inaccessible to my memory.
I could relate the wheel-chaired husk of the man
whom last I visited in the nursing home. "I want to get out of here,"
you whispered to whoever I was standing next to you.
You're out now, Joe. You're out like a caged bird,
who spotting the gate ajar, the window open, makes a mad dash
into the open sky, never to be seen again. We don't know
what fate befell you and pretend you found happiness.
What I do know is that your wife and son, when they cleaned
the apartment, must have thought me safely distant,
and forwarded your essentials across the country,
as you could take nothing with you into the fire.
The box arrived without invitation or warning.
Unwrapping the package, I held the box. What would I do with it,
I who have no dreams for the infinite?
I insist that I had no choice but to open the box.
Within this cold, wooden, felt-lined box your wedding ring,
your dog tags from the Great War that defined your generation,
your Post Office badge, that you wore from before the war
until well into my time overlapped with yours in this world.
I could smell you inside the box, that same odor
that defines a grandparents' apartment to a child.
A part of you was still inside;
I closed it quickly, so as not to let it escape.
Your son tells me the contents of this box are mine,
but I know what he really means. They don't know
what to do with it either. They don't want to keep it
but they cannot bring themselves to sell the ring
and throw the rest away. That's why they sent it to me.
I am the destroyer. I have never, my whole life through,
understood matters of the heart or spirit.
They can give it to me and safely know,
having fulfilled their duty,
they will never hear of this box again.
This oath I have broken in the writing of these words,
though I waited until they were dead to speak them.
As I destroy the final remnants of your existence,
I record these words. "Joe, Joe, Joe,
You were a perfect light, a patient, calming smile,
miraculously without temper--nothing like me."
I've kept your box for years in the dark, tight closet.
As far as I know, that's how ghosts like it.
Now that my son has taken your name from you,
I have to send you on your way, a helpless and lost spirit.
This boy will become my best friend;
if I am lucky, something of you will have found your way
inside him. He will speak your words to me,
reminding me that what's good in him, I got from you.
This poem incubated in my head for years. On May 7, 2005, I put some words down. It was not the poem I intend to write and it was not finished. It seemed unlikely to me that it would ever be finished.
I made a few edits on June 9, 2011 in Seoul, Korea.
I added a word on June 19, 2012 in Knoxville, TN.
Modified again on August 8, 2014 in Knoxville, TN.
On September 30, 2014, I added the subtitle, split two stanzas into three and released it.