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The Work

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for my father

1. Today

Today, this moment, speechlessly in pain,
He fights the terror of being poured out,
The fall into darkness unquenchably long
So that even as he hurtles he keeps holding

Back like a dam the flood overtops—but nothing now
Can stop that surge, already he swirls
To the source of Voices, the many throats inside the one
Throat, each swallowing the unstoppable flood ...

And as if that, all along, were what he'd wanted,
He hears the Voices begin to die down
The way a marsh in spring pulsing and shrilling
Sunup to sundown falls gradually still

—Unappeasable, the silence that will follow
When his every last drop has been poured out.

2. Countdown

In your hospital bed, the plastic mask across
Your face siphoning air into your lungs,
You lie helpless as an astronaut
Blasting into space: Eyes oblivious

To ours, your body's fevered presence
Shimmers like the phantom heat that will trail
Up the pipe of the crematory oven:
How distant we will seem after

Such intensity ... We drift in your stare
Like the dust stirred by the cow your parents
Gave you as a boy to teach responsibility.

Already you are space immeasurable
By your slide rule, your graphs that plotted
Payload, liftoff, escape velocity.

3. Prayer

In the house of the dead I pace the halls:
The walls, collapsing, stretch away in desert
Or flatten into horizonless ocean.
I step outside, the door clicking shut

Comforting in its finality ...
Now I see the house as if I looked down
From far off mountains, and saw you crouching in
The sun-scoured yard, eyes keenly focused,

Pupils narrowing to a cat's green slits:
I can't look you in the face, you see only
The openness of sky rising above mountains.

(Only after the world had emptied
You and filled you with its openness
Will I feel the love I pray to feel?)

4. The God

a dream

A warming pulsing flood like blood surging through
Veins, and now the god stirs in my hands
Dull as stone in this gravity-less Nowhere.
Sensation shivering through me, deliberate and sure,

I cradle you, I sponge you clean
As if you were my son, the emptiness you
Drink like heavy black milk erasing
Your wrinkles and gouged lines of pain.

The god bends me to the work, my fingers driven
By the god, blinded by the god's
Neutrality, until I pull apart the threads
In this place the god commands:

Face wholly unwoven, without heart, mind, you
are nothing in my hands but my hands moving.

5. His Stare

Absently there in a moment of pure being
He sits in his chair, eyes locked, staring:
The air's transparence gains solidity
From his looking; while his emaciated features,

The way his flesh sags from sharpening cheekbones,
Make the summer air weigh like marble on the harsh green
Of the trees he is too weak to prune.
And yet the contemplative distance he is sealed in

Projects with ferocious purpose the will of his body
To withdraw into this eerily removed contemplation
Like one who has heard a tuning fork ringing
And enters and becomes each spectral vibration;

So utterly absorbed that love is a distraction; even
The world, its barest colors, bleeding away before that stare.

6. The Current

The numbing current of the Demorol
Sweeps him out to sea where the secret night
He lives in slowly begins to darken,
His daytime routine of watching his blood cycle

Through the tubes of a machine shadowed by blackness
Blinding as an underwater cave. Already
He filters the dark water through gills aligned
To strain that element he more and more resembles:

Like walls of water held in miraculous
Suspension, the moment of his death looms impartially
Above him, my hands holding his tightening
Its grip even as his hand loosens ...

As if my hand could lead him past that undulating
Weight towering above us out of sight.

7. The Rehearsal

I lead you back, your Orpheus, until you
Stand inhaling, on the topmost stair,
The rank rich air of breathing flesh—
But like fumes rising from earth's molten core

The voices of the dead reach out to you,
Your whispering parents, dead for forty years,
Entreating me to turn—and so I
Turn, as must you: Your footsteps die,

You dwindle, blur into unfillable
Space echoing like the dark of a cathedral ...
But there is no dark, no stair, no Orpheus

—Only this voice rehearsing breath
By breath in words you'll never read these
Lines stolen from your death.

Tom Sleigh, "The Work" from The Chain. Copyright © 1996. Reprinted with the permission of The University of Chicago Press.
Source: the Chain (The University of Chicago Press, 1996)
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The Work

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