Most of the past is lost,
and I’m glad mine has vanished
into blackness or space or whatever nowhere
what we feel and do goes,
but there were a few cool Sunday afternoons
when my father wasn’t sick with hangover
and the air in the house wasn’t foul with anger
and the best china had been cleared after the week’s best meal   
so he could place on the table his violins
to polish with their special cloth and oil.
Three violins he’d arrange
side by side in their velvet-lined cases
with enough room between for the lids to lie open.   
They looked like children in coffins,
three infant sisters whose hearts had stopped for no reason,   
but after he rubbed up their scrolls and waists
along the lines of the grain to the highest sheen,
they took on the knowing postures of women in silk gowns   
in magazine ads for new cars and ocean voyages,
and, as if a violin were a car in storage
that needed a spin around the block every so often,   
for fifteen minutes he’d play each one—
though not until each horsehair bow was precisely tightened,   
and coated with rosin, and we had undergone an eon of tuning.   
When he played, no one was allowed to speak to him.   
He seemed to see something drastic across the room   
or feel it through his handkerchief padding the chin board.   
So we’d hop in front of him waving or making pig noses   
the way kids do to guards at Buckingham Palace,
and after he had finished playing and had returned to himself,   
he’d softly curse the idiocy of his children
beneath my mother’s voice yelling to him from the kitchen
That was beautiful, Paul, play it again.
He never did, and I always hoped he wouldn’t,
because the whole time I was waiting for his switchblade   
to appear, and the new stories he’d tell me
for the scar thin as a seam
up the white underside of his forearm,
for the chunks of proud flesh on his back and belly,
scarlet souvenirs of East St. Louis dance halls in the Twenties,   
cornered in men’s rooms, ganged in blind alleys,   
always slashing out alone with this knife.
First the violins had to be snug again
inside their black cases
for who knew how many more months or years or lifetimes;   
then he had to pretend to have forgotten
why I was sitting there wide-eyed across from him
long after my sister and brother had gone off with friends.   
Every time, as if only an afterthought,
He’d sneak into his pocket and ease the switchblade   
onto the bare table between us,
its thumb-button jutting from the pearl-and-silver plating   
like the eye of some sleek prehistoric fish.
I must have known it wouldn’t come to life   
and slither toward me by itself,
but when he’d finally nod to me to take it
its touch was still warm with his body heat   
and I could feel the blade inside aching
to flash open with the terrible click
that sounds now like just a tsk of disappointment,   
it has become so sweet and quiet.

Michael Ryan, “Switchblade” from New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Ryan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Source: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004)
More Poems by Michael Ryan