Many Desires, Many Secrets

By TOM SLEIGH
1.
Many desires, many secrets—that’s what the book said.
And it brought me to attention, watching the interior
branches of the pine trees swaying in a paranoid
whisper that reminded me of you standing over
me, your hand in my hand, your mind
not right but your whispering rebelling against
that hissing shhhh of what I couldn’t understand—
your eyes had this dilated, out of focus
stare, the electrodes unclamped only an hour
before—and then you were talking about putting
onto boil the canned carrots and peas
when I felt your hand drop mine—were
you abandoning me, or me you? And just by touching
you, would that make me crazy but more ours?
2.
Whenever I went to see you, I had a plastic horse
with a weight in its belly and a weight
on a string attached to its nose and when I let
the string hang down over the end of a table top, my horse
would tap its hooves on the wood and if I
didn’t reach out my hand it would plunge over
and over down to the floor where the plastic legs would go
spastic, kicking at the air, and I felt a grim pleasure
in knowing that at any time I could put out
my hand and make it all stop before I
made my little horse set off again at a slow trot
toward the uncarpeted smash—my power, my hate,
my will, my love—and whenever I wanted it,
I spurred my little horse and it had to obey.
3.
— Remember the lies you told me about the chess set?
How it came from “the old country” and after your father died
he sent it to you? I didn’t know you bought it
until after Dad died.—You were pretty hungry
for something solid in our past, I guess.
— But we weren’t that kind of family, were we?
— No, we weren’t.—Just how crazy were you?—Not crazy
enough, apparently.—Oh come on, Mom. —Crazy
enough to want to die, crazy enough to let those
doctors at my brain…when they said I wasn’t
going to get out because I hadn’t fixed my hair…so
I fixed it… —It wounds (I meant to write “sounds”) different
when you tell it. —Not to me. —Anyway, it was dumb of me
to believe you, but I couldn’t help it. —No, you couldn’t.
4.
Did you know that my favorite memory
was when I was coming out of surgery
and there you were beside me and the morphine
I was coming off of had made me dangerously
happy? Such a beautiful rush, such a sign
that you were my fix, my heroin, my way
out of pain when all my body felt was pain—
when I started to shoot up on my own,
I made it my thing, I took it away from you,
your eyes analytical in their perfectly sane
appraisal of this son out of your womb—
and then there was crying in a room
down the hall and as I listened you bent down
closer and closer until your gaze filled mine.
5.
Nobody anymore has much faith in the dead—
and even though you haven’t died, it feels like
we’re both living a posthumous existence…
It’s such a shitty feeling, this yearning after peace,
understanding, all the old style crap
that makes life possible, then unbearable,
then just past—though that’s as much a trap
as thinking you and I can have some final resolution,
some showdown of phantoms that we’ll
carry into our deaths and lie down as one—
incestuous affirmation that we were really here
and through our shame came close enough to know each other.
I still hear your voice even when we don’t talk.
I still live in your body when I’m afraid.
6.
When you call me on the phone to tell me what
you’re reading and I leave you to talk
to the voicemail, you say, Son, I’ve had some thoughts
that I’d like to share with you. Can you call me back
please? And if I don’t call, I’ll get
a second message, Tom, it’s been weeks
since I’ve heard from you. And if I still don’t
call, I hear you snort, Well, my God, just where the heck
are you? And so I call and we talk about
the book you’ve been reading, global politics
these days to go with your news shows,
and novels, good literary ones, you don’t read junk,
and then I quiz you on your health, your diabetes,
your neuropathy, your allergy to sunlight,
but these days mainly your stomach, which is
doing OK for now, and I get this weary feeling that’s
also deep relief that no, you’re not going to die,
though some day, yes, you’ll die, and the complete
mental breakdown that I’ve had my eye
on for years will finally be all mine. Like Marcel’s
friend in Swann’s Way who after his mother dies
has to go to a sanatorium or he’ll kill
himself from grief. Or else I’ll shrug, bemused
and say, Isn’t it strange, Karamazov—all
this suffering, and pancakes afterward.
(You made pancakes and waffles when we had
Sunday morning breakfast, but nobody said
much to quote except, Excuse me, please.) You lived
your days beyond us, glamorous in your life
of the mind among high school students who understood
you better than we could—it was the nights
when you had no place else to go but to return
to us kids—we could be such little pissants:
O Walden, O Joseph Conrad, O Mark Twain,
O God of King James Whose style you loved
but Whose Existence and Actions
you thought were silly when He wasn’t stupid
and cruel: you told me how the other
teachers, Mormon every one, had invited
the Church in to ask the kids about their
sex lives, if they drank or smoked—and you
alone stood up and said, “This violates their
civil rights.” And Mr. Payne, the principal, whom you
loved and was your true friend though he never
understood you, said, “Mrs. Sleigh, I’m sorry you
feel like this. But who among us here
has done anything like that to you?”
But because you objected, Mr. Payne ordered
the motion tabled, and waited until you
were assigned to Home Room duty
so you’d have to miss the meeting: and lo,
the motion passed unanimously—
but the kids made the survey a joke,
they said they drank six bottles a day
and had sex a hundred times an hour and smoked
so many cigarettes they barely had time
to breathe. And so, in your way, you won… I take
a deep breath and say too abruptly that it’s time
for me to go, and I can feel you stiffen—
how brutal the cordless phone seems—
as if the umbilicus of our connection
was made present by the cord—
though the Angel of Death looks on and when
I hang up, he throws his halo in the mud,
and slips inside my body to get warm.
The phone plugs into the charger and I go to bed
with death and think of how you wept when Mr. Payne
died of leukemia, who never once called you Rosie,
but always Mrs. Sleigh, and how you called him Mr. Payne
both to his face and when he wasn’t there, and how I
never heard the pun until I heard you say,
Mr. Payne was in such pain today. If only he could die.

 

Tom Sleigh is the author of eighty highly acclaimed books of poetry, including Army Cats, published by Graywolf Press, and Space Walk, which won the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Award. He has also published a translation of Euripides’ Herakles and a book of essays, Interview with a Ghost. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, a fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin, the John Updike Award and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, a Guggenheim grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many others. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunger College and lives in Brooklyn.

[Purchase your copy of Issue 02 here.]

Many Desires, Many Secrets

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