FOR MY STEP-DAUGHTER, WHO MISSED THE APPARITION
For Catherine, in her father’s custody for the summer,
and for Jane, June 2008, Rodgers Forge, Maryland
In our small parcel of suburbia,
my neighbors straggle outside after rain,
drawn by the sight: bright band, celestial arc
blending to indigo. Weightless, unreal,
it rose in silence when our backs were turned
this afternoon in spring, its end unknown,
its origin light rays at altitudes
beyond our reach, prismatic, luminous.
Is this what draws us out—that splendid color
at such scale could secretly arrive?
Hungry for spectacle, I join my wife—
Sun showers, in short bursts, fall. The kids run riot
on rain-drenched lawns. A neighbor brings his camera.
Spider-Man—mask off, in ill-matched sneakers
and sports goggles with corrective lenses—
peers up when his mom says, “Watch the sky.”
Each parent understands this moment calls
for awe—that awe is possible, today,
and should be shared, or taught—though novelty
compels us, too: we’re human, after all.
Is this the same arc, bow without an arrow,
Noah showed to Japheth, Shem, and Ham
after the Flood, God’s sign of covenant
that, next time, he’d select a different method
to destroy the world? I’ll bet they smirked,
Well, that’s a comfort—though I wonder if
what’s more important is that they remembered
something—fiction, mystery, or myth—
some narrative that joined them to the world,
the world to them. Apart, I cross the lawn.
The storm’s still moving west—a few stray drops
now spattering on impact—to abandon,
spectral in its wake, a ghostly version
of the crescent near its counterpart—
Now there are two, though one’s translucent, pale.
A boy who wears, festooned with flying saucers,
pajamas with feet that tread on grass and sidewalk,
yells, “Hey, Dad,” and everyone looks up—
my wife, too—at the double vision floating
strangely overhead. Will we tell stories
of the sight, transformed in local myth
to some sign that commemorates an age
that merits auguries? Did Noah’s story
help sons grasp the image and hold on?
The mind is restless, though: Focus, look up
goes only so far with our kids, ourselves,
before we look away, distracted, bored,
or, simply, elsewhere, carried off by time
into a different moment, memory
impatient for dominion. By the time
I stand beside my wife, mothers conversing,
step-daughter out of town, wondering if
she’s yet been introduced to Roy G Biv
in science class, refraction’s miracle,
they’re gone, both arcs sent to oblivion.
Conditions changed; they simply don’t exist,
while here on earth, kids quarrel, shriek at freeze tag,
happily indifferent to the loss.
Show’s over; dinnertime. Our small talk dies,
the neighbors hail farewell and wander in,
shepherding offspring cranky at the change,
hungry or nap-deprived. Each loss is different;
so, too, every gain: we have a story,
now, my wife and I, our hopes invoked
with every telling—lasting, clarified—
its sole flaw—that it must be told at all—
its gift as well:
Catherine, had you been home,
by happy accident, the storm delayed,
you might have been the first to go outside.
DEAD MAN WALKING
At first he was a sideshow: the dead man raised,
someone to gawk at during his three squares
or trips back from the privy: he’s alive,
all right—reason to think about those rumors
and strange sayings making all the rounds
before you draw conclusions that they’re bunk.
But, later, it was strange: back from the dead,
whatever chamber held him, he seemed lost—
as if the Man from Nazareth and he
had shared some secret no one should endure,
and he was left behind to bear the mark.
My job was keeper, plainclothes guardian,
and model convert: stationed at his home,
I’d lead the tour groups over for a look
at him, Christ’s greatest miracle so far,
then lead them out, careful to watch for signs
that marked them allies—traitors, possibly—
though most were only curious: fellow Jews
still on the fence, willing to be convinced.
He’d tear the bread, dip it in olive oil,
and chew—he’d chew so thoroughly, I’d want
to shake him by the sleeve, “Enough already!”
crumbs stuck in his beard, but turned away
instead to talk with those who watched, inspired.
The sisters, Martha and Mary, ran the house—
they, their servants, and some hangers-on—
what good could he do, wandering at will,
vanished for hours, sometimes on the day
he knew I’d show him off; I’d stall for time
with shepherds, moneylenders grown impatient
for the proof that we’d exchange for faith.
(I lost more than a few of them that way.)
Why him? What were we getting for the deal?
The rest of us, I felt, deserved some scrap
of what his afterlife, or lack of it,
had shown: the secrets he was holding back.
I thought of my dead wife, my only daughter,
a few more who’d have better suited me
to make the trip, if I’d had any say….
I didn’t, and they haven’t to this day.
Another week, another round of doubters,
lousy conversation, worst of all
the resurrected host’s, and my small place
in Someone’s great plan hidden from us all.
And then, the sideshow wrapped; the curtain closed.
Some said: Apostles’ orders, others told
me that the Pharisees had placed a contract
on his head since he inspired belief,
having, you know, once come back from the dead.
Good luck the second time, I thought to say,
but checked myself: what was the latest Word,
brought back with loaves and palm-branch souvenirs?
He that hates his life here in this world
will live eternally. Did that explain
why Lazarus had grown so loathe to speak,
unnerving even those who loved him once—
Mary, who washed his feet and rubbed his joints,
Martha, who brewed the heavy lentil soup
in which he dipped his bread—and me, of course,
though love was not the feeling that I harbored.
Sometimes I think about the time I found him
standing off the road to Bethany,
some weed-choked precipice where I rushed forward,
grabbed his wrist and pulled him back to earth
to face our wrath, his duty, and the long
walk back. He answered “Nothing” every time
I asked what he’d been doing, what he saw.
Maybe it’s good he kept us in the dark.
As lookout, go-fer, keeper of the Faith’s
corporeal proof, now stuck with other tasks
essential to the Cause, I’m guaranteed,
whatever rage the dead man made me feel,
I’ll know—as he will, too—eternal life.
MARCO POLO REACHES KOBIOM, AT THE EDGE OF THE DESERT
After a painting by Nora Sturges
At dusk, the sun, our Sol—celestial star
that offers light and life—accepts decline
as its official due, all debts erased,
night’s clean slate taking hold, the lesser stars
surfacing in deep blue. It’s not yet night
at dusk; but when our solitary star
descends, our memory of sun at zenith
pales a little. Nothing’s as it was.
Up from the ground crawl shadows over walls—
higher they rise, and higher, till the bricks
lining the roofs ignited by our star
look magma-made, ignored by those below,
like Marco Polo, propped upon his staff.
Solo he walks, in shadow, snowy hair
nigh-phosphorescent, stepping over dogs
at dusk whose sun-struck naps, Sirius-blessed,
enact the proverb and a prophecy.
The alley-lights—bulbs screwed to surplus globes,
a few fluorescent lamps—have not come on,
poor substitutes for daylight on a day
when dusk comes late, and souls seek out the stars.
Note: Nora Sturges’ painting, Marco Polo Reaches Kobiam, at the Edge of the Desert, may be viewed at http://pages.towson.edu/nsturges/new_page_3.htm.
Ned Balbo is the author of three books: The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Donald Justice Poetry Prize, Story Line Press/WCU Poetry Center), Lives of the Sleepers (University of Notre Dame Press, Ernest Sandeen Prize and ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal), and Galileo's Banquet (Towson University Prize). He has also published a poetry chapbook, Something Must Happen (Finishing Line Press).