A priest gone bad? A filthy old man?
A sick, tormented soul? Think of the poverty
of our language when we try to describe someone
who buries pictures
in the bottom of a file cabinet,
naked girls turning their faces to the window,
boys wrestling on the floor of a sunlit room,
their skin the white of milkweed.
Maybe you hid such pictures
not just so they wouldn’t be found
but so they wouldn’t lift away.
Children who look as if their bones were full of air,
as if the slightest breeze might carry them off,
arms and legs unencumbered by anything but light.
Perhaps you put on robes
because you needed something heavy and dark
to weigh you down, to hold you
to one place. This life you had been given.

You sit in the bar dressed in leather
trying to look both tough and pretty at the same time.
Your father had pushed your face down into your food.
He’d made you wear a dress and parade up and down the street
till you said you were sorry.
He had raised his hand to you, even then.
So you took a bus as far away from Indiana
as wheels could carry you.
You headed for the ocean
and then for the bars, for men as sleek
and muscular as the waves
that, if you look and look, become one wave
and that wave
no matter how often it is wrestled to the ground
rises and lets itself be torn again.
If you are going to be punished
why not by the gods?

You put your fingers to your lips
as if to make sure
you hadn’t betrayed yourself
in our friend’s kitchen, an amaryllis
so gorgeous it had to be sinful,
you couldn’t take your eyes off it — the shock of it,
you told me later,
almost making you cry out,
the flower’s head almost too heavy
for its stem, its four open mouths
four terrible appetites
for the light. Inside each gaudy envelope
shy, inquisitive stamens.
Each of us brushed our hands across the tufts of pollen.
You lifted its dry, sweet mustard
to your tongue. If only
there existed a language as compelling
as our dreams.

Very young, you had awakened to a shout
from your parents’ room. A shriek
and you couldn’t figure out
what it was. It sounded like someone toppling
over the edge of a very high place,
the split second he realizes everything
is opening under him.
When you searched the house
all you found were your mother and father.
They were sleeping
they said. They had heard nothing,
you were imagining things,
they scolded. But you had heard pain,
the soul rise out of a person,
and you were sure it was loose in the house.
You stayed up all night, watching for it.
This is the last memory you shared with me,
pulling me close to the bed
the year you were dying,
one of those stories a man offers to explain
what he can’t explain. Another gift
you made me take. Here is my life.
Here is all I have to give you.

They were sorry, truly,
the Diocesan Council said. But they did
need the space, your office,
the one we used to threaten
to bring shovels and dig our way into,
beat off whatever small animal was living
off the sandwiches you’d laid aside.
Absent-mindedness used to make you search
for hours for the one paper
you needed, buried
under the thousands you didn’t.
What are we to do with a shelf full of pamphlets
on Facing the Challenge of the New Prayer Book,
August through December of the Little Portion newsletter,
a wall of movie posters,
the intricate bones of a deer’s spinal column,
a jar of marbles, ticket stubs for the opera,
a cigar box of protest buttons —
Boycott Nestle, Make the Night Safe for Our Daughters,
Look for the Eagle, Disarm Now.
Going through the papers of someone we love,
how can we throw away
anything he loved?
Couldn’t part with? All those pictures weighed down
under old issues of Church Weekly,
girls stepping out of their clothes,
boys sprawling on rocks
or getting ready to dive,
photographs torn from magazines,
documents a man keeps
at some risk. A sonnet sequence
to a high school lover. In a velvet pouch
at the back of a drawer,
a medal for public speaking.

Father tore up my speech.
He grabbed my hand, pushed it down on the page,
made me start again. He told me exactly
what to write. But I didn’t
keep anything he dictated. I delivered
my own words and today I am the Best Boy
Public Speaker in all New Jersey.
Forty years later you still had the medal,
something heavy and substantial
to hold in your palm.
The profile of a Greek youth and the pillars beside him
raised out of the dark, coppery coin
as if inviting the hand
to trace the fluted columns,
the lines of a young man’s face.

At the edge of a jetty a boy stands by himself
just free of the dark wall behind him.
He is lifting his clasped hands over his head
as if he’s just awakened
and is stretching,
offering himself to the day.
What the eye is drawn to first
is the pale skin just under his arms.
In another picture his face is covered in light,
as if the sun had traveled millions of miles
only to stroke the curve of his throat,
trail over the slope of his shoulder,
take the measurement of each rib,
identify every glistening hair
of his long, slender legs, a dazzle
drawn down to a boy
as if it could not be kept away,
as if he were its inevitable conclusion.

Sitting on my back porch
you had closed your eyes
as if you couldn’t say what you had to
and still look at me,
at the shimmering on the leaves of the plum tree,
at my son lying in the grass
his book open and the light
filling every page so brilliantly
he might have been trying to read its story
and not the words. Strange
how I remember the moment before being told
even more than the telling. You
raking your hands down your face,
over and over,
fingertips pressing into your cheeks
as if to distract your body a little
so you could say what you had to.
Not till months later
did I hear what you were really willing me.
Not till long after I had sorted,
folded, and tied your papers in small bundles,
packed away the pages of recriminations
you wrote but never sent your family,
pictures you’d torn out of magazines,
rough drafts of poems you left unfinished.
Not till today
when the sun was squandering itself
on my wife’s bare stomach, on my bare legs
did I begin to risk
understanding and finally grieving what I had lost.
Not till I was lying naked
and prodigal on a morning
when it seemed the world could never claim
me or anyone I love, nothing could
break down our doors,
we with certain privileges here
as if we were ambassadors sent to a foreign land
above all its laws.