The Lions

At first it’s just a mist: a neural drizzle
priming the sense of summer dusk and ocean.
Then memory filters down the colors.
Nana stands swathed in electric green.                      
She has me carrying coats to the shuttered
shade of the living room. The patio hums.
Glasses chime through the flash and clatter.

As if wavering between relief
and disappointment, she cinches her lips.
One line remains unchecked on her guest list.
She mumbles to the air: “ . . . Well, they’ll be missed.”
The perfumed coats lie sleeve to sleeve, complete.

So I was free.
                       The lucent harbor side
those nights (and this one lingers most)
became a reef: a sprawl of hidden life.

I hungered for a narrative . . . . The blur
of bodies shadowed on the screened-in porches.
Their conversation clumped to one murmur
from behind the sputtering garden torches.
They had that allure of murder mysteries.
I pictured sneaking in there. Prowling through
the moonlit hallways, knowing what to seize.
Somewhere the clues lay hidden in plain view.

I imagined a lion in Botswana
coiled in his lunge, suspended there, then landing
on a scuttle of freaked gazelles. His claws
were regulators, rulers of the flow.
Reality lay hot beneath him, steamed
from the spill of entrails smutting his nose.
Then the flow had fled and the world had changed.
Less than the meadows change beneath the clouds
but still: this sense of impending emptiness.

I must have seen it on a nature show.
The harborside itself was like a screen
I played those looped scenarios across:
those doors into the dark like fired glass
molten and coursing. Then transparent again.
And there was only me. Our driveway shone
beneath the pines. Inside my metal pail
the fish called scup, their dorsal fins a clump
of spikes, flashed silver at the alien air.

Again tonight I play the DVD.

In Technicolor blue the sonar men
watch contacts pulse across their screen.
The soundtrack is ambient flutes and rain.

War without end is about to begin
again. The green of the far off shoreline
quivers and glints.
                              Then McNamara’s voice
(its chopping, crowlike nasal): “I was part
of a mechanism . . . I was part . . .” 
                                                        Again I feel
this expectant thrill. As the flute notes swerve
and his wooden pointer slaps his map
of the Bay of Tonkin
                                 I see our harborside.
The dripping honeysuckle and rosehips.

It seems ethereal. As if the leaves
brushing the houses against the dark shore
were opening. The space they make cleaves
the shadowed walls. Becomes a trembling core.

A piercing stinging. Dim retinal trace
of languorous curves, uncovered hips and breasts.

And then it’s gone. I’m slouching on our couch
watching two F-4 Phantoms swoop then strafe.
Only the sting remains.
the very sound the slice then hum of pain.

How obvious it seems: those nights marauding
yard to yard through the ivy beds . . . the secret
fenced from view was the failure of their war.
Swirling around the grownups with their drinks
the threat of its acknowledgment 
                                                      was the gulp
of that impending emptiness: as close
as the white noise of trees above the harbor.

Caught in the minima of new reports
“on CLL in veterans exposed
to the herbicide known as Agent Orange”:

my uncle
               ghosting the house that summer bald
from chemo. 
                    Or the boy my aunt adored
in high school.
                        How his name once fell
in conversation. Sudden uneasiness.
Branch shadows serrating the patio.

Then one of them caught the drop with
rueful amusement, telling how he clomped
straight through the glass wall of the Bauhaus
arts center.
                    How my father and his friends
stood round in wonder as he shed
the pane, its shattered, clattering cascade.

Claws clicking down the maple halls, the lions
circled our house. Svelte messengers of dream
they leapt the countertops or lounged against
the fireplace with swish indifference.
Whatever terror lay behind them wasn’t there.
But glistened still. Those nights meandering
sleep’s borderlands 
                                and now, calling them back:
they flaunt their elegance, their cool comportment
of cocktail hour royalty
                                     (all surfaces
                    which makes the flare of violence
cut to the bone more quickly: 
                                               blood smeared tongues
lapping their mangled kill on Nana’s rugs.

The one line unchecked on the guest list.
This family lore I delve through all the more
for its eeriness.
                          My mother’s parents met
in 1938 on Beacon Hill.
They were towelling off champagne flutes and humming
show tunes at Robert McNamara’s sink.

The thrill (all three had grown up poor)
must have cut the rush of approaching war.

And the decades falling
                                      like my parents falling
out of love.
                   In the shadow of the leaves
blending to black above the patio
their present starts to read as a prelude.
Or afterwards.
                        And Nana’s Julia Childish
promptings (her piercing alto ahs) go shrill:

desparate loopings and cinchings to hold fast
our story line inside the growing darkness.

Her invitation zipped across the Sound
to the World Bank President’s summer home
was a sheer lark.
                            We were anonymous.

And the decades falling
                                      like the numbers
plummeting now across my TV screen and
zapping each city’s casualties to stats.

They hide the girl in the famous shot who runs
right down the center of the highway naked
dangling her arms as if to shake off
some especially terrible nightmare
though what she’s shaking are flags of flesh.
Shots on a screen. 
                               But how immediate
that voice, biting through now:
                                                  “ . . . I was
part of a mechanism . . . I was part . . . ”
The obvious logic of history
grinds down inside of it: no him, no me.

And my anger against the propped up surfaces:

my rage to rip through to the other side

and the fear that all that waited there
was emptiness: 
                          even now as tracers flare
to pixels
               those unstanchable currents ride
my sprawl of nerves
                                 while Jack and Amy sleep
and passing headlights swivel round our ceiling.

Dim underbrush. The lions smudged
to brownish yellow clumps in the foliage.
A couple, circling, grow clearer now.
Their liquid pink yawns. White flash of fang.
Dissolving like a dream, the picture bleeds.
Uphill from the harbor, I’m standing on mildewed
planks to the beachouse.
                                         Could it really have been
that same night?
                            I drop the pail of fish
and slouch to the entrance. The salt air makes                       
fresh water puddled by the showers smell fresher.
No lions nuzzling each other’s manes and necks.
But stretching on a spread of towels: a woman.

I can see her strawberry pubic hair
beneath her t-shirt.
                                And a man is coming
out from the shadows kneeling over her.
It happens so fast, their blur of rupture:
like that, he’s thrusting into her. Her thighs
have butterflied around his waist: they squeeze
then slacken.
                      Their faces simmer in the plaques of
late sun through the window. 
                                                I don’t know them.
Only I see: that this is violence.
Only a kind they don’t deny but relish:
diving inside of it again, teeth clenched.

And their striving.
                             And the tensed but molten feeling
circling my chest. 
                            A force behind all motion.
There is a force behind all motion.                                         
Coiled in, then bursting forward, it unfolds
itself through time. Then this, then this, then this:
life happening, each instant, rivers history.
Or nothing. Blankness between small lucid splotches.

At the church in D.C. my infant mother
cradled in Robert McNamara’s arms.
His spectacles two pendant discs of light.
His parted, slicked back hair. The priest intones
the liturgy for Catholic godparents:
“The saving water is your tomb and womb . . . ”

Then this, then this, then this. East Asia plumed
with chemical fire. Me sitting here.
The images half unreal through the televised wash.
But the smaller pain the larger links to:
next to me, on the plastic monitor
the syncopated phosphoresecent beads
tracking Jack’s sleeping breathing now
open their little waterfall of nerves:
this need to clutch our bond of family

while the funneling drub of force
crashes and spumes. 
                                  Out there in the world
people ride elevators with glassed views
of warehouse blocks and freeways unfurling
into the treetops.
                             People walk the blue
checkpointed tunnels to missile silos.
                                                            And to pull
against it, tearing through the surface, feels
                   Unless some animal
intelligence, sharp toothed, could slice a path.

I mean the force I saw that night, before
I broke and ran.  
                           It’s clear in memory.
She’s striding him now. Her eyes are closed.

She pushes down, then stretches up, as if
she’s pulling out of her that power

gathering in her enraged yet delicate
cascade of shattered ohs:
                                          that creature
released to make its home now as the night falls
among the broken sheets of sizzling surf
and the honeysuckle dripping and rosehips.  end

Reprinted with the permission of the University of Chicago Press