Back in the World
I took a shortcut through blood
to get back to you,
but the house where I left you is empty now.
You've packed up and moved on,
leaving this old photograph of the two of us,
taken before I left for Viet Nam.
You've cut yourself out of it,
torn your half in pieces
and lain them on the mantel,
where your knickknacks used to be:
those godawful Hummels you'd been saving for years
and a small glass vial you said
contained your grandmother's tears.
A thick film of dust comes off on my fingers,
when I rub them across the years that came to separate us.
In a corner of the living room, facing a wall,
I find my last painting of you.
In it, you lie, naked, on the old iron bed,
your head hanging over the side,
your hair, flowing to the floor
like a wide black river.
There, Max, the cat, is curled
in a grey, purring blur,
all fur and gooseberry green eyes that stare at me,
as if accusing me of some indiscretion
he doesn't dare mention.
Suddenly, he meows loudly
and rises as if he's been spooked,
runs through the house,
then swoops back to his place beside you,
and beside the night table,
on which I've painted a heart on a white plate,
and a knife and fork on a red checkered napkin.
You hate the painting. You say I'm perverse
to paint you that way, and worse, an amateur.
"Do you want to tear my heart out and eat it
like those Aztecs used to do,
so you can prove you don't need me?" you ask.
"But I do need you," I say. "That's the point."
"I don't get it," you say,
as you dress for some party
you claim you are going to, but I'm on to your game.
It's your lover who's waiting for you.
"I know who he is," I say,
"but I don't know his name,"
then I run to the bathroom,
grab a handful of Trojans
and throw them at you,
as you slam the door on me,
before I can slam it on you.
You don't come back, until you get word
that I've enlisted in the army.
I'm packing when you show up.
"You heard," I say
and you tell me that it's perverse of me too.
"Who are you kidding, you, a soldier?
And what's that?" you ask.
I give you the small canvas I've just finished.
"A sample of my new work," I say.
"There's nothing on it," you say.
"That's right," I tell you. "It's white like the plate,
after I ate your heart."
"Don't start," you say, "don't."
We part with a brief kiss like two strangers
who miss the act of pressing one mouth
against another, yet resist, resist.
We part on a day just like this,
a day that seems as if it will never end,
in an explosion that sends my body
flying through the air
in the white glare of morning,
when without warning, I step on a landmine
and regain consciousness to find
I'm a notation on a doctor's chart that says,
Now I imagine myself racing through the house
just as Max did once,
only to return to myself, to the bed,
the night table, the canvas in my lap
and my brush, poised above it.
When Max, toothless and so old,
his hair comes out in clumps, when I touch him,
half sits, half collapses beside my wheelchair,
I begin to paint, first a black background,
then starting from the left side,
a white line, beside a red line
beside a white, beside a red,
each one getting smaller and smaller,
until they disappear off the edge of the canvas.
I title it "Amateur."
I call it art.
from Quarterly West
Copyright © 1997 by David Lehman
Foreword copyright © 1997 by David Lehman
Introduction copyright © 1997 by James Tate