Maybe I went a little overboard today, but I’ll do as I please, thank you. In trying to choose a poem for this week’s edition of Versus, I realized I was stuck between two in particular: “Butterfly” and “Brother’s Closet.” What I couldn’t figure out, though, is why. Sure, there was the obvious motif of “my brother” as the focus of both poems, but there was something unspoken, as well. Maybe it’s the fact that, when I read both poems together, I realize how they resonate as polar opposites. That is, the speaker’s tone toward his brother is in one instance biting (“Butterfly”) and in the next instance remorseful (“Brother’s Closet”). In both poems, though, the sense of nostalgia exists, and is a technique I tend to rely on in an overwhelming percentage of my poetry. I guess what I’m realizing, then, is that distance, in my poetry at least, is crucial to getting it right.
When I think back to 8 years ago — when September 11 had just happened and the world didn’t know what to do with itself — one of the first things I’m reminded of is all of the bad poetry that was written to encapsulate the event. Everything seemed to be charged by emotion and flowery language that failed to do justice to the magnitude of what had happened. It was only with time — with distance — that artists began to get it right. Writers needed that time to step back and consider not only the events of 9/11, but their feelings about it. Is the “power” of my poetry equivalent to the “power” of September 11? Of course not. It’s not even close. But the lesson learned from the event is to write “honestly” about the past, and to base that honesty not solely on how I felt at the time things happened, but what my older self is able to recognize and process about said events.
With that, I’ve included not one, not two, but three poems today. The first of these poems (“Dean’s”) was originally published in conte , issue 5.1, and can be read in its original format here. (And, yes, the background artwork on the page is laughable, so I beg you to ignore it and instead focus on the language.) “Butterfly” has never been workshopped, but has been through several edits. “Brother’s Closet,” on the other hand, has gone through the ringer repeatedly, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve managed to get it right. In any event, I hope these poems will tie together for you as they have for me.
As boys we stole down 26th Street to Dean’s
and loaded up our pockets with Fireballs
and Bazooka. We filled our guts with Slurpees,
pored over every aisle as though the first time
before retiring, belly-sick, to the front stoop,
where we flipped baseball cards and murdered
our teeth with the sugary haul. We’d stay
past dusk, refuse to shiver no matter how cold
it got, squinting to see who’d won which player
in the dull burn of Dean’s single, skinny lamp
eking light through the front store window.
It was this way with us for years,
for as long as our mother and father
shared a home, the two of them penned
like mongrels, clawing at each other
for dominance. Instead of the snarling we lost ourselves
inside the racks of candy and comics,
the ice cream case busting with Nutty Buddies
and Push-Ups, and whatever else we could get
our filthy hands on. Dean didn’t care
if we didn’t always buy, and sometimes
doled out chocolate like soldiers to native punks.
We thanked him for these gifts, this foreign place
that wasn’t home no matter that we lived there.
Many years later, long after our parents
called it quits and my brother and I
made new lives with wives and kids of our own,
long after some dog-tired stranger
fell foolishly through Dean’s front door mid-April
and stabbed him in the throat, killed him
for whatever chump change he might have had,
I still spin by the spot where us brothers flipped cards,
eyeball the polished signpost out front
that now announces Wolf & Son Insurance,
a place you can go for protection
from fire and flood, accidental death,
or policies for extra life.
I couldn’t swim laps like my brother,
who tore through the water as if fired
from the underside of a ship, devouring
the wake with his entire body, shoulders
crashing down on the unspoiled
sheet of water when entering the pool,
feet blasting it to bits mid-kick.
He slipped through the current so quickly
he murdered the field, left kids cursing
their coaches, crying to girlfriends,
hitting the weight room harder the next day.
Whatever. No one could catch him.
Not the upcoming freshman talent, or kids
rumored at States to finally be the one
who’d knock him down a peg.
He was too damn fast, and no amount of training
or prayer could change that. Not even me,
who hoped at every meet his certain feet
might slip from the block, my brother DQ’d
before he ever had the chance
to embarrass the field, break records,
put the rest of us in our earned, lonely places.
My brother’s shirts,
clean-pressed and stiff,
linger in the closet,
in perfect formation
like the ghosts of soldiers
and toppled over
upon their ultimate defeats.
Every hanger full
save the middle one, naked,
where his only suit would be.
It haunts his closet
like a skinned body,
an exposed bone.
That still, single hanger
is the only thing
that’s moved in weeks.
through the single bedroom window
a perfect square of light
makes its way inside,
outlining the absence
of his lone, polished shoes,
the ones mother said
he was to wear for dress only.
That tiny, quivering
frame of light
is a useless casket
not sound enough
to bury anything.