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Elegy for John Fahey

Tonight plastic nativities blazed
brown lawns gold on the drive
before my night school lecture
on allusion. The faces of my oxen
were as unresponsive as stains
of Thunderbird spittle
on a motel pillowcase. I peeled
my corduroy blazer off there
in the middle of my ministry
singing, let me be your infant
Christ of misunderstanding.
Anymore I have difficulty tuning
by ear. Anymore my needle
skips on The Transfiguration
of Blind Joe Death from scratches
it imagines streak across
your grooves, grooves that shine
smooth when I twist the vinyl
beneath our yard sale lamp.
The glowing faces of the magi
kneeling on my neighbor’s grass
wince their almond eyelids tight
star-drunk and hunched to hear
some shudder from the straw.


Gold Penumbras
            for my grandmother Emily

Stock-still we clutch your coffin’s grips transfixed
as priests and uncles fan the crucifix

of your pall. Draped across the petaled oak
I watch the coarse khaki relax and soak

the thousand tiny drops of water blessed
splurting from a plastic flask. Just confess

and you can take the eucharist for her
I coaxed myself the night before—the blur

of early star-glow veiled, a pall of blue
from pipe smoke. Instead I scribbled my shoes’

worst scuffs back to black with marker. The trick
says the undertaker’s guide is to stick

a plodding pace to slow our feet from falter.
Grandsons nine we reach the blazing altar.

Your grandson, nine, I reach the blazing altar,
            my cheeks ablush this tie around my neck
will loosen at its metal clasp and fall
                        upon my shoes when the offered wafer
finds my tongue. The tassel-tattered psalter
            that bulges my left rear pocket is flecked
with greasy hairspray dots, a morning stalled
                        by cowlick bangs. Nowhere am I safer:
flanked by stiff-backed pews and cardinal glass
            your meager Sunday checks help keep aloft.
But fear’s communion tastes as real as blood
                        and now the deacon’s chalice makes me flood
with dread. The sting of wine. I sign the cross.
            You give a kneeling wink the turn I pass.

You give a wink the moment that I pass
            into the light so you can see my face.

Six months and I can tell the weight you’ve lost
            is the reason your daughters sigh at shawls

in August heat. You worry at the cost
            of our silly fuss though the morphine cauls

your raspy whisper in its slur. What grace
            and grief your final room, the idle chat

we make before and after hugs. This Graham
            my second son who flashes on my phone

is two weeks old. You know you’ll never meet
            his cobalt stare, but joke your namesake boy

has an extra h and a. The hallway’s
            gleaming signs guide me in my numb retreat.

The flickered votives guide my numb retreat
into the shadow-dust confessional.
Such rains of sin I must receive each week
at twelve that you believe my little well

must drain and drain again. I would guffaw
to hear their little patter now: covert
attacks upon your pantry snacks, a ball’s
ghostly bounce-marks on walls you feigned might hurt

if struck too hard, the litany of girls
in starched plaid skirts at night I ached to kiss.
But when my simple penances unfurl
they always seem too light, as if I missed

some deeper shame I should have ladled out.
The gold penumbras break my dim-eyed pout.

The gold penumbras break our dim-eyed pout
across the graveyard lawn. The snaking crawl
of cars that pulse their flashers rounds the loop
of road, an ouroboros cinching
our Gilman ring complete. The priest is stout
and stiff without his liturgy. Your pall
is folded like the flag of a crumbled coup.
There is no way to dodge the sun pinching
our faces more awake—its quasar gleam
glides and glints from graveside poles that lift
a tiny canopy above our heads.
Bouquets of buttercup carnations scream
their blooming mouths’ goodbye as we all drift
with separate names to greet our separate dead.

I need to nail my separate names or die
            at the feet of Mrs. Murphy. For hours

you plead and coax my ragged cursive lines—
            scraggly ivy wisps of m that flower

slanting down the practice page, a giant T
            that lacks an arching spine and tail that kicks

like the snarling T-Rex I ache to free
            with whom I terrorize the candlesticks

and Blessed Mother atop your TV set.
            And worst my middle name: the slope of r,

the swirling e, Bradley another debt
            shuffled down the bloodline. I hear though far

and wee the squeals of after-school pretend.
            Your hand on mine I feel my names ascend.

My sister’s hand in mine, we watch the girls
of second grade descend upon the playground,
their brief reprieve from sums and differences.
O how we’ve stuffed ourselves with finger food

and hummed with tiny talk to know some sound
besides a sniffle, our shuddered breaths fenced
by our folded kerchiefs. The noon sun twirls
and traps cascading motes that seem to swoon

but never touch the mourning hall’s long wall
of windows. I want to say ninety summers 
is enough, that this September light can thrum
your empty mason jars, but one girl stalls

my lips, banging erasers on the bricks.
We watch her breathe their yellow dust transfixed.  


Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his chapbook Red Flag Up was recently published by Kattywompus Press. He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, forthcoming), and his recent poems appear or will soon appear in The Massachusetts Review, Quarterly West, Passages North, Southern Indiana Review, West Branch, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. He is an associate professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.