Karl’s long poem will appear in S/tick’s upcoming “Managing” issue, to be released in March. Watch for it, and in the meantime feel free to e-mail him with any feedback!
Steve, my brother, my twin—
What is the simple violence you found in life?
Though he’s older than me by two years—
my brother Dave stood crying, twelve years old, in our green
linoleum kitchen. His left hand holding his right, slit
straight across the palm like a red envelope: tiny ribbons
of blood pouring into the creases of his fingers. Standing there,
looking up into my face, he cried and cried and even cried softly
My two brothers had been shouting, fighting all morning;
now Dave was standing here, before me, dumbfounded.
Steve had called him fat but he wasn’t. Now he was standing here
crying and holding out his hand to me or my hand.
I could not have stopped the fight, or didn’t, and I mopped up
my older brother’s blood, how dark, with Bounty paper towels.
All of it soaked up in the paper towels from the rack which hangs
above the dripping sink—and I cried all along, dumbly, as I did it;
and did not know where Steve could be at that moment, or where
he was, howling, shrieking with hate in the garage
near his archery targets and tools.
One day, I remember clearly, my head cracked on the pavement
of the sidewalk, some summertime, when Steve was chasing me
around in our garden. I fell backwards and the shock
of the concrete made my head feel hollow and hard as wood. Then
Steve appeared over me. Someone who knew us both from the third
grade, back then, older than us, was passing by on that sunny day
and he saw it happen through the roses and the fence.
As I lay there hurting in the middle of it, dumb and frozen, his eyes,
walking by, met mine for an instant, and kept on walking.
Steve, how strange it would leave me when you would come home,
years later, drunk and hot and half-seeming not to cry or even yell;
but terrified, spitting things at me in the driveway, I couldn’t see
what they were, and in my fear I thought you were actually spitting
some kind of seeds at me, those hard little things you were spitting—
and you saying you wanted to kill me, and such—though then,
outside the gate, I also saw that night for a second the awkward wound
in your hot drunk eyes, which would bring no tears to cool them.
And how strange it always was how you loved and made happy
the stuffed animals in your room alone, longer than I ever did.
Much later you’d end up giving them to me when you were finally
through—even your very favorites; all except the one I know you still
and always will have, and I remember in good time you even used
to go by its name—Oh God—
And when we grew, so slowly, and grew alone, you replaced them
on the walls with a small crown of deer antlers, tiny tufts of fur, your
guns stacked in polished wood. The bows and arrows all tangled with
feathers and cheap blue string—I remember it all—and that we also
used the string, tied with the end of a raccoon’s tail, to play with the cats
who could smell faintly the animal still left in it; they were, by this foreign
and living scent, excited into playing with the left-behind part of another,
And I know there was a deer’s heart in the refrigerator in a white
plastic bag, too; the smell of the shock of that dizzying blood in our house
for the first time—I remember—and the tiny pools it left behind to dry
in the bottom of the freezer. The far-away smell of that recent meat
filling the kitchen from a sizzling pan; or spitting up tiny needles of spicy
oil onto the hand which moved the pan around, from side to side, raw, over
the glowing coil. Or cooking venison in the oven which didn’t work right
and always took hours-too-long to cook. And you there, yelling and
grumbling, spending the whole day hovering in and out of the kitchen like
an angry hawk, half-hating its prize.
At first I never ate the meat you killed, though somehow you wanted me
to, didn’t you, so badly, speechlessly, full of hatred. Sometimes it sat on
the counter all day and night for a week, Good Lord, and only later,
in the days of college, would you actually send an entire plastic dish of it—
through the mail—for me to have in my room, four hours away, alone.
And there I ate it with such fearful love in my heart, remembering your hate
yet knowing and wondering how you, alone, found and reaped
and made this food for me.
Once at our grandmother’s in the woods you fell so high and hard
to the ground, out of the treeswing that got cut down a week later.
The rope you held which held you creaked at the highest point of its arc;
the most fearful moment of its swing, and you shot down so hard—ahh—
poor body—right from the top of the tree—like an arrow—straight down
to the hard hillside, face-down, I alone saw it! Only me, and your head
was pointed to the earth as you fell and oh how your eyes were wide
and flat with terror, flashing by me—through the air—a child—dropped—
in an instant you were down. I heard the dull blast, the sickening dead
thump when you hit the ground like a hard fist against solid dirt.
Only me—I saw the dead grass pounded into your sides, your ribs so sore,
were they broken, too? It was so hard for you, so difficult and crazy,
to try and get up before I or anyone could have gotten there. You,
there, seeming so far away from me and so quickly shot from
the dry rope. You had not worn a shirt. No sound from your mouth
now as you lay there—but a hurt in you so bad and so new you cried
dumbly like a scared animal, head turned up, softly, no sound, wondering
what it was, that enormous hurt on all sides.
Your eyes didn’t even know where to go—
I saw them wandering, looking all around at the faces in the kitchen,
after you had come quietly through the screendoor in slow-motion, deadly,
vacant, no hearts beating in that second of time. It’s all still there—everything stops—the flowery patterns on the walls cease—as you hold
out your bent wrists at all the faces, the ends of your arms so thin
and made clumsy now. Such a long way across the kitchen floor of our
grandmother’s house, was it? Holding out your useless arms, oh the grass
stains on your pale stomach and our mother’s eyes: we couldn’t recognize you
then. I shook with how strange and childishly your arms were broken,
Steve, like I’d never seen you before, and I was so afraid.
In your other years of hating our mother and still to this day never-again
to speak to our father, often, in the garden all covered with high weeds,
we even wore dungarees like each other’s, and loved them. Doing something
in the yard we had been forced into—with all the toothless rakes that you
probably broke, the broken handles, the lost parts, all the insecticides
which never killed anything. I see and remember even the poison ivy,
a strange leafy thing, half-inviting, half-threatening, spiraling along
the bottom of the fenceposts behind the compost heap, where we have
and will always have buried our cats when they die.
All our cats who strayed to us, and left us, each alone in cardboard,
wrapped in whatever blanket they liked so well in life, now dead,
even softer and more failed than the compost heap. Steve,
you always dug the holes for them and their small newly-lost bodies
that we had all grown so familiar with—you would let no one else do it,
ever. You demanded and insisted upon it, and never once cried at it,
though everyone was, inside the house, crying, hardly knowing
what else to do. And you outside all the while, doing it—holding
the tiny weight of their bodies in your hands, frightening now
in being so unresponsive and quiet behind cardboard—you placed them
in their small graves. I don’t know what you thought in those moments,
then, when you were outside and alone with them, the now-dead things
that we had all loved—the only things we had all loved—in common.
So we bury our cats, and their names disappear like the memory
of the expressions on the faces of the children we knew, deloused
in grade school, with Standard black combs rifling through the dirty
heads of hair. They will all vanish into the high weeds—what they
are and were will be breathed out into the night air around our house;
small clouds of heat radiating from the compost heap, under the thick
disheveled wall of pine needles, steaming, slick with resin;
these memories collapsing always further downwards into hot decay,
so far beneath the distant and heartless stars.
In our small town they always knew about weeds and the uneven
jutting sidewalks of the back alley behind the high school. No-one
really had any name but a nickname. When the janitor’s son,
or the bus driver’s son, went to school, he was quiet and ashamed
of this man with no name, his father, with the slick hair,
and old jeans as worn and tired as his dirty jokes.
It was in those days that I could never hug you or anything, Steve,
except in peacetime forced upon us after a fight, your fight mostly,
as you know—and Mom would continue making us shake hands
until we were fourteen years old. Not that you wanted my nothing
arms on your back, or had any reason to, really, with my mouth
of those days in such a crooked smile, full of orthodontics and
a half-broken tooth in the front, that got broken in school, you
remember. Back then you knew I couldn’t make a real face anyway,
even if I tried to or you had wanted it. And last month you told me
how now, strangely, you actually need braces, “But
who’s gonna get ‘em at nineteen?” And then I see how small
your teeth still are, in front, for some reason, small like
I don’t know, a little boy.
Then I remember how truly it was so strange that I was so near to you,
long before this same house appeared for us, when I was cradled
right next to you, cradled up against you, even, in our mother’s body
so long ago. Before there was a world for us. In the first days, in the dark
healthy heat where I knew you when we knew nothing. Knew you when we
had no mouth or arms to speak of, when we had no eyes or ears to hear
the sounds of family life—only when we were inseparably involved and
kept firmly within those immensely loving vibrations of blood, the huge
mothering blood, rushing by us, and around us, and inside of us as one.
Then when we felt, not heard, only the constant drum of a vast heart
beating over us, living over us and us within it, and behind it feeling only
the softer beating of another drum, yours felt by me and mine by yours,
in all the warmth and softness, a response. Oh my brother I was touching you
then before there was love. Only many years after that time of togetherness
would the local doctor tell me, off-handedly, one day during a visit
that my heart murmured: and it would, always.
Only years later would the cats, other cats, new wandering ones,
try so hard to kill you a twisted bird, especially mine, the black one.
She loved to hunt them out of the air and lay the offering on the stone steps
of our porch to be discovered, many days, in the warm afternoons, arriving
home from the schoolbus. These offerings—tiny kills—with ants
and the shine of spittle on the stiff blades of their feathers; even bats
sometimes, found on the porch, cold and mysterious in the morning;
or a baby bird—and once I saw a long wasp—its black feelers curling,
vibrating with curiosity—crawling up out of an empty eyehole
from inside the almost-transparent skull of a sparrow.
These cats which remain with us for a time rarely catch baby rabbits
anymore, or anything swift. The steps are swept clean from feathers and
these things, pitiful offerings, I buried with my own hands—because you
couldn’t care less about them, which made a kind of sense: none of us knew
these things’ names or what they were ever like, in life, and besides,
my cat had done most of the killing anyway. So I used a toy shovel
I found in the garage to scoop up whatever broken-open little body,
dirty smelling things, black-eyed, mouths strangely left open
below the door of our house. What scream or thought, muffled
with unintelligence, was drying there, inside the motionless fur, now limp?
Once or twice, because I knew no better, I even prayed Our Father
Who Art In Heaven for the dead crumpled-up bird, usually dead from
the twig of the neck being broken, or merely the shock of the oncoming
attack. Sometimes while burying it I was so tired and up late at night
I cried for the dead bird, senseless and inescapably small, and sometime
in those times it would rain, even hail, all over me and over it, as I was
fumbling over it, putting a speechless broken life away in that hard ground.
The weather so damnable, once it even seemed like a gigantic funeral,
almost majestic and universal, grief all over the land and sky, yet
redeeming us, I thought; because the animal, no bigger than a hand, was
dead in that rain and hail, and I was, in life, of some use to it.
In our last years together at home, yes Steve, when we were in highschool,
you drove me there every morning at seven AM, a half-hour car ride,
you drove us; and didn’t like it or me at all that early in the morning
but would have hated me more if I hadn’t come. The radio blasting heavy
metal the whole way there—you always in a crazy way wanted to protect
me at school, said you’d kill the kid who called me a faggot, and you’d have
done it pretty much, I know… . You had always wanted some way
to care for me, only now do I know this. Forgive me.
Please help me to come to you once more now, here.
It’s almost time to go.
Driving all the way to school was pride and going fast as hell,
sometimes ninety or a hundred. One day before we left town a rich guy
in a car, a lawyer whose kid we had known, said Fuck You
out of his window, to you, because of your driving. And Steve
you got so angry so fast, almost growling in your throat you swerved
around his car, and he pulled over with a screech, and both cars jumped open
in front of the post office. I heard it all through the open window
of your car—and why will I never forget this as long as I live? I felt
every word go into you so fast and sharp, Steve, and you, slamming the door,
told me to shut up and stay there. And when the lawyer tried
to get tough with you you just swore and swore at him, and he was
just a rich bastard but I heard him, my brother, I heard him hurt you once,
in a way he could never know—and your anger at him died down
and changed at that, sickened; it was impossible to harm him then
and you were left alone with your hate like that bee sting
in your shoe you couldn’t shake loose—the hurt he could never know
and could never suffer under, as he made fun of your car, just that;
but it was enough—saying, “It probably cost less than its speakers!”
But the car, the red one, that thing—somehow it was so much
of your pride, I had never realized it until then; you’d shine it
every weekend when you worked at the garage, you put stickers
on the doors and a toy with suction cups on its hands in the back window,
looking out. The car was yours, you had worked for and bought it
in spite of our family. And this one comfortable man cut it down
and you down with it, in an instant which I would never forget because
I felt, only then, in myself your true hatred and fierce shame I wanted
so badly to kill him, for you, for me, break his goddamned neck
in my hands, all red—and then we could leave—finally leave
and not ever look back, not even once, you motherfucker, Oh
Finally we roar from the scene in front of the post office that day
in schooltime, roar away a hundred miles per hour, pass through
the one-street town and the farms and the silos all together as one,
all left for good, forever, the radio blasting in our ears, whatever
songs, real brothers at last, unafraid, nothing more, no more shame.
We yell and make jokes with each other and pound on each other’s shoulders
and pass by the school screaming and never ever go there again, those
faded speckled halls. Drive on and on and never run out of gas or radio
stations and good songs, past the rotting barns full of lawnmowers, past
the stumps in the snow. Past the wide Susquehanna frozen over
in January, past the harvest moon. Past where you once got a bow and arrow
ready to shoot our dad on his farm, walking the entire length of the macadam road
in your bare feet, eleven or twelve years old. Past how much I really believed
that day you’d kill him. Past our lives. Past when you came home
from camp with your knuckles so swollen and torn with scabs and
wouldn’t say why. Past the black eye you had at the Thanksgiving
table last year. Past when you were suspended from school when
the deaf kid told on you because he saw you breaking a desk.
Past the stitches in my reattached finger from your axe when we were cutting wood.
Past the tiny place on the back of your head where no more hair
will grow out of a scar, I remember that day in our dad’s van, the dark stone
stuck in the back of your head. Past when you loaned me your shoes
when I cried and was lonely one summer and Mom forbade me
to wear my shoes down to see the fireworks. Past
the times we went fishing together and you showed me how
it was really done, but would never tell me who showed you. Past
when you made me a giant paper-maché tooth when I lay on the sagging
couch for two days drugged from my wisdom tooth operation and you
wrote on the huge tooth you gave me I Love You Karl. Past
your grey cat with one white toe whom you named Mittens.
Past when you saved our house from catching on fire and Mom
was drunk that night and you were so scared you were shaking, even
cried tears in her arms afterwards. Past whenever you cried or swore
to yourself in bed at night and maybe I heard you through the wall.
Past the nightmare you had of crocodiles coming down the hall
when you woke up screaming and went into Mom’s bed. Past
when we went to Jamaica at seven with Gran and Grandad
for our “once-in-a-lifetime” vacation and you found a pet coconut
for yourself, and I had pet sea-urchins, and how you cried
and screamed the last day of that week when Mom had to bury
your secret friend in the sand, saying It Will Always Be Here
For You To Come Back To. Past how I cried when
we got home from vacation and I realized I left my two
dry sea-urchins on the plane, under my seat
in an airsickness bag. Past every morning you went hunting
alone in freezing dawns, the heart of the woods goes with us.
Past every Christmas when we had no heat. How Mom stood up,
past driving a hundred miles to work every morning for four years.
Past all I remember. Past I love you Steve. Past the note
you once wrote, so drunk you fell twice on the stairs, the note
lying scrawled on the kitchen table in the morning saying
Mother Forgive Me For My Sins—and we will ride on
and on past every other disappearing past the car
past all we are past the ends of my arms we will walk
hand in hand in the night.
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