"I am myself a history / Flanked always by A.D., B.C."
I. THE FRONT PORCH GLIDER
Back and forth the glider heaves our strange bodies,
eighty-eight and twenty-four,
your head swaying on its stem like a balding dandelion:
eyes almost frosted over,
throat whiskers roothair-white, you smell
of mildew and ammonia
—Is this the God-haired evangelist whose supper prayer
was as big as a circus tent?
who painted himself arm in arm with Dante
grinning on a crag in hell
while Russian cosmonauts plunged into the lake of fire?
Your operatic apocalypse
featured a frieze of pink women in flaming bikinis,
a blond, musclebound Jesus
flanked by Longs in the upper corner of the sky,
and a chorus of devils
—naked, batfaced, blueskinned—who pitchforked
Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.
I was six when you bugged out your eyes and gave me
that giggle of nightmares:
the turpentine hands that gripped my shoulders
still had wet blue nails
from touching up devils; the voice that boomed
Babylon, Belial, Beezlebub,
sounded not so much adversary as kennel master
summoning his prize hounds.
Those names came for me night after night—
why should I love you?
Visiting us at the coast you spent one night, then left
to paint Revelations:
grinning angels pouring vats of fire into the Atlantic
off Wrightsville Beach,
making it boil with a leaping agony of sailfish, marlin,
shark, mackerel and snapper.
The vision was clear, even to a boy: to rise, after you,
like smoke bearding the face of God,
or lie down among oily human kindling. No middle air:
either way I would burn.
In this leafless Piedmont mildness your brain hardens
around ten or twelve memories:
nowhere do I appear. You are at a loss for my beard,
my ponytail and wool poncho.
The hand which shaped its own heaven and hell touches me,
hair and cheek, finally tender
and thoughtless as the wisteria curling one green finger
around the glider’s leg.
I shout my name, my father’s, yours, mine again.
Recognize me now?
Recognition is not belief. You shake your head.
II. SERMON ON THE KITCHEN STEPS
Even the resurrection and life thirsts
for something sweeter than a vinegar handkerchief:
I fetch orangeade, you convert
water to blood, sugar to words,
shuffle-waltzing from porch column to column,
grabbing the rail just short of a fall
to survey the revival-green tent of elms,
your last congregation: pigeons bump each other
like balcony spinsters in the roof-gutter;
starlings whistle offkey hymns;
a chameleon collects flywing-tithes
—church of a heaven-crazed mind.
Handing me the emptied bottle, you tremble
as the syrup of prophecy thickens
in your throat, each grain of sugar
breaking into five thousand fire-words:
How these little days stumble along
the blood turning to stone
in my kidney always in prayer
I believed God’s steady
whisper that I would be favored
body like Samson voice like Caruso
and the sword of the Spirit shall
fall on America when I lead a lion
through the streets of Philadelphia
the Cardinal shall be saved
and hand over three thousand Catholics
these shall be the happiest converts
hurricane winds and bright coronets
of fire annoint them after so much
weeping and doubt I prevail I am given
America no missiles shall fall on it
while I stand in the footprints
of Moses pleading for the lost
surrounding me full of sorrow
and sorrow is the true mother
of prayer I swear it to you—
in your bird-dispersing deaf man’s shout,
in the humility of piss-stained pants
on the kitchen steps for Christ’s sake
I grab your arm and hurry inside.
III. SUNDAY DINNER
In starched collar and cracked straw hat
you sit: cold ham congealed in fat.
We eat in silence. You have had your say.
You will have your dinner the way
it was from the beginning of the century
with the Judge your father. Politely
you frown as if I was the third thief,
to be hung on the cross of disbelief.
And the whitehaired woman who serves us
more peas and gravy? —wife of Judas.
You hear us make the mangled noise
of conspiracy, yet keep your poise.
You watch her lips, watch me nod my head.
Angrily you tear a slice of bread,
push the meat around your plate
and finally consult your father’s portrait.
You did it—painted him as he was
until he died: an enforcer of laws
who paid your way and said, “Never shame
your manhood or the family name.”
You failed, and when you did not fail
you were betrayed. The first nail
driven through your right hand, the last
corroding in your brain. Your past—
memory, the one world without end—
forgets you, and you forget me. Amen.
After dinner I unlock the glass bookcase.
You lift out Goethe by his broken spine,
shake your head: “This man lost the race,”
and hand me the book. Shelves of dead men
watch you circle the room with a handkerchief
bunched like a white flag. Here lies everyone
you talked to after the world grew deaf—
Bunyan, Donne, Augustine. . . . On the desk, a heap
of sermons and hymns: God, forgiveness and grief
are curled yellow pages, words that lost shape
years ago. You raise a sheet to your eyes,
then command me to read the part in red type:
I am myself a history
Flanked always by A.D., B.C.;
Before Christ, life a desert waste
swallowed my years which—
—Before I finish you blow your nose
and ask when the governor will come
deliver the new Packard as first prize
for your life-size Christ Arisen From the Tomb.
The governor of hallucinations returns tomorrow
and today and yesterday with your remnant doom:
to be a mind-wrecked swineherd playing the hero
who once marched me to the orchard behind
the house, to test me with the hunting bow.
The easel was glorified into a target stand
where a jaguar bared its just-painted teeth:
“Nothing,” you whispered, “but a steady pull hand
will save you from Old Yellow-Tooth.”
Truth is I missed, and the jaguar made its only leap
to the autumn trashpile, its child-eater mouth
rimmed with impasto slobber. What I found—and keep—
is the steadiness to lead you from delirium to bed.
No more talk. Let me put you to sleep,
pull off your stiff collar and humiliated
pants. Lie stripped of age and the fever
of history; let me ease the bedspread
over you this one time, grandfather,
as though I’d be doing it forever.
Going through the doorway I overheard him praying
“cavalry” instead of Calvary, voice shaking with a fervor
that made me believe there were horsemen riding
out of the mountains toward him. When the prayer was over
the horsemen still rode, no faster than his breathing.
And then I saw them—slowing their horses, drawing near—
they were all old men. They were singing.
The poem “Grandfather Long the Last Time,” by Long’s grandson, poet Robert Hill Long, first appeared in The Power to Die, published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 1987.