Climbing on top of him and breathing
into his mouth this way she could be showing her
desire except that when she draws back
from him to make her little cries
she is turning to her young son just
coming into the room to find his father my brother
on the bed with his lips closed and the slightest
smile on his lips as if when they
both beat on his chest as they do now
he will come back from the dream he is enjoying
so much he cannot hear her calling his name
louder and louder and the son saying get up
get up discovering both of them discovering
for the first time that all along
he has lived in this body this thing
with shut lids dangling its arms
that have nothing to do with him and everything
they can ever know the wife listening weeping
at his chest and the mute son who will never
forget how she takes the face into her hands now
as if there were nothing in the world
but the face and breathes oh
breathes into the mouth which does not breathe back.
This is a virtuoso sentence–strung out over twenty-three lines, with little and big surprises at every turn, it’s both a full sentence and an entire poem. Full disclosure here: I taught a workshop after a talk Wes gave last night, and, seeing him, I was reminded of this poem, which was first thrust into my hands by one of my teachers, about a decade before I ever met Wes.
As a poem, it makes splendid use of its line breaks, both to increase the surprises along the way and to help score our reading of it. If it was prose, which it could be, say, a moment from a novel or a memoir, it’d be a bit breathless and maybe require few commas and a dash or two, but it would still work as a sentence. Syntactically, it all hangs together.
I’m struck by how it takes a short few seconds or half-minute at best of real-time and gives us this moment in super slow motion. It brings us inside the moment, makes us stand there next to the wife and her son–their world irrevocably, suddenly shattered.
The almost sexual imagery in the first few lines, and the way sex and death get switched, jump-starts the beginning of the sentence. I’m also astounded by how, right in the middle, we see the father having a pleasant dream, as if this were all a bad dream. The final turn of the poem (and the turn of that knife) is in that cruel and true last line–this mouth will never breathe back again, and, in the world of the poem, this jaw-dropping sentence, we realize that at the exact same moment as the wife. It’s stunning, and crushing.
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