How can one make an absence flower,
lure a desert to sudden bloom?
Taut with terror, I rehearse a time
when I was taken from a sick room:
as before from your flayed womb.
And given away to be fostered
wherever charity could afford.
I came back, lichened with sores,
from the care of still poorer
immigrants, new washed from the hold.
I bless their unrecorded names,
whose need was greater than mine,
wet nurses from tenement darkness
giving suck for a time,
because their milk was plentiful
Or their own children gone.
They were the first to succour
that still terrible thirst of mine,
a thirst for love and knowledge,
to learn something of that time
Of confusion, poverty, absence.
Year by year, I track it down
intent for a hint of evidence,
seeking to manage the pain –
how a mother gave away her son.
I took the subway to the hospital
in darkest Brooklyn, to call
on the old nun who nursed you
through the travail of my birth
to come on another cold trail.
“Sister Virgilius, how strange!
She died, just before you came.
She was delirious, rambling of all
her old patients; she could well
have remembered your mother’s name.”
Around the bulk of St Catherine’s
another wild, raunchier Brookyln:
as tough a territory as I’ve known,
strutting young Puerto Rican hoods,
flash of blade, of bicycle chain.
Mother, my birth was death
of your love life, the last man
to flutter near your tender womb:
a neonlit bar sign winks off & on
motherfucka, thass your name.
There is an absence, real as presence.
In the mornings I hear my daughter
chuckle, with runs of sudden joy.
Hurt, she rushes to her mother,
as I never could, a whining boy.
All roads wind backwards to it.
An unwanted child, a primal hurt.
I caught fever on the big boat
that brought us away from America –
away from my lost parents.
Surely my father loved me,
teaching me to croon, Ragtime Cowboy
Joe, swaying in his saddle
as he sings, as he did, drunkenly
dropping in from the speakeasy.
So I found myself shipped back
to his home, in an older country,
transported to a previous century,
where his sisters restored me,
natural love flowering around me.
And the hurt ran briefly underground
to break out in a schoolroom
where I was taunted by a mistress
who hunted me publicly down
to near speechlessness.
“So this is our brightest infant?
Where did he get the outlandish accent?
What do you expect, with no parents,
sent back from some American slum:
none of you are to speak like him!”
Stammer, impediment, stutter:
she had found my lode of shame,
and soon I could no longer utter
those magical words I had begun
to love, to dolphin delight in.
And not for two stumbling decades
Would I manage to speak straight again.
Grounded for the second time
my tongue became a rusted hinge
until the sweet oils of poetry
eased it and grace flooded in