Gary Fincke – Upon the Death of Sons: An Elegy

Fincke LE P&W August 2023

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Special Australian Edition August 2023

Upon the Death of Sons: An Elegy, poem by Gary Fincke.

Upon the Death of Sons: An Elegy

“No one believes that to die is beautiful . . .
we console each other though we have been spared.”
        Philip Levine
The Father’s News
He has lost a second son,
the first at twenty, yesterday
at forty, as if round numbers,
decades apart, had been cursed
by a long, cruel, deliberate con,
and we, acquaintances and friends,
join together in chorus,
our condolences changing
as little as prayer, our language,
interrogated by catastrophe’s police,
unable to form an alibi for God.

In a museum dedicated
to man-made landscapes,
a virtual elevator
lowered his family through
the Earth’s calibrated crust,
the temperature rising
from coal mine to gold mine
to the deepest bore hole,
each with a verified heat
until they were safely in hell.

They did not descend
to the death of sons;
nobody said a word
about anything but flame,
the childish horror that
is taught like spelling.

Giraffes, until now, considered
mute, have had their voices
recorded in a Viennese zoo.
They hum to each other at night,
the frequency so low that no one
had suspected. For comfort,
the zookeeper has guessed,
although he admits uncertainty.

Once, visiting Joshua Tree
in August, he woke his sons,
early morning already at
one hundred and six degrees.
Outside, both boys stood stunned
by what living things can stand
from a constant sky, and though
the park was posted like a building
officially condemned, others, too,
were willing to enter, a clutch
of hushed tourists wandering
among gravely threatened trees.
Even these adaptive trees
have limits, he told the boys.
What’s more, they are vanishing
in an orderly way, the last
to die those that flourished
at elevation, torrid scaling that
natural defense like a Sherpa
leading extinction’s assault team.

His colleague says she has been
practicing “feeling” to prepare
for the trauma of failing students.
Throughout the spring, she has
rehearsed for her mother’s passing.
To calculate the responses to
her own death, she remembers
herself in the third person.

When the township ballpark had been
restored, the infield dragged and rolled,
he walked the treated lawn of center field
to where a slide and swings were set
in concrete beyond the wooden fence.
Both boys, unprompted, chose to scramble
along a jungle gym, ignoring April’s view
of dried milkweed and goldenrod,
wild blackberries, sumac, a stand
of maples that shadowed a patch
of dark snow that he challenged them
to closely watch, staring and staring
to mark the moment it disappeared.

Because blasphemy is like fair weather,
inevitable, without consequence.
Because we are taught never to do so.
Because there is pleasure in rebellion.
Because our bodies do not suffer, no
Blistering of the flesh or open wounds.
Because belief falters like the body.
Because we recognize its impotence.
Because the soul is a beautiful lie.
Because the gods are indifferent
to our children. Because of
the merciless biology of the heart.
Because our words dissolve in air.

A stroke victim in Portugal,
for years a widow, has lost
her sense of ownership,
jewelry and evening clothes
become roadside litter.
Now, not even her eight cats
seem hers, those surrogates
a mewling nuisance.
She is seventy-seven,
his father’s age the winter
he opened a closet to show
him his dead brother’s suits.
Like a clerk, he displayed
all seven one by one,
lifting each to the light
for extended appraisal.
“Your boys are his size,”
he said, expecting him
to welcome opportunity.
Near the door, laid across
an overstuffed, blue chair,
were two decorative canes
his father had accepted
after receiving the gift
of heart bypass wrapped
intricately inside a small,
but expensive box of time.

Sometimes, a second language
is necessary for what’s intended,
the longing for impossible just
beyond the borders of English.
Tesknota, ‘the pain of distance”
in Polish, a longing, beyond
nostalgia, for more than the past.

The morning each boy turns ten,
It is raining, but expected to clear
By noon, sunny, humid, both beside
Water, premonitions in a distant country.
One boy is fascinated by knots, the other
Loves the strokes of the medley relay.
One bedroom wall displays bowline
And square, sheepshank, clove hitch,
And tripod lashing, all those twisted cords
Arranged under glass like monarchs.
Another celebrates the recent heroes
Of freestyle, butterfly, breast, and back.
Before those birthdays end, he rounds
Them up to clear and warm, twilight paired
With fireflies, full darkness with promises.

Because we listen to nothing else
When our bodies clench and stiffen,
Our blood thickening in our throats,
We can only hurl and thrust, each
Object a weapon—Chairs, dishes,
Cue stick and fist–the legs unwilling,
Refusing to leave the breakage
And scars until we have raged
Long enough not to damage
Someone who is closer than ghosts.

Two boys created a stew
of cafeteria food, bits of bread
and fruit, filling a paper cup
and sliding it into the hollow
of a spill-stained table leg.
Then they waited, eating
only brown-bagged lunches
above that school-bought brew.
This was science patience,
sandwiches and desserts
before they raised that table
on the seventh day, nudging
that tiny womb into the light
expecting the fine hair of mold
their recipe grew with darkness,
time, and heat, astonished as
a flurry of fruit flies lifted from
that soggy cup as if they had
fathered them, a sudden cloud
that fluttered and disappeared.

This is the week he discovers the pitch
Of the blue whale’s songs is getting lower.
This is the week mosquitoes swarm,
Their numbers swollen by record rain,
And yet science has learned these pests
Choose mates who harmonize perfectly
With them, enhancing the couplings
That bring some small equivalent of joy.

He has listened, lately, to someone
Explain mindfulness at a dedication,
The rooms named for a colleague
Who has died by suicide, a woman
Who, each term, asked her classes
To write their thoughts in columns:
To be done. Maybe later. To delete.
Now send the erasable into space,
She would say, creating the rapture
For distractions. Those rooms had been
Refurbished like an abandoned mall.
Her father narrated her last weeks,
The sporadic phone calls farther
And farther apart like hospice breaths
Until, he finished, there were no more.

Our nerves, science says, produce
The greatest pleasure when stroked
Four to five centimeters per second,
Though just now, he does not say this,
Not mentioning distance and speed,
The mathematics of ecstasy,
The encouragement of desire.

He dreams, each evening, only of family,
his wife a frequent character, the voice
of his daughter, childlike, from the doorway
after midnight, her questions progressing,
phrase by phrase, from anxiety to fear.
His wife approaches like a survivor
emerging from catastrophe, their street
always behind her, its devastation
obscured by swirling fog or smoke.
His sons appear in their former rooms,
searching for things they hid when young,
toy cars and tiny, coded, secret notes
wedged in where they would survive,
untouched, forever. Both boys sleep
as late as vampires. Always, they return
at night like livestock. Though each dream
ends in limbo, his wife still advances
with sorrow in her arms, his daughter
still calls, his sons are always silent
overheard, moving from room to room.

© Gary Fincke

Gary Fincke’s collections have won university press prizes sponsored by Ohio State, Michigan State, Arkansas, and Stephen F. Austin as well as by Jacar Press. Individual poems have been published in Harper’s, The Paris Review, Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and other such national magazines. His new collection, For Now, We Have Been Spared, will be published by Slant Books in 2024.

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