Bruce Beasley
May 2007




Witness


1.

That’s where your father
had his accident,
my father
mumbled, pointing

through the cracked windshield
to the dropoff where he’d plunged that car
into spiky shrubs thirty feet below.

But I knew
anyway from my mother’s
enraged voice on the phone,

then from the barred
psychiatric ward,
it was no accident.

That gesture—his finger tracing
vaguely all he couldn’t talk about—
comes back to me now, through

Caravaggio, where Christ
guides the apostle’s pointing finger
with sexual tenderness

into the smooth, apparently permanent
gash in his breast.
Through his one sentence, my father’s

voice was rough with such regret—
for having tried, or having failed,
I couldn’t tell—

I only knew his scarred
arm on the steering wheel
scared me, and his sweet

whiskey breath, and the broken guardrail
stabbing its twisted metal
over the skidmarks still there down the edge . . .

I thought: he must have tried to make it stop.
But I didn’t want to know,
didn’t want to watch

his headlights scoop out that canyon
or the darkness fill it back up,
or his lips, lit by a cigarette stub,

try to tell me what had gone wrong
and I didn’t say a thing
as he twisted the radio dial

from gospel to Muzak to static,
coughed his dry, frightened cough
and watched me from the side of his eye.

The torn seat squeaking on its hinges
was the only sound as we rumbled
down the brick streets of Macon

where I watched his back
disappear through glass
doors throbbing with dancing bottles.


2.

In Caravaggio’s painting, the voyeur
apostles throng
so close around Jesus and Thomas,

gazing hard as the fingertip
slips into the pucker of wound.
They all want to know what it’s like

inside the cut, risen body,
but they’re scared of what
the touch might do; it’s assuring to watch

the curious one
penetrate first.  But Thomas
is tense, his forehead ridged,

his throat tight as he goes
deeper into the fresh
opening just under the skin—

he’s mortified, like one
admitted where he can never belong.
Still, Caravaggio has torn

the shoulder seam
on his red robe, which means
he’s as human as Christ,

available to damage too.  My father
died a year after that ride, and now
I don’t even know

where the road he showed me
is.  At fourteen, I closed my eyes
and let his old Nova

carry me home,
the Ocmulgee River’s
smell of mud-clogged kudzu and swampgrass

washing over my father’s Jack Daniels.
He turns back to me now,
when I want him to, lifts

his shaking hand to the window,
and points again down the cliff,
and the flesh-

colored robe opens, and the finger
pierces just under the heart,
and the hand with its nailhole coaxes

the bewildered witness in.


From The Corpse Flower:   New and Selected Poems (University of Washington Press, 2006).