“With Affirmative Action and All”
There is not enough silence in all of Pittsburgh
to explain the quiet in that room
between the two of you, not the televised silence
of a Steelers’ riot on mute; not the stillness
of the Duquesne Incline failing to scale
Mt. Washington and rise above the grime
of steel mills. Not the muffled gasps of black boys
kicked and dunked by whites while lifeguards
look on at the Highland Park pool, summer ’31.
Not the dampened blast of the Lower Hill, razed
to pave a parking lot and build the Civic Arena,
with “no social loss” in bulldozing homes
of immigrants and blacks. Not the stifled sobs
of teen August Wilson fleeing Gladstone
when his teacher accuses him of plagiarism.
But Pittsburgh, why bully you, City of Bridges:
steely with pride, grappling with all your histories?
Why choose you, and this old horse I ride
repeatedly, haphazardly, backwards through time—
why choose you, when, in any given American
town, there is a room inside a room inside a room
where thought shapes word shapes action—shapes
memory, shapes history—where synaptic gaps
deepen, now, into fissures, into canyons.
View-Master Virtual Reality Starter Pack: Mortality Reel
A canyon of memory floods
as the zip line slips: first bike,
first dance, first kiss. Broken bone.
And more: first love, wedding cake,
two kids. Soft spot pulsing
on each newborn’s crown. And you,
in the blur of greenery and river
and craggy rock, you release
every spring, pulley, or counterweight
that ever held you back.
Slammed by a PAT bus. Mercy. Swift
and painless. Seven angels gasp
but you are unperturbed, descending
with a steaming non-fat chai tea latte
into the counterflow lane from the curb.
One moment you leap and dance amid
a snow-topped mountain cap backdrop
and the next, without notice, you huddle
in bed, doting spouse dropping one perfect
tear upon your furrowed brow. Somewhere
afar, a sitar twangs and wails. A mysterious
virus. Rare injury. Lightning seizing
your whole and healthy spine
when you least expect it. No
choreography for grief: an entire troupe
of sequined mourners, it seems,
will fail to bring you back.
Legs crossed upon a mat in the dusty outpost
you attain such enlightenment that time slows,
giving you full minutes to regard the smooth
cartridge hurtling toward your chest. It makes
of the air a gel. A web. A balloon stretched to snap.
Welcome to bullet time. You were never so much
in your life as you were around it: observing it,
remarking on it. Given this moment of dead time,
you can at last see from every given viewpoint.
Overpriced vintage fountain pen
pokes through your bag, piercing
your backside. Infection follows
and you fall to sepsis, bringing credence
to claims that, daily, writing involves risk.
Pitch darkness. Silence. Pure emptiness.
A familiar voice in the distance.
The truth is, you don’t see it coming even there
in the wrinkled bed for the sixth—or is it seventh?—
visit that season. Your beloved covers a bowl
of canned peaches, the only taste, nowadays, that
appeals. You want to save it. You plan to eat it
later. You wait for your children to arrive
at the bedside as they always do, exhausted
and deeply happy to see you still there, still alive,
bright-eyed but—they know—shrinking. Your face
is fuller now with fluids your kidneys retain
which helps them forget that your legs, under
a stack of sheets and blankets, are nearly fleshless.
You know the doctors by name and they, you.
You know which nurses will glide in to usher
each dumbstruck family member from the room
hours after you’ve passed to the next world,
hours they’ve spent sobbing, wondering,
and pleading, your chest still rising and falling
in rhythm endlessly, it seems, as though
the only barrier between you and them
were the blissful sleep of recovery, a dream
of being lifted with love and carried home.