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Janet Kolstein

RADIATION

Radiation has not killed the tumor —
merely stunned it —
stunned us.
Down city streets half-deserted at night, we walk,
my father still reeling from the effects
of the monstrous MRI.

When we come upon an old shop with the carcasses of animals
hung in mullioned windows, like an oil painting by Soutine —
flesh, flayed raw — surrendering to the everlasting bones,
my father murmurs, “Beautiful,” as if in a trance.

Suddenly, we are transported
in a Model-T spaceship
to a village where women in babushkas
are embracing live chickens.
Men in black hats and beards
are driving horse drawn carts
and a little boy, head shorn of hair, turns to me with blue topaz eyes.

And immediately, I recognize my father,
but he doesn’t know me,
doesn’t know I know him,
doesn’t know he will live in a new language,
set sail on a merchant ship and wear the uniform of a soldier.
He does know his mother loves him
and that when she is gone, he must soldier on.

The boy who will be my father inhales the steam rising from potatos roasting in gutter fires
as snowflakes lightly salt the fur collars
of the bourgeoisie
and the fur coats of alley cats.

Then, reality invades and we are once again
on a glittering Manhattan sidewalk
standing transfixed before dead meat inside a butcher shop.
And for a few moments, we don’t want to leave — want to stand there a little while longer
in the warm winter night before this magical tableau.

Looking at my father, soon to be drafted into an army of skeletons,
I feel like a desiccated leaf sinking to the bottom of a pond.

Towels, already tear-stained, are prepared for the bloodletting…
the anchor is rising from the seabed —
the iron links have rotted —
the flesh is falling away.

Radiation has not killed the tumor —
it has awakened the ancestral spirits
in my father’s memory
who radiate the path towards home.

And years later,
with my hands tapping the keyboard,
my eyes staring at the screen,
I can hear his quiet voice in my head,
reading and savoring my words.

First published in Lips (2006/2007)
(slight modifications 2009)

YOU’D THINK

You’d think
a poem about a deer lying dead on River Road
could stir up feelings of regret- –
something simple
about nature and the encroachment of man,
about trees and bulldozers and the loss of open land.

You’d think
because I saw a deer the day before,
I believed this was the creature
glimpsed out of the corner of my eye
standing motionless against a tangle of tawny branches
where, in Edgewater, old growth is an oxymoron.

You’d think
intersecting routes of asphalt and tar
stand for commerce and prosperity- –
for vehicular traffic that is fast and efficient;
that deer are only dirt-colored carriers of disease-causing ticks
who need to be culled.

You’d think
the sight of four teen-age boys studying the carcass
would bring to mind young soldiers in Iraq
who wear camouflage suits to appear invisible
and you wonder if they ever see themselves as the deer.

You’d think
I could tailgate a run-of-the-mill incident of roadkill,
barreling down on oil and profits
with fast, clean lines of rush-hour rhetoric- –
swerving around potholes filled with quicksand
and averting my peripheral view from dark liquid eyes
blinded by progress.

You’d think
I would find something profound to say
about war and butchery and collateral damage- –
about construction and cars and the GNP –
about running out of options and losing your home- –
about running towards the river and losing your life.

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