I live in Norwalk, Connecticut, with my wife, fellow poet Laurel Peterson, and I am a Professor of English at Manhattanville College. I have published two books of poems, Shiva Dancing (Texture Press, 2007) and Riptide (Texture Press, 2016), a chapbook, Between What Is and What Is Not (The Last Automat Press, 2010), and individual poems in various journals.
Running the Valley
Last night my father asked me
to teach him long division.
The question swept away the Ark
he helped me frame from boyhood
sitting at our kitchen table
tutoring geometry and calculus,
sharing fragments of work
on missiles and gears,
teasing out the thin thread
between belief and doubt.
I wanted to cover his shame,
but feared he’d strike me blind
for seeing his nakedness.
This morning I take to the pavement,
running this route the first time since your death,
feet pounding out an argument
sharp and brittle like the tendons in my knees,
flee across a landscape of flood and thirst,
a Santa Ana ricocheting down
the southern slope of the Santa Susana,
reminding me of the windstorm
that nearly swept us off the road
in Mojave the summer after our wedding.
Step after step, I stab at the past,
retrace the loop we mapped together
two years ago when we thought he was dying,
running west up Victory, past Berquist,
past the house where my French teacher lived,
past Lederer and Platt,
where we paused for the light,
up that gentle incline to Valley Circle Drive,
turning north, passing Spanish workers
huddled amid ice plant and ivy
in the shade of an adobe wall,
bent against the wind, bearing the curvature
of Oaxaca or Quito or San Salvador.
Ahead, in the low angle of the early sun
we saw an aged Asian man
gather olives beneath a tree,
dip and sway as if to trace
some ancient rite; we laughed,
remembering the Chinese couple
we’d pass in Chapel Hill
who broke into calisthenics
whenever they saw us approaching.
This year the olives have been gleaned,
my knees rebel against the asphalt,
the wind snaps at my chest like parchment.
The leg up Valley Circle continues
for a mile, still rising; across the road
enormous houses spawn on rolling hills
where avocado groves once grew,
but that brown mass of rock I used to climb
with boyhood friends still stands,
deep inside, the dank recess of Bat Cave
where slippery shadows creased the dark.
You asked, wasn’t I afraid of snakes;
we recalled the photo you took
returning from the beach, late one afternoon,
me barefoot, top of Topanga,
striking a pose between a cliff and a pile of leaves
that stirred into a rattlesnake.
At the crest, I turn east onto Vanowen,
still pushing at the wind, but dropping
toward the valley floor, back across Platt,
passing more workers clustered listless in the rising heat.
It was here I began to lengthen my stride,
thighs contracting, expanding, smooth and rhythmic,
lungs and heart finding their pace, knees fluid,
feet digging up rivulets from the past.
On the right lived a girl I asked for a date;
ahead, the home of a friend
who picked up a policeman’s wife
one night while we were bowling,
told me how she’d take him in her mouth
after making love to get him hard again,
how one afternoon she started crying and couldn’t stop.
I stretch my sight to the valley’s end,
draw a bead across the mountains,
through the wind that blows off the Mojave,
over the Rockies, past the plains,
reverse the route my parents took
in a green Plymouth with three kids
and a black spaniel, slide on
across the sluggish Mississippi,
yet farther back to a musty barn
on an autumn night, southwest Ohio,
me ten, Nita thirteen, fresh
from Florida with tits and the jitterbug,
daughter of the woman my best friend’s father
brought home to replace his wife who,
dying from cancer, called me to her bed
and, taking my hand in her thin hot grasp,
said goodbye in a whisper as brittle as straw.
Nita later took my hand,
led me up a set of wooden steps
to the loft above the backboard
where her new brother and I shot baskets,
unzipped the zipper of her boy’s jeans
amid the pine beams and fresh hay
and beckoned me in vain.
I see my father in full Midwestern summer
wielding the wide flat disk of a rotary mower,
cropping the front field like a crew cut,
preparing to till and plant,
smell of earth and grass and sweat
taking seed in my memory.
I turn south onto Woodlake,
now flowing toward home.
The whine of the rotor slips to a rhythmic slosh;
he works a wide hoe through a shallow sluice
of wet concrete, my brother and I measuring
careful scoops of heavy powder from a gray bag,
our father’s back leaning and pulling against
the thickening weight of western heat,
the ground partitioned by redwood rails,
a gaping grid waiting to be filled, leveled, and set.
Then I stumble,
thinking how two years ago
I’d left you far behind,
and almost turn to look for you.
You linger locked in our first night,
dancing to Aretha Franklin,
Dorton Arena, Raleigh, North Carolina,
your ticket saved all these years
beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door,
you folding me into yourself
against a frozen February
that erupted into summer,
you running ripe and wet,
nectarine, pomegranate, peach,
face flushed, eyes fathomless, greedy, feral,
we riding each other,
predator and prey, teeth, saliva, claws,
building storm, cloudburst, levees collapsing,
I hanging on for dear life,
earth and time and space dissolving,
we dissolving, becoming nothing,
lifeless, inert, lost amid humus and flood.
Slowly we awakened to drift along the aftermath,
crisscrossed limbs stirring languidly,
fingers tentatively tracing tendons and veins,
blindly reconstructing eyelids, cheekbones,
chins, the lines of noses and lips,
silently mapping the miracle
of our spent and sated bodies,
taking each other’s measure,
setting the standard against which
all that followed would fail,
ebb and flood of a marriage
awash in fragments of memory.
I falter, see you broken,
exuding fluids from fistulas;
like Blake’s Ancient of Days
I spread compasses, calipers,
plot the input and output
of your body’s effluvia
in gradated vials and charts,
wrap measuring tape thrice daily
around your edematous legs,
carefully record the inches
as they swell into shapelessness,
madly try to keep you meaningful and whole,
you struggling merely to remember
your only sister’s telephone number,
at the end, all of life’s unknowable oceans
contracted into that one tear
that clung mute and indecipherable
to your hot cheek the morning you died.
I could drown in that tear.
But the wind slaps at my back,
hot, insistent, pushing me forward.
Turning west onto Victory,
I see my parents’ lawn,
once a carpet of dichondra,
the walnut trees across the street
fallen to tract homes long before I met you.
My father and you work crossword puzzles
at the kitchen table, laughing;
then you stand beside me
at the door to the den, my mother
across the room, folded numb and mute,
preparing for grief,
paramedics calling out measurements,
blood pressure, pulse, teasing him back to life.
You command me in a whisper to go to her.
I need you now to tell me
how to face an old man
chanting memories like mantras,
trying to hold and order his past.
I listen for your whisper.
Perhaps I hear it beneath my feet
helping me make my argument,
helping me build my Ark,
telling me to go to the table
where he sits waiting
for me to teach him his math,
there to take the measure
of how many times
each of you goes into my life.
-first published in Shiva Dancing
©2016 Van Hartmann
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