Robert Hill Long The 2River View, 6.2 (Winter 2002)

45 North

At 45 degrees latitude, the dead devolve
in record rains: a hundred inches this year,
rains deep enough to drink me, if they want.
This year graveyards are awash, they’re sinking.

When I was nine, I shivered in a winter treehouse
with a friend whose great-uncle had just croaked
raving, drooling, the works. It rained while we talked
bravado about idiot age, and swore to never die old:

“If I live past sixty-four,” I said, “I’ll shoot myself.”
I had lifted Dad’s .45 Colt down from his closet,
cradled it, heavier than a baby as far as I knew,
and unswaddled it from its gun-oiled T-shirt.

1:30 a.m. I sit on the back deck pierced by leafless
oaks that shiver, like I shiver in the rain winds
of my middle-age passage. Slave to what, bound
to whose profit? I’m smoking to summon my father

and his brothers to answer for me. Smoke brings the dead
nearer in the rain; like prisoners, they tap code
on deck-roofing adorned for Sukkot with branches
fallen from oaks and firs. Idiot age, they’re telling me,

that’s what browns the oak leaves, what withers them.
But suicides are thrown torn green branches to sweep hell.

Father, the smoke of you blows out my mouth
to the corner of the house, sucked around its floodlit edge.

Smoke is all Uncle Ben managed to make himself
at sixty-one; Uncle Tommy at sixty-two. What did I want
at nine from the smoke-colored metal in my hands?
To sit on a wet chair and freeze, rain answers, on the deck

of rain’s night vessel going nowhere. On slave ships,
sometimes, a hobbled necklace of men would wake
and see it was never going to be over, this capture,
not with the end of a mere ocean, and they would walk

off the ship, a spiraling molecule, singing as they chose
unsounded depths. Some had to be fathers and sons,
ending the shackles together. Father, shackled by rain
to your brothers, why does no one get out simply

by imagining a death he deserves? I flick the barrel
of the cigarette away. My black dog peers through
the storm door, anxious. Remember that painting
of the black dog swimming hard, swimming faithfully

toward something Goya kept outside the frame?
Father, you should know now: show me
the other side of the rain. You’re slave to nothing
but a boy’s fear,
the rain taps. Slave-boy, depression’s dog,

what are you in middle-aged night, this far north,
this far west? In imagination you want to leap—
why keep your animal head above water?
I want to sing how unjust it is that we’re chained

together, father and son, in death’s immortal mistake.
Is that reason enough? The rain won't say. I’m the age
of my latitude, I’m freezing. A hand like my father’s
opens the storm door again, and the black dog

guides me through all the blinded rooms to bed.

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2River All is well.