Pentecost: Collinwood School Fire, Cleveland, 1908
The children have all gone now,
sprawling into their separate orbits--
half believing in arms to catch them
three floors below, or maybe the universal
dream of flight. The others
blindly lurching towards memory’s promise
of light beyond the sooty dark.
She understands both kinds of faith.
One like air heavy with too many wings,
flightless, less adult, but blessed
as the room of her childhood
where a trapped mourning dove beat
itself against the glass until its small
heart burst, believing, as it must,
in infinite, unattainable sky.
One like the enduring touch
of hands near midnight which read
all they remember deftly,
each arc of tendon, belly, bone,
like a note held almost to forever,
or the exquisite throats of swans.
Though it was hunger, not faith,
which kept her silent when she caught
the scent of charring wood, the ache
of it searing her groin
seconds before the bell began
its insistent whine—a white sound
like pain’s numb silver spark
an instant before the mind records
the body’s message and forces us
to scream. She’s thinking about
the summer she turned thirteen--
Sunday morning and fever left her
the only one home, her family
on their knees at St. Stephen’s.
Beneath her brother’s bed she found
a box of photographs. Women like
flowers, the fleshy petals of their sex
glistening as in dawn light. Women
like vines, intertwined, the sleek
muscles of their shoulders like small
waves lapping shore. Outside, sun
burned the fields hour upon hour
into days until the wheat stood
like a crop of bone.
The starry amaryllis sheds it scarlet
in the unforgiving noon as if to say
her hands, stroking the buds of her breasts
each night were wrong, and her fingers,
like honeybees when they light upon
tiers of wisteria, were surely the devil’s
ten children, and that was why she woke
in autumn to hot blood between her thighs.
Now she leans against the doorframe,
brass fittings warm against her shoulder
blades, and waits for those long-ago women
to descend in their robes of flame.
This time she will not refuse.
She will call them Love, which makes
a sound like something you’d whisper
to a frightened child who wakes and will not
sleep. And Desire, too, shall come
whose skirt is smoke and ash
and the first inclination toward sleep
which renders the flesh agreeable.
She turns from the noise of the sirens, breaking
glass, the shouts of the man breathing
through his mask who’s powerless to cross
the smouldering, skeletal floor,
who watches the dark beads of her necklace
begin to glow as fire unlooses her
clothing—coral blouse, sweater, shoes.
Until, finally, she opens her lips
to the hymn of fire, its first deep kiss
passing halfway down her throat
so she is breathless but opens wider, wide,
her mouth gaping the first vowel
in her new tongue, which is universal,
which means, yes, which means, more.