Last Sunday my grandma laughed at the memory of a clumsy silverware thief: one day she came home to a slamming screen door and a trail of knives that began in the living room and petered out in the yard. She said they were not precious. But my dad whispered. He remembered how she came in with them, all in one hand. In a delicate furious bouquet.
“The Department of Defense announced Friday that the battery operated ‘digital’ bugle has come of age and is a necessity with only about 500 U.S. military buglers to perform at the 1,800 daily funerals for veterans.” –Washington Times, 10/09/02
And now even this is pantomime— or worse—a kind of full-bodied lip sync at the gravest occasion. Someone in uniform lifts horn to lips to blow (one thinks), simulates the deep draw that hallows breath into note and moves us to that spacious human room where mourning sounds. And now even this is just charade, a button pushed (at least the fingers move), and though the tones are clear as night and sure as sleep, one wonders whether God is really nigh and what besides the soldier-child might die.
The walk back, more loss. When I open the door it’s over, so I set to piddling: tidy end tables, check the mail, draw a bath. The restless energy finally settles as I pass the mirror. I peer into it. My nose touches glass. Not much left, already effaced, not even a cross to speak of. A smudge. A few black soot stains like pinpoints on the forehead. The rest of the blessed ash has vanished to a grey amorphousness, to symbolize . . . not much. Except a wish for those hallowed moments to be followed by sustaining confidence. Except spirit, which means to shun its listless weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.
Now forty winters have besieged this brow that bears the mark of ashes once again, its shallow furrows yielding to time’s plow as, on command, I turn and turn again. With every year the mark goes deeper still and stays there longer than the year before, reminding me, despite my flesh’s will, there comes a spring when I’ll be marked no more.
Yet still I bow and part my graying hair to make way for the dust that makes us all, the mortal touch, the cross traced in the air, the voice that tells me to regard the fall that each of us must know before we rise and raise unwrinkled brows to greet God’s eyes.
How can children read, with words wobbling any way they feel like? Spelling shows up as speling, and spelin spills to spleen. Stolen bases slide to stollen basis. There’s no Too Far, no leash to keep the feral hound from escape, no property line between ideas, no surveyor to fasten edges.
And if Johnson doesn’t finish soon, words might wander further into wildness, soar like index cards in a hurricane, and scatter like so much litter. Or worse— careen like bullets into meanings, blowing every deal to pieces.
If he finishes, you could be stuck in a poem entirely on spelling, longing for rescue from the strait- jacket they tied us into so we can read and write this. How fragile the guide rope of logic seems between us! How tenuous sweet mutual understanding!
Sam Johnson, in your stained shirt, big as Fleet Street, rehearsing for the thousandth time your smudgy slips of paper, you’ve never finished anything on time, you rarely finish. This is a prayer for you. But shall I bless or curse?