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The Flames


for my father


How many nights must it take

one such as me to learn

that we aren’t, after all, made

from that bird that flies out of its ashes,

that for a man

as he goes up in flames, his one work


to open himself, to be

the flames?

Galway Kinnell



You lift your oxygen mask to ask if I see a dead pigeon

on the burnt loam


and when I shake my head, you stare cold into hospital

light and say


that once your eleven-year-old hands caught a pigeon, held

its body down and sliced


wings from thorax, then left the bird to wrench on red ground.

When you held the trophy wings


to the boys who dared you, the crowd cheered, another boy

lit a match to the pigeon’s


body and you stood still holding those wings in the smolder.

How everyone wanted


to be your friend. You tell the story in small breaths,

how no one knew


you cried yourself to sleep for three weeks and you were glad

when the rains came,


took to your room and glued model airplanes.



As you sunk back into the gurney’s buckle, I listened to your staggered

breath, pictured each lung


a vessel of black snowflakes, an envelope containing a sentence

from the hell you could not excavate


but I asked you to breathe the black ash out and as we breathed

into that antiseptic night,


you said you could see your breath smolder, began to cough the rattle

from your chest


until morning when your fever broke, when the nurse brought me coffee

and said, Happy New Year,


took you for your morning walk, and I was a child again running down

the empty street,


a filament of blue confetti at my feet.



In April we don’t speak of December, and you say you have

no memory of that night.


I don’t mention your story, don’t ask if it’s true, don’t beg for proof

today in the garden where a pigeon sweeps


down to eat a crumb and as April makes me forget the scars

of December, I throw a piece of bread and see you


stare as I stoop to peer into the nervous fidget of the pigeon’s eye.




Originally published in Harpur Palate, Volume 8, Issue 2

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