Two Poems

by Todd McKinney


Voice of Patrick on cell phone:
thin, pointed, the wand
a conductor raises and drops and waves
sidelong and diagonally in tempo with
Brahms’ first movement, fourth symphony,
which is exploding from his car stereo.
Patrick’s a wind gust. He says,
“This movement’s a civil war
battle. Listen: hear that, the misery,
the courage, the fear, a creek, something eerie.
It’s there, you just gotta listen.”
Or Patrick’s a young palm tree
in a wind gust. Brahms is among many
who move Patrick thus. Once,
listening to him play “Parable for Solo Viola”
on CD, I heard him breathing
during rests, between notes,
between something like despair and
something like resignation,
breath strong enough to bend
a candle’s flame without extinguishing it—
but Patrick’s words remind me why I called:
three weeks ago, he broke the Sacred Knot with Anna,
so I ask him how that is because
I need an update and I need him to know
I haven’t forgotten. His voice—
that wand—summons one cello
bowing two notes, the song
of a deep, quiet howling.
He says, “I’m glad it’s over”
and I can’t believe it
but then he adds “Talk about a fight,”
which he punctuates with a “Ha!”
which bleeds into his trademark “My God!”
which lingers in the quiet
like the quiet that hangs above a plateau,
a quiet descending from regret
to reverence to relief, a quiet Brahms erases
with four measures and a string section.
And then Patrick describes it:
“corpses shade the hillside
from which smoke lifts in curls;
cannons sit quietly, mouths closed;
a male chorus too lucky or too cursed sing
a nearly inaudible lullaby of moans and gasps;
and the sun ascends once more from a maroon pool,”
which is when Patrick stops with a sigh
that suggests he has dropped, temporarily,
the baton that is his voice.
Before I can ask him a question,
he picks it up again, only to tap it this time:
“We were fine despite the distance—
but then the troops marched in
and we had a thousand reasons to hate each other,
and each reason had a gun.
I’m still alive, I think,
but you know it’s hard to tell
sometimes. It’s hard to tell.”
And with that he puts down the baton
as though, finally, he had measured out
the length of some sorrow he’d kept inside,
as if it were the long red handkerchief
a magician pulls from his mouth
until all he holds is a square
the color of a mourning dove flying away.

Some Very Important Business

This morning I sit on the front stoop
and watch ants pick apart a beetle
who is easy food because
only half of him remains: his head
and his abdomen to which
his two front legs are still attached.
Too bad for him, I think,
because he is still alive, on his back.
About every twelve seconds,
he reaches his legs up, as if to grasp
something—maybe his beetle soul—
so as to pull it back before it slips
into this cool October ether.
And now—too bad for him—
there are more ants than before,
each one carrying beetle pieces
back to headquarters. I ask the beetle,
“Should I contact a family member?
A friend? A man of the cloth?
Do you have any last wishes?”
The beetle does not respond,
just reaches his legs up again,
losing his grip. Were the beetle
a person, some would say,
“God has his plans,” or
“He’ll be better off in Heaven.”
I say, “This is the way
God wants to eat you today.”
This doesn’t help, so I try Poetry.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the . . .”
And the beetle rages and rages and
reaches his legs up, reaching for
the light switch. Then I say,
“I’m sorry for not knowing
what to say as you lie here.”
As I say this, I lean in, look
for eyes to look into. I hear
ant voices screaming,
“Come on!” and another:
“They found a robin by the oak.”
The beetle moans. I lean in closer.
His guts smell like rotten potato.
I lean in more so that I am only
millimeters from his nose:
He wears a thin silver mustache!
which matches the silver in his hair
which glistens in this morning sun.
And his jowls hang there like an old dog’s.
hanging there like wisdom,
hanging there with too much
familiarity. So I can’t help what I see
Next: grandfather giving in
to the cancer, the cold creeping
behind his eyes and cheeks.
Afraid the beetle recognizes me, I talk
about the weather, the economy, baseball,
and then I remember that this scarab beetle,
which I’ve always known as a June bug,
is still alive with only half its body
and the small black ants
moving to and from the beetle
like an animated dotted-line
are not nurses nor doctors.
I consider blotting out
with my flip-flop the illusion,
but it’s too late for that now,
I know, as I kneel over the scene,
mesmerized by those diligent ants.