Vulture Watches a Starving Child,
by Joseph Fasano

– photograph, Kevin Carte, 1993

Because I have never found a story
that I can whisper

from narthex
to altar,

I have forgotten the story of my mother
carrying a child one summer

until they found her
staring at her hands on a linoleum floor—

thinner than she’d been—

the wind
lost in her sweater like a blackbird.

And how the telling it made me
relish the verb   to carry—

as in

A woman carries the scent
of a blackbird in her clothes
all autumn

or         A child carries a flame
into an empty room

the ashes of his own sleep before him.

All autumn I’ve thought of the man who donned
a pair of white velvet gloves, in spring,

and stepped into the lion enclosure
at a Taipei Zoo, a second-hand Mets jacket

over his shoulder, and knelt there. And waited.
In the grainy, uploaded footage, he is saying nothing

to the first of the pride, which, lithe, startlingly
deft-pawed, takes a first exploratory swipe at his shoulder

and stands over him where he’s fallen, trying to get this right.
Plum blossoms startle from its haunches.

We only get one chance. In Kevin Carter’s photograph,

for instance, a child has crumpled onto a fallow field
in 1993, in southern Sudan, a heavy necklace on its shoulders
that may or may not be

a punishment, that may or may not be
the thumb-bones of a brother, a father, no one.
You tell it: behind us, in startling

color, the vulture is already bored,
and preening.

I don’t know what the keeper

was thinking. Or the lions, for that matter, in their
confusion. This is not about history,

about thirty Romani kneeling
with their former guard while he writes the names
of their children on his own palms, over

and over; this is not even about
how Miklós Radnóti lived three hours in the ditch

the Staffelführer shot him into—

the way, in his last poems, he refused to say the names of things

until the names of things
sustained him, somehow, and mattered. When Ignatius

knelt before the lions
of Trajan, he must have imagined

only the details were holy: their colors, the shallow bowls
of their fore-paws. And he would have been wrong.

But who could prove it?

When I think of how Carter returned to his childhood

like the body of a fox-boy found
under a stage at the Alabama State Fair, its red paws

over its bankrupt face, how the young keeper
must have scoured the alleys for those two velvet

gloves, because, for no reason
he could fathom, suddenly white gloves

mattered, their stitching, their otherworldly
odors, I think of inheritance, the name of it, its silence.
I think of a young man adjusting the lens on his

Nikon, posing a child’s forearm and then stepping back
to the Braamfontein River and forgiving it all

with monoxide. I think of the photograph sneering, beauty, beauty,
beauty,
because

this is not a moral, this body; because

maybe there’s no way to say this
with dignity:  I’d been dreaming

we survive ourselves.  I’d been dreaming of the infant

I found, one winter, wrapped in cheesecloth by a Southern
harbor, ravens ecstatic above him.  They told me he lived.  They told me

I carried him back to my Chevy, drove to the station, said help me,
filled out forms, waited, filled out more

forms, called my brother, told him
thank you for letting me stay in this city, thank you, thank you…

I don’t know why I’m telling you this story.
I don’t know how, when I pulled that scripture

from an attic this morning, and a woman’s hair came tumbling out
onto my forearms, I knew she was kneeling

in the barrens, the cargo
of the wind’s book in her fingers.

I knew we are the story the storyless whisper to each other.

I know

this much: tonight, in her lost
sleep,

my mother will curl down where the filly of oblivion
has risen, the music

of her orchards growing fainter,
and think nothing, to give has been nothing.

And her savior is the one who does not come.

And the wind takes its book out of her hands now.

And she has said all the things in this life it was given to her to carry.

Tonight I wander back to an empty house
and slump at a salt-aged table

and lift a dark quill from my father’s well
and hold it to his nose

and stare at his blind eyes that are nowhere.

Exhaustion has clarified his voice
like a luthier dismantling a cello.

There is the moon like a foal’s blood on his collar.

There are the walls turned to ruins by his late prayer.

There are the wings of the evening as they hold him.

But the hymn of it, the hymn of it is over.

I wake in a cold snap
and carry a chair out to the harbor.

A woman sits before me
in her red hair

and reaches the wind’s shears to my fingers.

It is raining
in the dark hills, the barrens.

Listen, she whispers, Listen.

It is the music of what I cannot keep:

a country, a wind-
enameled saddle,

and this:

On an evening in brittle
November, my father is walking
the far reaches of his

pastures, righting his fence posts
in wind.
I don’t pretend to fathom

what it does to him.  I don’t pretend to fathom
what he says
to it, to the wind

that dismantles
everything,
to the wind, in the

end, when it kneels him
there, when the wind
takes his face in its hands and whispers,

stay, stay.

A man and woman climb the steps of December
to make their bed.  I don’t know

what they whisper, but I know she must usher away
the thin shins of morning

from those linens, pushing it back in its martingales.

I know surrender has to take us there, surrender.

Now they are lying in that namelessness.

Now they are listening
to beginning, climbing up the stairwell

with its black book, riffling its fluency in the threshold…

I do not know, I do not know what story it will offer them.

Listen:

It was winter then.  It is winter again and I am talking to you
now, whoever you are I may or may not have

salvaged—you from your cheesecloth blanket, you now

in your body of twenty-nine years, you there standing in the great
bay window of your childhood

where the ganders are endless, endless, and you cannot hear them, not
yet, not ever.  If I could cross over

into the anchorage of your life
tonight, I would not make you sing

your death song, stranger, nor face the music
of these ravens alighting on the darkening

hovel of your time here, polishing their talons for winter.
I would not bring you to the swift mirror of the river.

Listen: It is not the tragedy

you thought:  You are going
to live.  You are going to have to fall

to your life.  Maybe the dead will bury
the dead.  Maybe someone will pray she be allowed to drink

and drink from the decadent vessels of your knees
that reflect the light.  Maybe your banishment from silence

will be entire.

Go on, though.  Go on.  You will have to; you will have to
waken.  And if one morning, poor as song, you should stand up

on the guard-rail of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the traffic
not honking, and blurt out, Hell, why not, aren’t we all just

the unopened story of light, wait there, wait there
a moment.  Someone was with you once,

in ruins.  If your own life
were your murderer, I would nourish it.  I would hold you

though the words come down to nothing.

I would.  I would.
Even though your mother was the lost left hand
of the wind, and also

the right one, broken.

Even though the child is lifting its body
to the opening country of the raptor’s battered

body, and winter
is winter.

Even though your father—listen to him—even though your father is kneeling down

among the nettles and the graceless April
of his pastures, wild-eyed, awoken, in

tatters, the ravens exploding
from the spruce groves, the masked mares unraveling

his fibers, a figure explaining to the reckoning

the shattering syllables

of his story, its good name, which cannot be proven.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 15, Issue 3.


Joseph Fasano earned his BA from Harvard University and his MFA from Columbia University. He is the author of Fugue for Other Hands, winner the 2011 Cider Press Review Book Award. Fugue for Other Hands was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Kate Tufts Discovery Award in 2013. Fasano’s second book is forthcoming from Cider Press Review.

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