The Disappearance of Outside
And how I dreamed of my bath and how
the water was black and soapy then.
The disappearance of outside began long ago
the way a window mists over after hot water
is drawn for a bath. Following half reflections,
part or opaque images of familiar scenes,
a pane clears. It quavers, pares back,
the way sight in a damaged eye milks the road
on which a girl in leg braces returns from school:
her head slowly bobs over a vanishing dirt crest.
The object impermanence on the road of I, me, mine.
There were the trees. There was the gravel
that reminds, and the dust, of people who’ve gone.
It began in the 30s, or it began a generation before
that and had become, by then, irreversible,
a loosening in the nervous tendrils that branch,
billow, wave, a decomposing light.
Its disintegration milked the bus stop, the market,
the spring-fed cistern, and in the halo of street lamps,
back door lights, damped the woods out back
and the passage where old man Vance in a trailer
thrashed with his cane at a wall when he wanted
something: and always a child was sent out.
Cats scurried there. Lovers shoved into a door
by their own brute need kissed and pulled away
to go inside there. A bag of groceries spilled,
winter oranges and chicken legs and a loaf of bread
on the grass. Whitewash flaked off the frame.
All this, until the dark became its own kind of sight
in the hungry months, then hungry years,
when it was not possible to speak anymore
about how cruelty became normal.
When even a loaf of bread on the table, otherwise
a sign of abundance, a meager eternity,
and bath water warming in the bins on the sides
of the stove in the kitchen, a pepper of wood ash
on the water in the tin tub and flecking the bread,
became for a short time part of one’s skin.
For a whole week that music
returns in the afternoon.
Her bowing lightens
to a faint breath, a mother’s,
a father’s as it closes,
which is how it joins me:
a sigh entering that stilling
interval, that leaving off
space, the fifth,
in which the hand lets go
of the cradle
and the child, unaware, sways
into its own dream.
It brushes through rooms,
the red chair, empty,
a jig-saw puzzle on the floor,
begun on a recent Sunday,
that won’t be finished.
And mostly in pieces, drifts,
whenever I see her
sitting with her dolls,
it visits with its loneliness.
Her hand, which is small still,
opens from the cello’s shoulder.
And before the bedroom door
is pulled to—a seam of light
from the hall that edges
a bank of dark,
the child’s cheek just kissed,
a child Schubert might have
sung to if he’d lived—
the tip of her third finger
reaches that final harmonic,
a whispering voice,
which sounds like a gentle keen.
Toy horses stand in a corner.
Whose innocence is exposed,
whose tenderness and passing
time together? In pictures
a few years old, she is
younger than I grasped then,
and watches something slip
by, flush, lithe, frank, that
has taken more than my own life
to hear. What parent in me
expects to lose everything
by morning and waits quietly
beside the child for sleep?
That longing in a cradle
song never is a brief, simple
parting or belief in the safety
that comes at morning.
But once we hear it, early
and as we leave our bodies
each night—the far off
crickets, the stir of a breeze
in the plane trees—
it rocks us into other people’s
beds for the rest of our lives.
Does she see a rabbit in brush
at the dusky edge of a meadow
or a child, whom she can’t name
anymore, climbing the ladder
of a long bright slide?
That quiet disconsolance,
ours in the middle of the night
when we turn to a lover’s shoulder,
and already it is hers too.
It comes back—I hear it
downstairs lay bowls on the table
for dinner and climb the stairs.
And once it drew back curtains
and lingered in a white open
window as if it came to
tell me there was a child,
from a love of years before,
whom I didn’t know was living.
Lawrence Wray’s poems have appeared in Cider Press Review, The Dark Horse, Sentence, Paper Street Press, and The Indiana Review. Online, his work can be found in Emprise Review, Frostwriting, the Pittsburgh Quarterly, and Blood Lotus. He is involved in the Pittsburgh Homeschooling community with two young daughters and is currently at work on a memoir project about child-prodigy pianist Dr. Charles Brindis.
Q: Do you have a memory of a cradle song, or is there one you use with your own children?
A: My earliest memory is of waking in a high chair in a dim room. The television is on, the door ajar and gently lit with yellow light. My mother is in that light, down a short hall, in the kitchen. She spoke in a sing-song voice when she lifted me, as she did for my daughters early in their lives. Some mornings, when I was a kid, she sang the Cream of Wheat jingle. I remember hearing rhymes and songs, “There was a fine lady from Banbury Cross…” My wife and I sang “Ali Bali Bee,” a Scottish song, to the girls. They sing all the time.
Q: Your poem “The Disappearance of Outside” speaks to economic dislocation. Would you like to elaborate?
A: I look to tent cities and for the ways people live in and among ruins in urban spaces; I look out for Dorothy Days and Dorothea Langes, and for blankets under overpasses. A man in my neighborhood lived behind cardboard walls under the low limbs of a fir tree until someone cut out the limbs and took away his chair, his clothes on hangers, and his bedding. I listen for people’s family stories. My father was hungry as a kid. He wore his grandfather’s green jacket with a zipper pocket for a winter coat, bathed in a tin tub in the kitchen, and shoved cardboard in his shoes to plug the holes.
Q: How do you use poetry in your homeschooling?
A: My daughters put to memory lots of poems. They started with Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper. One daughter especially loves William Blake; the other often likes to recite Lewis Carroll. Emily Bront , Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti—they read and learn to recite whatever poems come along and strike a chord. In the process, we talk about rhythms, images, and the rest.