Standing in front of Van Gogh's portrait,
the winter one with the bandage and heavy
green overcoat, blue hat with black fur,
every stroke pained as the mangled face
he is showing us, mangled but repairing
as if he's lived through something worth
pleading, shellacked and deft on canvas--
my son asks What happened to his head?
He's still a kid and doesn't know the story,
the unbearability of loving the ones who leave.
When I don't answer he eats the quiet,
the way when I turn down the radio's litany
of casualties, as he hunkers like a monk
burying his head in a bowl of Cheerios.
But really, what is there to say about that--
A photo of my brother patrolling a field
of sunflowers in Afghanistan. It'll be years
before he understands the ear, that presence
implicates the missing. It'll be just after
school lets out, driving to the grocery store,
and he will tell me about another Van Gogh,
a vase of sunflowers, they studied in art class.
Simple task: To record in journals how each
differs, this head from that, this paint from that.
We will be crossing the creek bridge
and he will be mid-sentence and I will be
thinking summer--Roadsides lined with flowers
in black buckets, and birds taking seed
out of ones we plant along the garden fence,
wondering if he knows about Gauguin,
the Yellow House in Arles. And just when
I feel I am almost useful, he will ask:
Did your brother have to kill anyone?
What I don't know becomes signature.
What I can't say becomes silence
and silence scores the mind, and the mind,
never letting go, takes the marks and makes
a house of the cuttings. But all that's outside
the frame. We are here now, looking
backward and forward at a painting of a man
injured by love. And if I had the means,
I'd ditch the day, turn all elsewheres noise,
and hold truant the coma calm of a museum.
And if I had the heart not to feel this forever
is not the one my son wants, I'd break it,
strew it against the bric-a-brac and static.
To stay still this long is a terrible thing to ask.