ISSUE 29
Summer 2005

Daniel Tobin

 

Daniel Tobin Daniel Tobin's credits include Where the World Is Made (Middlebury College Press, 1999), Double Life (Louisiana State University Press, 2004), The Narrows (Four Way Books,  Nov. 2005), and Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney (Irish Literature, History, and Culture) (University Press of Kentucky, 1999).
The Country    Click to hear in real audio


          In memory of  Robert Kirkpatrick, killed 2/26/93
     


     We called it "The Country" and it was.
     Those summer Fridays after work
     my favorite uncle, Bob, would drive
     from Brooklyn to his five room bungalow
     on a postage stamp of ground by Crandon Lake.
     He loved that house, fixed it board by board,
     sawed and leveled, joined, planed, and painted
     until what he'd made had matched his wish.
     And we loved driving there with him,
     my brother and I, piling into the Bug,
     then riding out over the Narrows, over
     the gleaming bridge built in our lifetime,
     that nameless mansion on Todt Hill
     our midway marker to the Turnpike,
     its stench of chemical and slaughterhouse,
     its refinery stacks like votive candles.
     Whippany, Hope, Netcong, Sparta, Swartzwood—
     the names fled past on the new interstate
     into signs on roads of diminished light.
     At the last mile, winging down the long hill
     overlooking the lake, he'd shut the engine,
     the headlights, open all the windows.
     We'd glide to the driveway by the moon alone.

          ~

     Here, too, even before we came, the lots
     had been divided, the cut-out homes
     propped on hillsides, scaled into squares.
     And still, fleeing city neighborhoods
     like the other weekend pioneers,
     I could almost imagine virgin woods
     as I explored swamps, thickets, discovered
     deer bones in the backyard, or coming back
     from play saw my uncle and aunt, framed
     by light of the kitchen window, the house
     hovered over by darkening birches.

          ~
     
     For years, at Christmas in my parents' house,
     he'd oblige the crowd of family
     by crooning his version of Moon River
     into his scotch and soda, my aunts, my mother,
     laughing as their husbands drowned each other
     in background vocals tuneless as radios
     scrambling through stations. I remember
     nightlong, my uncle cracked walnuts,
     squeezing each shell between his thumb
     and finger till the tough pith snapped,
     its trove falling into his palm. "You try,"
     he'd say, and laugh as I pressed hard,
     my face flushing, the nut unbreakable
     as a diamond, until his hand cupped mine,
     clamped down vise-tight,
     and I'd feel the stone pop.
     Those times I might have been his son
     when he'd show me how to throw the curve,
     his strikeout pitch in the minors,
     or when he'd tell us how he fought in Korea,
     squinting his eyes to make us laugh,  
     a sit-com schtick that went no further
     —"I'm the original Archie Bunker"—
     as he smiled and turned away. In years since,
     I could still see his ruddy face aglow
     under citronella torches on his patio
     long after he sold the house, moved upstate
     from the neighborhood, my memory of him
     fading to a white shine, like that picture
     I took of him as he took mine, everything
     above the neck cancelled in the flash.
     
          ~
     
     On the morning of the explosion, my aunt
     waving from the screen door, TV voices
     from inside flung against February air,
     my uncle backs his pick-up from the driveway,
     flicks on the country station, rides out
     his winding side street to the Thruway,
     then along the Hudson and the Palisades:
     Pearl River, Tappan, Tenafly, Fort Lee.
     The silver plank of the bridge juts
     fantastically from cliffs, the cross-hatched
     girders of its towers rising over the site
     of the defunct amusement park, its slogan,
     Come on Over, a huckster's parody
     of words carved in stone above the harbor.
     As traffic slows crossing the bridge,
     maybe he muses looking out at the river,
     admiring its slow expansion against stone,
     the cruise ships lulling at midtown docks,
     the vaulting skyscraper where he works.
     He wouldn't linger over the island in mist
     where my great aunt was turned back
     seventy years before, where his own people
     came, mingling streams of German, Scots—
     You should love this country or leave it.
     Lunchtime underground: the garage
     suspended like a womb in bedrock,
     the world above a gleaming crystal
     of glass and steel. I see him
     in mid-joke—the one about the parrot
     and the black man—his eyes squinting slyly
     anticipating the punch line, when it hits.
     
          ~
     
     Now, he's a public image, adrift in space,
     a sensational headline, SIX KILLED
     BY TERROR BOMB, his face shocked white
     at the bottom of a crater the talk show host
     begged my aunt to witness on camera
     for the ratings wars. He's the wedding photo
     flashed on the news, the presidential letter
     on the family shrine, not the man who held
     my brother and me in laughing headlocks
     that blinding day at the country fair,
     all strong-armed play and bruising innocence,
     but a carved name on a monument, an American.

 

 

Daniel Tobin: Poetry
Copyright © 2005 The Cortland Review Issue 29The Cortland Review