Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Jay Johnson, "Alabaster Cave," 2012

1. Belay

A half-buried boulder or an ancient pine
will do for an anchor if I’m to come back.
Black basalt, soot-blackened bristlecone
where I set my tie-in, wearing the bright
biting jewelry (cams, nuts, hexes) for an
ascent later, jingling as I lean backwards
over the shaft—this hell-mouth whose
headframe timbers have rotted away. I
loosen my grip (rope smooth as a whip
snake) and glide down, down into dark.

Down into dark, the place where coarse-
grained rock scoffs at my descent, brakes
my entry. This is the place beyond light.
I carry a moon on my forehead, see the
shine as I scroll down from basalt to wet
gabbro. Weak orb smaller than my hand,
pinpricking light like stars in the faceted,
mafic stone. I can’t see my hands, now,
but I feel them—warmed as the friction
slows me. I’ll need friction to rise again.

O Geographers, there’s no map you can
give me better than my own fingertips to
guide me along the whorled topographies
of this crumbling mineshaft. I’ll orient by
by the rope remaining, by the silver dollar
of my headlamp—a coin tossed into the
seep so far below. I’ve come to retrieve
something, leave something, mourn my
beloved dead who begged for death while
alive. I’ve come to dig within the waste.

2. Taharah

I’ve come to retrieve my father’s body, to
free it from service to its own decay. I have
come to bury his body myself, in winding
sheets soaked in benzoin and slaked lime,
his body turning the color of tannic water
as he lay dying. He was light as a bird, flesh
tapering down to bone, and yet I know I’ll
find it impossible to carry him up and out
of here now he’s dead. If I can find him. If I
(dulled with grief) can find my way home.

I sat with him, at the end, talked to him even
though he gave no sign of hearing my brave
chatter—firstborn child, a daughter trying to
shepherd him safely through dying. What did
I know, did I think I knew, that would help? I
knew the names of so many things he wasn’t
interested in (although even before then, he
had been slowly collapsing within himself, no
interest in new things as the old things slid by,
unreal as a city shimmering in a heat mirage.)

He didn’t know where he was. All his maps all
gone, the man who never traveled without one
told the doctor he was in Connecticut with his
cousins, maybe, or an aunt. I never had a poker
face—he could tell he’d misspoken and yet did
not know how. We were in the desert, not the
verdant East, we were wandering in the desert
parched, waiting for Miriam’s Well to reopen,
but it would not. He had forgotten how to ask,
how to eat, forgotten everything but the pain.

3. Bottom

The moon’s below me when I look down, a sump
pump having trapped it in a jet black pool. At the
end of my rope and the climb down, edges bleed
into edges, dissolve into the shape of my shadow
cast on the walls. Knee-deep, stepping into it and
holding. Gathering my gear. A slow incline, a slow
walk—wading through the sharp-smelling runoff
towards a slight movement of air. A lateral shaft
that opens into a natural cavern. I mark an entry.
My small moon, lighting up pearls on stalagmites.

A room of salt, and calcium, and damp. So much
like the bodies we are, the bodies we were. Even
here, animal life—blind, translucent creatures—
move towards food and love, away from pain, the
way I do. (At the end of his rope, my father pinned
by pain—moving away from food, pushing away at
love. Every touch, branding by fire.) My father who
tossed me in the air when I was four, topsy-turvy,
both of us laughing as he’d catch me over again. I
stand, unable to cry, my cheeks wet from the seep.

4. Remains

Transformed in dying, he resembled those sleepers
found preserved in bogs. I didn’t want to wake him,
since every last waking touch had been agony; and
now, a mottled, desiccated wholeness—unwakeable.
What was left of my father was inaccessible, but not
yet gone. There was no comfort in being with him,
solace remote as the clouds beyond the mountains
to the east, but I stayed long as I could, wanting to
ease his passage away, away, to comfort him as he’d
comforted me when I was a small child, as he left us.

There was a service. There were words we said, in
Hebrew and in English. There were honors, and a
folded flag in somber ceremonies of presentation.
We were his children, his kin, his friends, but he’d
gone. After taps, the silence. The dry seed coils of
Chilean mesquite rattled in the wind, a thin snare,
scrub peyos. The seeds traveled from the Atacama
to attend. I took two brittle pods, these seeds that
traveled, so like my father, so like me, so far away
from where we came, not close to where we’d go.

5. Ascent

Months have passed, or minutes. One moon’s
burnt out, and a second, but I have a third full
of light thin and blue as skim milk, and in that
weak moonlight I find my rope, loop a friction
knot, hitch myself up out of the runoff. What
I’d come to retrieve I’ve found, and pocketed.
What I’d come to leave, I’ve left in a cave wet
with precipitate, with tears. My father’s body
helped create mine—it’s gone from my sight,
untraceable. A loop, a knot; I’m rising up, out.

6. Kaddish

Not the great howl of other poets, for me. I’ll
sit with my grief, I’ll say Kaddish (not as we’re
told—to pray it in a group—but alone, without
regard for tradition), I’ll forget the words. It’s
possible words have left me altogether. I will
continue this holy sacrilege silently, holding a
memory of my father when he was younger,
when I was a small child, when he’d toss me
up in the air, both of us laughing, and I’d fall
back safe in his arms. This will be my yahrzeit.