Southern Cultures 10.1 (2004) 61-66
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Grandfather Long the Last Time
Robert Hill Long
1. The Front Porch Glider
Back and forth the glider heaves our strange bodies,
eighty-eight and twenty-four,
your head swaying on its stem like a balding dandelion:
eyes almost frosted over,
throat whiskers roothair-white, you smell
of mildew and ammonia
—Is this the God-haired evangelist whose supper prayer
was as big as a circus tent?
who painted himself arm in arm with Dante
grinning on a crag in hell
while Russian cosmonauts plunged into the lake of fire?
Your operatic apocalypse
featured a frieze of pink women in flaming bikinis,
a blond, musclebound Jesus
flanked by Longs in the upper corner of the sky,
and a chorus of devils
—naked, batfaced, blueskinned—who pitchforked
Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.
I was six when you bugged out your eyes and gave me
that giggle of nightmares:
the turpentine hands that gripped my shoulders
still had wet blue nails
from touching up devils; the voice that boomed
Babylon, Belial, Beezlebub,
sounded not so much adversary as kennel master
summoning his prize hounds.
Those names came for me night after night—
why should I love you?
Visiting us at the coast you spent one night, then left
to paint Revelations:
grinning angels pouring vats of fire into the Atlantic
off Wrightsville Beach,
making it boil with a leaping agony of sailfish, marlin,
shark, mackerel and snapper. [End Page 61]
The vision was clear, even to a boy: to rise, after you,
like smoke bearding the face of God,
or lie down among oily human kindling. No middle air:
either way I would burn.
In this leafless Piedmont mildness your brain hardens
around ten or twelve memories:
nowhere do I appear. You are at a loss for my beard,
my ponytail and wool poncho.
The hand which shaped its own heaven and hell touches me,
hair and cheek, finally tender
and thoughtless as the wisteria curling one green finger
around the glider's leg.
I shout my name, my father's, yours, mine again.
Recognize me now?
Recognition is not belief. You shake your head.
2. Sermon On The Kitchen Steps
Even the resurrection and life thirsts
for something sweeter than a vinegar handkerchief:
I fetch orangeade, you convert
water to blood, sugar to words,
shuffle-waltzing from porch column to column,
grabbing the rail just short of a fall
to survey the revival-green tent of elms,
your last congregation: pigeons bump each other
like balcony spinsters in the roof-gutter;
starlings whistle offkey hymns;
a chameleon collects flywing-tithes
—church of a heaven-crazed mind.
Handing me the emptied bottle, you tremble
as the syrup of prophecy thickens
in your throat, each grain of sugar
breaking into five thousand fire-words:
How these little days stumble along
the blood turning to stone
in my kidney always in prayer
I believed God's steady
whisper that I would be favored
body like Samson voice like Caruso [End Page 62]
and the sword of the Spirit shall
fall on America when I lead a lion
through the streets of Philadelphia
the Cardinal shall be saved
and hand over three thousand Catholics
these shall be the happiest converts
hurricane winds and bright coronets
of fire annoint them after so much
weeping and doubt I prevail I am given
America no missiles shall fall on it
while I stand in the footprints
of Moses pleading for the lost
surrounding me full of sorrow
and sorrow is the true mother
of prayer I swear it to you—
in your bird-dispersing deaf man's shout,
in the humility of piss-stained pants
on the kitchen steps for Christ's sake
I grab your arm and hurry inside.
3. Sunday Dinner
In starched collar and cracked straw hat
you sit: cold ham congealed in fat.
We eat in silence. You have had your say.
You will have your dinner the way
it was from the beginning of the century
with the Judge your father. Politely
you frown as if I was...