Alexander Rabb CC
My Father as a Tiny Dragon
So how in hell did we end up with dragon? Fly ash and cold pit and the long slip down,
the beast that summons then swallows the drooping, earth-gut town,
potatoes for breakfast and potatoes for supper and potatoes for lunch tomorrow,
a dragon’s dragon’s silica chest borrowing breath from a bottle of sorrow,
inheritance less a continuous guzzle than an accretion of sags and troughs,
the sorry mountainside giving in, heaving and wheezing, coughs;
then a bird’s-eye view of oblivion from a ridge half-forgotten as heartbreak,
the body raked with incoming garbage: arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, iron, uranium, nickel,
hard little blue-gray assassins burrowed like fugitives under the skin,
that thin line between the hurt-borne self and a purple-hearted projection,
a Tin Man’s chest full of nothing but pressure and wartime souvenirs; then years
of fragile delusion, a performance of the American dream underwritten by Standard Oil
with an excessively boozy intermission and a violent second act.
“He had tremendous hatred for a lot of women,” my uncle interrupts, ad libbing.
“He didn’t have the nicest temperament, and neither did any of us.
And from the sound of it, I don’t think you have a nice temperament, too.”
Up here on the spot-lung mountaintop, the dragon inside the body caves in,
bony beak haggles like a bellows for air, like a pocket that’s sighing for change.
The coal tunnel throat gulps burnt and sour, the char in a barrel of blasted fish,
a wheezing canary’s final wish for wings in sunlight, like smack in a vein that’s collapsing
while gravity’s railroad takes its glum lumps from the childhood heaps at Carbondale
to the childhood mules on the D&H Canal along 16 miles of hand-hammered tracks,
the stuttering slump of a dragon’s racked back, the blap-blap-blap fist in his war chest gunning
against its cage; a family bound to gravity by rage, down and panting on the living room rug,
a 4-year-old hugging her knees. Can’t we please bolt the door on the afterworld of love?
A bird will eat from a still hand, dragon; lie down in the brownfields, disarmed
Thunder! Dragon come home, dirty-knot dog at the front door panting at his loafered
heels, while the rest of us avoid him. Thunder! Dragon sits down, swallows the dining
room table and chairs. Thunder! Dragon gets up, melts into an infant condensation of
himself, lightning scorching each iris, the ultramarine garbage-patch, the slag dump
marring the shore. Thunder! His firebolt face the atmospheric equivalent of a magazine
loader; the rest of us cower instinctively, a home-grown version of the hard lockdown
drill. Thunder! Dragon ka-booms, nine cracked tongues bang out of his body, a
crowding that sounds like an air raid siren, shattering glass in the high-rise condos,
storm petrels sobbing and blown off course, whirlwinds and sandstorms and lion-faced
eagles tearing small herds of antelopes to shreds. Thunder! Dragon swoops in from the
south, swerves in from the north, comes barreling in from the west and the east.
Thunder! Dragon grows horns, racing up out of his temples and careening around his
head. Thunder moon, hay moon, buck moon, blood moon, kicking the living daylights
out of the small herd of antelopes knit together behind the living room couch. Thunder!
Dragon grabs hold, hoarfrost and hot squall and mile-long tornado. Thunder! Dragon
bites down, a disaster that stretches backward and rattles molecular chains, small herd
of antelopes morphs into a pack of banes in a stunted grove struggling to break the spell
How human the problem of tending a fire, building my ugly pile of sticks
while the finches eat fat in the rain. Even as you melt, tiny dragon,
your weight could pull this birdhouse apart, unchecked baggage a hungry ghost’s art,
the part in the tale where the roof is blown clear off the pig.
I’ve propped it up on pins and needles, splinted the thing like a broken bone, spat wishes at it
as if it weren’t wooden, called it music, called it language, called it home. There is nothing
that makes this nursery rhyme last but the oink-oink-oink of my hammer-hoof wrath
at the blacks of your keyboard spine. It’s a conundrum done up in DNA lacing,
this face that’s facing the mirror on the wall. I see you, dragon, owling back at me,
unspooling your drunkard fairytales, the damnedest of them all
You don’t guard a flaming pearl, tiny dragon, you don’t guard a golden fleece,
you’re not the kind of dragon for sword fights and safekeep; with your thirst like a camel,
your hunger like hogs, you land in a smog of disasters and cut the clouds full fast
but I have gorged, tiny dragon, on the pillage you’ve amassed, some of it rotten, some of it sweet,
your drunk eyes as red as winter’s stored apples, your drunk eyes as red as summer’s raw meat,
you fucked with the weather, turned off the moon, tattooed your image on my back with your teeth,
and always I feel followed. In these duck-blind poems I hide inside, loaded and pointed and cocked,
what’s to stop me from going ballistic? There is nothing to cease the lockjaw grinding,
send the monkey packing in his combustible pillbox hat; I’ve been hacking up fire,
hot and cold and dry and wet, a net of sweat and cluster bombs, since the universe was in diapers, and
still, I could forget every open-sesame, every secret word to herd the turbulent, flesh-eating bird off of
my chest where it shits on my thoughts and devours the rest of the chorus,
a burn like the runaway greenhouse effect that turned Venus to porous junk,
a lump of boiling porridge even Goldilocks would reject. Where, in such appetite, can grace be met?
Let’s direct the story toward the bears’ grief in finding their sense of place made brief
by human business. Sadness is their witness. The sadness of a map of the world as big as the world and
equally torn. We are born to such a chart as this; I can GPS my birth in its tatters,
and all that matters is to find a route through each angry shred, to see sadness ahead
in the middle of the lane, a ball of hunger, ticks, and mange, and to stop there
and quietly watch while it passes. Tiny dragon, how staggering it feels,
my engine idle, breathing for real, world come alive in your ashes
The hardball of the car alarm ricochets off the city walls, and cracks the teensy teacup ear
of the swallow, who, chirping, stops chirping to compose a considered response, while we wallow
in our caution-tape wherefores, oblivious to the exchange. Rough beasts, you and I,
lumps of clay erupting, tiny volcanoes melting the streetscape as we hurry along on our
wham-bam way. Here is the trigger and here is the blast, here is the hunk of metal
in the fleshed-over wound, a “fuck” in your head, fuzz on the tongue, your pupils differential,
an emergency interruption in the otherwise bland and businesslike day,
like the whole damned world missed the sound check, dragon, and now
your ears are filled with blood, muffling the ice breakers’ clanging upriver
and the fog horn’s oh-no-no-no-no. What do dragons suggest?
Bad weather and plenty of it, rain come down like bullets, and bullets come down like rain.
Dragon, your claws are made of blown glass; when you dance us across the living room rug wearing
us on your feet, the weight of family shatters them and scatters them like shrapnel.
With the living room rug as my witness, and the swallow that’s socked by our hullabaloo,
and the pink flamingo as witness, too—a father of eight, a survivor of floods, who lay in the mud
of a Balkan zoo while boys barely ready for two-plus-two kicked him until he was finished—I pray
a dragon’s wings, hard as rusks, soften in the milky dusk and melt themselves into an updraft.
May your talons, in glassy glitter and shards, constellating like hot little stars, strafe the night
with their razzamatazz, pulse like beacons from a billion-mile distance, and everyone feel safe
Betsy Andrews is the author of The Bottom (42 Miles Press, 2014), recipient of the 42 Miles Press Prize in Poetry; and New Jersey (UWisc Press, 2007), winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Her chapbooks include She-Devil (Sardines Press, 2004), In Trouble (Boog City Press, 2004), and Supercollider, with artist Peter Fox. Betsy's poetry and essays have been published widely, most recently in Fierce: Essays by and About Dauntless Women (Nauset Press, 2018), Love's Executive Order, and Matter. She is also the co-curator, along with Kerala-based poet VK Sreelesh, of Global Poemic, a website of poems from around the world witnessing to these times of Covid-19.
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