Winner : Terrain.org 8th Annual Contest in Poetry Selected by Robert Wrigley
Tying a Tie
I must be twelve or so. We face the bathroom mirror,
me in starched white shirt, trying not to squirm,
faint frown on my face. He in sleeveless tee,
his chest hair abundant, still dark, the last dots
of shaving soap on his chin. He calls the knot a Windsor,
holds my hands holding the long end on the left,
short end on the right, flipping long over short,
looped around, poked up and over the top
tucked in, pulled down, the triangle tightened
with thumb and forefinger—all simple, deft,
impossible to replicate. He’s not a sad man yet.
I’m in training for the world, for being a man like him,
sad only when I study him in the mirror,
girding for another day at the appliance store,
his hands on the shoulders of his smaller self,
prepping me first so I can see how it’s done,
how to tie the tie in a way that allows me to breathe,
to not fear the squeeze of being choked.
I will, just as he has, come to live with it.
And so I have, now that he’s gone, come to live
with it, to tie my own tie, to accept the discomfort
just as he did, whose reasons for sorrow were many,
to love again the appliance salesman who turns me
to face him as he adjusts the knot at my throat.
What comes back are two seconds
of weightlessness. There’s a dirt road,
purple foxglove in a ditch,
the crunch of gravel under the red
tractor’s great black wheels.
There’s the grind and smoke
of a belabored engine downshifted
against the steep down-grade
toward a cave of cedars erasing
all but quilt scraps of sunlight.
There’s me propped on his lap,
full of the smell of him—Old Spice,
pipe tobacco breast-pocketed
in his overalls, pipe and pouch
pressed against my back, his fat hands
on the steering wheel, my small hands
tight on it, alive with vibration
this fall morning now startled
by the gunfire of backfire, startled
again by silence, again by lurch,
release, by sudden speed, his quiet “Hold on,”
our trailer of firewood careening,
whipped side to side, chunks lofted,
his foot stomped on the useless brake.
There are the two beautiful seconds
where I’m lifted free from the weight
of my childhood, of the fables I’d made,
lifted, flung from the jackknifed
tractor about to roll, struck in the back
by some hard thing, he leaping after me,
my face pushed in the muck of the ditch
where I flop entirely awake
to the tops of trees, bits of blue,
aware that there’s no end to it,
there’s an end to it. I’m not able
to breathe or cry or feel
thorns of blackberry in my cheek,
the sting of nettles in this,
the new life, the one in which
nothing is sure, everything governed
by the immutable Law of the Unforeseen.
I hear the hoarse rasp of my name,
see his bloodied head near mine
when he lifts me from the brambles.
I’m able then to taste the ditch,
spit muck and bits of leaves,
able now to understand he threw me
to save me, able still to see myself
in his arms as he carried me up the hill,
aware of being aware of the light perfume
of wild roses crushed where I’d landed,
petals matted in my muddied hair.
Poetry judge Robert Wrigley says...
What draws me into these poems, what continually calls me back to them, is the sense of dramatic occasion they not only work with but wield exceptionally well. “Tying a Tie” weaves the discomfort of something so common as wearing a tie into the larger discomfort of just being alive, of being, we might say, melancholy, even depressed, and how such discomfort can be in many ways inheritable. And “Airborne” is a beautiful piece of poetic sleight-of-hand. Those two seconds last an elongated but brief three lines, but the rest of the narrative is wrought musically and artfully into the very sort of “fable” of childhood a very skilled adult poet can make of them.