For a long time I didn’t know I was related to my mother. As family secrets go, I think it’s supposed to be the other way around, like negotiating IN and OUT swinging doors, but families are specifically themselves, the way the law is specifically itself. Like a birth certificate. You don’t change the place and time, but you can change everything else, the law travelling us to distant and unfamiliar lands and people, a madhouse novel, puzzle-box science fiction, so now my mother is also my first cousin once removed, and she dies, and the branch goes poof. And so my father, in his 90s, says to me last month that we were, before the adoption, cousins, like he’s helping, like he’s remembering a Get Out of Jail Free card. Oh look! How did this get here?
(I found my birth name while poking around for medical and legal forms when he had a heart attack. It was the original, yellowed, adoption record. Come on now. How many years of not thinking, “Oh, you know, we could check that.” The details of March 18, 1968. In the matter of Eric Martin Enquist, a minor.)
Say the stories are true, and you die and step into Heaven. Who greets you? That’s the general idea, someone there to say hi. And what name do they call you? What essential, true name you recognize in your very heart? “Lord, steal me,” we say. Or we don’t. Maybe we say, “Won’t you just stop.” Listen, the theme is secrets. The theme is always secrets. The theme is insurmountable wimpling wing, as each new morning absolves itself of last night’s stars. Go back three generations, and my great-grandparents are the same great-grandparents, before or after the adoption, waiting to greet me in death’s airport terminal. They will say, “Dear great-grandson” and the law won’t object, and the DNA won’t object. How about you? You’ve had a mouth full of clouds too. You’ve wanted to know things no one wants to tell you. You’ve also touched the furniture of the dead.
This morning, I’ve the gym to myself. The music is “Don’t Stop Believing” which is mildly embarrassing, watching myself in the mirror. Don’t stop. Believing. Hold on to that dream. Yeah-ee-yeah. As I’m leaving, a child says, “Love you love you love you,” running across the child watch area to her mother. I’m sure I said it to my birth mother in 1968, as I said it to my new parents later. I must have, as any blank surface one calls elegant. The way one places one’s hand to a wall. The way I placed my hand in yours. And if you must go, then, please, haunt me. Wrap me in your absence.
The new moon was Saturday and I missed it. It wasn’t even cloudy. I just missed it. And now it’s waning, and I get it, I know what that feels like. Every day you’re a little more susceptible. Every second we start at Genesis and play it all the way to the end. Every day I sing the “Star Spangled Banner” in front of a mirror at the gym with 35lb weights. Every inch is that much deeper down the golden throat of nostalgia. There’s been a fly banging itself against the window for 20 minutes now. I get it. I know what it feels like. Every day you’re a little more susceptible. With my glasses off, I see two of everything. With them on, it's OK I guess, but nothing feels real. like I’m watching it on TV. I want a life of little questions. Who wouldn’t want that? Like “who sang that song” or “how do you think Chelsea will do this year?” Flyovers that are fundamentally unimportant, but right now they’re everything you see, things that get us through by continually showing up variously so it’s not all big questions coming at us in flames, spinning. Who wants to think about spinning flames all the time, or really, at all? Until you walk out one morning and there it is coming down the block, incinerating house after house. You have these two choices. People are sick all over town but no one will say why, because this is God’s country, and that answers the question a little bit less each day. I don’t like the way this is going and I’d like to register my complaint, signed God. God thinks you’re a dumbass. Also, the ghosts just called. They think you’re a dumbass too, and also, they prefer to be called spirits. They want their bodies back a little more each day, and I get it. I’m driving my car across the ocean. I’m driving my car to the moon.
Fergus wasn’t much for his father’s poems, Fergus, who rose above the age, becoming all children trotting down the hall to their parents’ bedrooms, a popular Irish or Scottish name that in its ancestral Irish form, Vergosus, was inscribed on a stone in County Kerry, Ireland, where one branch of my family, the Gormans, then O’Gorman, come from. I thought of Fergus while reading this poem by Bruce Beasley just now, with a woozy feeling, like the recurring need to go to church or see the Grand Canyon. At some point Fergus’s father stopped writing poems about him. Oh unhappy livingness. Or at least until they visit with new loves or children of their own so all the child stories can trot back out, as consolation, but there is no consolation. Is that it? I haven’t gotten there yet, as my children are still here, in school, lunches and rides. So I break a little, how Eliot just said to me, looking at some puppy pictures on the humane society page, that when he looks at a picture of a puppy he dies and then comes back to life. “When I look at you,” I imagine all of us saying, “I die and come back to life, I die and come back to more life as I die and part of me stays dead.” It’s like that “I love you to the moon and back” book we’d read in the other room, which is still there, right there. Houses are like that, misaligned walls and chatty ghosts. Here’s your prompt: imagine an aubade in a world without beginnings or endings. It’s a writing exercise, life exercise, how anything is a form unto itself, that one-off, extemporaneous solo that we decide to transcribe, it’s that good, but at the time, whoever, John Coltrane maybe, was just blowing what the day presents. He said that 90% of what he played was prayer, and I’m starting to get that. I come to such things slow, and break a lot while trying to roll with it, thinking, yeah, I’m flexible, flexible as glass, reading Bruce Beasley’s poem about Jin, turning eighteen.
JOHN GALLAHER is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Brand New Spacesuit, and the co-author of two. His forthcoming collection, My Life in Brutalist Architecture, with be out in 2024 from Four Way Books. He lives in northwest Missouri, and co-edits The Laurel Review.
Artwork by David Dodd Lee.
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