Brandon, I looked around today and didn't recognize the city.
It feels flat, tastes like the flood rinsed
our salt into a gulch. Do you know what I mean?
The branches are gone. The river has crossed itself.
It's like where once there were bridges,
now there are tolls.
Remember Nashville before Opry Mills?
440 I think was drivable.
Good country boys didn't visit Printer's Alley.
Or didn't mention it in polite company.
Does it feel like we skipped something?
Some years? Missed a war?
A coronation? Maybe it's the fatigue
of my seasonal allergies.
Maybe it's that your son is already three—
born into an exhausting era—
and we all take fewer naps than we'd like.
Your favorite story about me, I think, is from college.
The space on my dresser from which—one day
in eary spring—I was convinced
something had been taken. I searched for months.
Yelled, swore, unpacked, repacked,
& unpacked again the dresser, closet.
Sixteen years later, I still have no idea
what it was. The smallest things
have always unraveled my knots: jagged nail
snagging my necktie, clock that won't hang
symmetrically, one shoe tighter
than the other. You didn't know
how to tie your shoes when we met.
The fuck are you doing?, I asked
staring at your mess of bights, turned
& turned, elbows bent to breaking.
Did I show you, then, the delicate work
of dressing the knot—a simple square
finished with a slip?
Back then I hated coffee. Any 19 year old but you
I'd think enjoyed more the image of coffee—
the paraphernalia of adulthood. Even then,
when we were children, your body looked lived in,
always fit through the shoulders & hips.
Unlike most of us, who squirm our way to 30,
wringing our collars, cuffing our pants,
tucking & untucking our shirttails.
To witness someone wear his skin
as though natural as opening a door—
I followed your lead, faked
that ease, practicing the amble & babble
I'd later need to perform. And so you pushed
& pulled me into a shape
that let my body move calmly in this world.
Brandon, this is it. When they ask in 30 years
What were you like when you were young?
—they mean now. They mean
did you wear clothes that look silly today,
where did you travel, drink,
were you ever in a fight.
This is our life happening. The shape of it
we never would have guessed. The pain we confronted,
invited. The women who freed themselves
before loving us. Not for us.
But in a way that would allow them to embrace us.
Though they don't want to be held,
hold us, as much as we'd like.
It's okay. It's enough
that they sometimes, just as we're dozing off,
turn away, scoot their butts
against us so we know it's fine to roll over,
cast our limbs against their form,
nibble their shoulders—
even if it's only to steal our body heat.
Brandon, I feel lost here. Hiding away
at home except those rare times
we share a meal. I have not been with the world.
In this city where, it feels, I have always
been caught in the river's current. Stevie said
in it. The Boss said he & Terry hid
but not of it
on the backstreets, and I think he meant
delaying a choice, living their way
into a devotion neither was ready to understand—
two boys, trying on their masculinity
like a wardrobe of silk. I'm not sure
if Terry's a man. I've always wanted Terry to be a man,
the song an ode to love without sex, without shame—
the difficult love of honesty.
An intimacy the genitals are never awake for.
The groove shifts to the backbeat
searching for maybe the right cadence
to mimic the safety of holding to your chest
the man whose friendship both opened
a room of permission
and covered its mirrors.
All of which is to say—
just this morning I noticed the half-dead tree
in my backyard was fruiting.
The dead half swayed gently,
sure to crack & fall within a season.
The living half had scattered
mulberries that, at one time,
years ago, before my blood clot & your son
& the anvil of our love,
I might have considered a mess.
Hear now my steady breath—
in through my nostrils, fills my belly,
chest, shoulders, out through my mouth.
See the mud on my knees & elbows, lips,
the seeds in my teeth, my hands
black & sticky, shining
with a pleasure
I had to live my way into.
- If anyone knows for sure the gender of Springsteen's Terry, please let me know.
- This poem was first published in Stirring.