now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you

-Philip Levine

A defect in the latch that secured the minivan's back seat to the floor
meant you shared the front seat with Chris
for a couple weeks.
Back then, too young to stay home, you wandered racquetball courts,
swam, tested each door knob
at Maryland Farms Athletic Club, while Dad taught tennis
to Middle Tennessee's most affluent juniors.

Mostly, you didn’t mind being squished together.
A little pressure comforted you.
Chris thought you were pestering him when you leaned your weight
and laid your head on his shoulder,
bucked & screamed 'til Dad raised his voice.
But you just wanted to be close. You didn't know
any other way to show affection.

When you pulled into the neighborhood, though,
everyone was in the street playing kickball.
Knowing your car, they stopped to watch you pass.
There were too many boys,
and you couldn't bear being seen so close to your brother,
in that shitty van, already out of place:
Yankees in the Bible Belt,
who didn’t know where to put it up,
who played the wrong kind of football,
who scoffed at the pizza, what they called snow,
the houses & corner stores separated by miles.
You bent over, shoulders between knees, before they could see.

Twelve years later you stop short of begging,
but try every couple weeks
to steal enough of his time for a beer.
He enters the college apartment you shared, hair a mess
under a fleece beanie, neck unshaven since last Sunday
when he borrowed your beard trimmer
—the last time he was home—
and before you can ask he says,
the only way out of this debt is death.
And you understand, in for 40 grand yourself.
Fuckin tires are bald, he says.
Fuckin belts are cracked.
Fuckin college says I gotta buy a laptop.
He pulls off his work shirt. Goddammit,
as he goes to bed.

Next week, you're moving out of his house because he’s engaged,
already planning the space for a nursery.
He's building his life, has only so much time & room to spare
for someone who moved to knock him down
each time he tested his footing.

Give me back the Nor’easter of '93,
the snowflakes in his eyelashes
as I pulled him from the collapsed tunnel
we dug through our neighborhood.

Give me back shadowboxing from our beds,
man-sized against the nightlight,
pantomiming a knockout
when my Van Damme roundhouse
connected with his projection,
by throwing his legs into the air
to land on his back
like the mattress were a trampoline.

Give me the boy who dressed as Robin
so his best friend, Katie,
could be Batman.
Boy who put me in a headlock
when he could have beaten me stupid
any year after 8th grade.

Give me back my brother:
loud-mouthed & soft-eyed,
hands like a carpenter
& laugh like a train.
Man who holds a grudge
like it owes him money.
Man with the McCarthy ass.
Man with a heart in his throat
& on both sleeves.

Today, you both greet Dad with a kiss on the lips,
both hug like your touch can draw weariness from the bones,
both cry when the groom first sees his bride—
but somehow you can't pull your brother in,
cradle his head along his jaw and affirm:
he is the foundation for the friendships
that freed you from a grave,
his love forced you to learn forgiveness,
his embrace is belonging
and its lack is homesick.

Because you are boys. You learned
to circle the weakest
so you weren't centered.
You speak from the chest
when meeting other men,
refuse the gaze
of any you'd call

You know how anger blossoms
as an itch, pullulates
on the wind.
You spread yourself thick.
Hold your tongue
only for lack of breath.
When you keep council,
council is kept.
You admit

to nothing
not etched
on the open book
of your face.

for my brother

  • The epigraph comes from Philip Levine's What Work Is.
  • I stopped & started several poems meant for my brother between the earliest & latest versions of this final draft. Along the way, I kept coming back to two Philip Levine poems: What Work Is & You Can Have It. It felt like the tone & movement of those poems were key to understanding what I was trying to create—the anger & shame & sense of loss for someone who is, strictly speaking, still available to me. In the end, it took 11 years to finish because my brother & I had to live our way into the poem. It could never have been a complete thing any earlier.
  • The 1993 Nor'easter is one of a few so-called Storms of the Century. In Buffalo, where we lived at the time, locals call it "The Blizzard of '93"; it was the only time our schools were closed. The following year, when we moved to Nashville, we learned that the South calls it "The Ice Storm of '93".