for Ernie West
You don't know before you start, he muttered, and then it's too late.
Forehead smeared with blue mud, lovingly cordwound spearhead
drooping like an overflowered iris. You thought you'd mark the world,
my father, but it marked you instead.
Cup your hands and I'll pour them full of sunlit honey,
I'll pour them full of pitchfire. Sandalwood oil to drench your hair.
I'll rub strong fingers between your toes; I'll fold back your soul
like a monk's cowl till it lies flat over your shoulders. Did you really think
Your body would not be coming with you on this last round?
Think again: loose skin, braided muscles, twined nerve:
at the very end it's all, again, about loosened sphincters
and learning to suck. All the mumbo jumbo intubations,
the injections, the magic oxygen
running in plastic veins from a bottle of life
brought from the other world by priests of drug and knife,
will not keep a little life in.
The reward of a long life is to outlive all your feckless friends
and be surrounded at the end by small and grasping strangers
who know well the value of money and go in dread of death;
to be celebrated by the relatives of step-children themselves grown old
waiting for a small inheritance; to be wrapped in a flag
by fussy young men who care for it because they choose to,
not because they must. Put the last American in his grave:
it's time for the prodigals to go home and pretend to be men.