Grout

                               What I remember best
of that year was the graffiti written on the grouting between the gray-flecked
                               inch-square tiles

of a men’s room on the third floor of the university library
                               where I studied
for doctoral exams. Hundreds of different hands had printed

                               in the crevices
with minuscule letters an ode to grout: TWIST &
                               GROUT / BIRDS

FLY GROUT IN THE WINTER / SUCK MY HARD GROUT / EAR, NOSE,
                               & GROUT / GROUTCHO
MARX / GENGHIS GROUT / LIVE FREE OR GROUT / GRILLED

                               GROUT AMANDINE /
GREAT GROUT ALMIGHTY / EXISTENTIAL GROUT /
                               I GROUT

THEREFORE I AM. Reading that too clever graffiti, I thought
                               inexplicably
of human history, which is like watching late-night TV, some psycho

                               psychic on a reality show
foretelling the next suicide bomber in Iraq, endless infomercials about penile
                               enlargement, reruns

of Most Spectacular NASCAR Crashes, cars on fire
                               pirouetting, then body-slamming
into concrete walls, the driver walking away from it all and waving

                               to his drunk fans
before the wreckage explodes, or live indoor rodeos where men in leather chaps
                               try to hang on

to plunging, careening, break-dancing bulls for the eternity
                               of eight short
seconds, one hand on the hemp cinch, the other flying loose

                               and flapping
like some spastic’s arm in a grand mal seizure. THREE STRIKES & YOU’RE
                               GROUT! / ALL YOU NEED

IS GROUT. . . . All those bad puns spread like the black plague
                               until the whole
wall was an epidemic, a huge crossword of vertical

                               and horizontal
phrases in the cracks, a gridwork of words that the janitor didn’t
                               scrub off, but kept

reading, marveling at the inspired silliness of the human
                               mind, when greatly
bored. . . . GROUT, GROUT, BRIEF CANDLE / GROUTICIDE /

                               GROUTITUDE /
GROUT AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW / GROUTOGRAPHERS
                               OF THE WORLD,

UNITE! / THE GROUT, IT WILL WITHER AWAY / SHUT YOUR
                               GROUT. . . .
The bathroom wall was a loud lexicon of the one indivisible

                               word that held
the tiles together, that would be erased, then rewritten, a clamor
                               of tongues, grout’s

graffiti scrawled and spelled out on the grouting. All day I had studied
                               until my eyes were sore
that epic of rage and killing in which Achilles

                               butchered Hector
and promised the dying man to feed his body
                               to the dogs, then dragged

the corpse, stabbed at least eighty times by the Achaeans
                               and attached by a tow rope
to the gilded chariot, while he whipped his geldings over the ruts.

                               I read how Hector’s wife
had prepared a cauldron of hot water for her husband to bathe in
                               and wash the dirt

of battle from his smooth, shining skin. Then she heard
                               Hecuba, his mother,
keening and foreknew the slaughter. To rest my eyes

                               I kept reading
that graffiti. BLOOD, SWEAT, & GROUT / CROPS FAILED
                               IN THE GROUT /

HOOF & GROUT DISEASE / SAUERGROUTEN. I considered my own
                               self-destructive
behaviors, how high on Sherman sticks—marijuana spliffs

                               soaked in embalming
fluid—I once did the hula dance on a railroad
                               trestle and mooned

the oncoming freight train, then hung by my knees from the crossties
                               while the freight cars
thundered and shuddered two feet above me. The clangor

                               of those steel wheels,
the rails groaning out GROUT GROUT, shook me to my bones, bruised
                               and rearranged my inner organs

until I became the tongue of a bronze bell swung wildly back and forth
                               by unseen
bell-ringers. I went back to Homer’s hexameters and read

                               how Priam
embraced the knees of his son’s killer and how Achilles the bully
                               wept. I looked out

the library window at the construction site four stories below
                               where men in yellow
hard hats were pouring foundations, the concrete taking the shape of the plywood

                               forms, their splintered
wood’s cirrus grain, its knots and whorls, impressed there like fossils.
                               One man knelt in the mud,

vomiting. Did he have a fever? Hangover? He retched and retched until nothing
                                more came up.
Finally, he stood and walked shakily back to work. All I could do was watch.
 
 

My Brother’s Mirror

At eight years old my brother born with Down syndrome
                               liked to shuffle
down the sidewalk holding our mother’s hand mirror

                              into which he’d look
to watch what was happening behind him. What did he see so long ago?
                              Me on a butterfly-handlebarred

bike, which he would never learn to ride, about to run him down,
                              shouting, "Watch out,
slow poke! Make way, bird brain! Think quick, fat tick!"

                              I would swerve
around him at the last moment. He gazed back at me with blank
                              cow eyes and couldn’t

speak. He warbled like a sparrow, drooled, and went on
                              looking
in his mirror. Did he see the wind shake the lilacs

                              by our neighbor’s hedge
back and forth like hand bells? They kept ringing out their sweet
                              invisible scent.

Peals of petals fell to the ground. “Look harder, Michael,”
                              I want to tell him now.
“Your namesake is an archangel. Do you see Kathy, our beautiful

                              babysitter, who will
kill herself years later with sleeping pills, waving her white dishtowel
                              to call us home

to supper?" She once caught me lying on the floor and trying
                              to look up the dark folds
of her schoolgirl’s wool skirt and slapped me. But don’t we all

                             walk forward, gazing backward
over our shoulders at the future coming at us from the past like a hit-and-run
                             driver? Michael,

God’s idiot angel, I see in your mirror our father
                             yanking out
the plugs of all the TVs blaring the evening news

                             on his nursing home’s
locked ward for the demented. He hates the noise, the CNN reporters
                              in Bam, Iran,

covering yesterday’s earthquake, 6.6 on the Richter scale,
                              twelve seconds,
twenty-five thousand dead, thousands more buried alive

                              beneath the rubble.
The aftershocks continue. We get live footage of a woman in a purple
                              shawl, sifting

through her gold-ringed fingers the crumbled concrete
                              of what was once
the blue-tiled walls of her house. She wails and keeps on

                              digging.
This morning I dreamed that I was building an arch
                              from pieces of charred

brick I’d found in that debris. It was complete except for
                              the keystone,
but no brick would fit. What I needed

                              was our father
to put his splayed fingers into the fresh mortar where the keystone
                              should have gone

and leave his handprints there, so I might put my palms to his.
                              Brother, I held your hand
for the first time last winter. Your fingers were warm,

                              rubbery.
The skin on the back of your hands was rough and chapped.
                              They are the same fingers

that weave placemats from blue wool yarn every day,
                              slowly passing
the shuttle over and under the warp, its strands stretched tight

                              as the strings of a harp.
It’s a silent slow music you make. It takes you
                              weeks to weave

a single placemat. Brother, you dropped the hand mirror.
                              It cracked, but didn’t
shatter. It broke the seamless sky into countless

                              jagged splinters,
but still holds the aspen’s trembling leaves, the lilacs, you and me,
                              all passing things.
 
Donald Platt’s second book, Cloud Atlas, was published in 2002 by Purdue University Press as the winner of the Verna Emery Poetry Prize. His third book, My Father Says Grace, is due out from the University of Arkansas Press in Spring 2007. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Field, Black Warrior Review, Chelsea, Antioch Review, Epoch, and The Southern Review, among others, and have been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize XXVII and XXIX (the 2003 and 2005 editions) and in The Best American Poetry 2000 and 2006. He is an associate professor of English at Purdue University.

Tags:
Narrative poetry
Memory
Conceptual writing
Childhood
BOMB 97
Fall 2006
The cover of BOMB 97
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