A Man with Sons


For David Batterham

You come back with a heaped shopping-basket:
a huge romaine, a wholemeal loaf, tomatoes.
You put a big chipped saucepan on to boil,
dip the tomatoes on a ladle. “What
are you doing to them, Dad?”
The 18-year-old looks up from his letter.
“Taking off their skins.” Nonfunctional,
I straddle a wooden chair, watch
you sieve the scalded, peeled pulp-globes
into (you tell us) last night’s fish-broth.
My friend’s just made her way here from the Tube,
climbs from the lower room contentedly
ungloving book-dust from her elbows, adds
cadenza to the kitchen colloquy.
My stomach calms an octave into speech.
Stained mugs, newspapers, straggle off the table
as the boys straggle in. One, fourteen,
looking ten, overalled, leaves
a postcard album on a cluttered shelf.
Svelte in T-shirt as your bronze Florentine
namesake, the questioning middle one makes room
for his leather-jacketed, apricot-cheeked friend
who lives here too. The twenty-year-old
painter, slicked back damp from summer job
lifeguarding, eye-sockets blackberry blotches:
“I got in a fight. Really, I got fought on.
Who wants,” he slices, back to us, “some bread?”
Now there is a salad on the table,
green, orange, purple, frilling a wooden bowl.
You plunk down odd plates, ceramic porringers
your brother made. If an ailanthus tree
strained through the splintery floorboards, it would be me,
leaf-pores dilated toward you, perhaps because
this is complete without me. Pouring water, you pose
inadvertently, with the two younger boys
bent toward your chair. The big window behind
the table frames you with a bricked-in garden
where a transplanted pet’s five-fingered leaves
stretch to the light. My friend, mother of sons,
pours warm baritone laughter on the banter
like burgundy. Milk, water, Coca-Cola
gurgle in glasses. She roots me
(boy-lover once, once your lover, a daughter’s
mother) to the other plot I garden
weeding out nostalgia. Your soup is good
as your boys’ voices, bread shared on a board
(as little or as much as we can share).
I weigh the paradox of praising you
for what, unpraised, daily, most women do,
a praise, a paradox I can’t afford.
You heap my plate with salad, wedge of bread,
after my friend’s, before your youngest’s; then
the grown boys amicably seize the bowl.
Made adversaries by tired ironies
at midnight, failures of nerve, failures of charity,
bad actors in humiliating roles:
primeval woman, archetypal man
who clutch, abandon, claim, betray, demand;
friends in noon’s grace we are forgiven, whole.

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