Scoundrel Time

Two-minute video

WASHINGTON—White House Chief of Staff John Kelly hangs his head
during heated Charlottesville press conference

The most compelling thing I’d seen in a long time.
Sound coming
from the video, the president
—some very fine people
on all sides—

I can’t remember, call it
epigenetic memory, history
as farce? I mean, the torches:
whether to laugh or cry.

But mostly, in the background
black suit and red tie
against a blue curtain,

hands behind his back
   an undertaker

stepping to the side as the casket
is brought in

then the one-shot, close-up, locked in

like stone, like water
over stone

a flinch, then a conscious smoothing
of the brow

How else to say it but a man

wrestling with the contents
of his soul?

In Sunday School, we said I’d hide. Or
I wouldn’t tell them. The rabbi said

They’d know.

And inside his head, just behind
the right ear, I see it:
the scaffold going up, its joists
first bound quickly
with rope, then nails
then steel plates bent at the corners

until it is cantilevered out over
the scene unfolding just beyond the edge
of the frame, the expected

flashbulbs, microphones but also this one

insistent noticing
unwavering in the way only a nonhuman
eye can be. Insomniac, surrogate.

And everywhere.
Cupped here, for instance,
in my hand above the backyard picnic table,
rosemary and mint flourishing: what the birds
have left unravaged. Saturday morning,

wind-shivers from the big maple, sound from the television
framed in the back window, my son there staring into
another screen,

this one featuring a cartoon
in whose alternate universe
the four forces of the world
must be kept in balance.

Rewind. Replay. Two minutes
of a man unmoving, building
a structure on which to hang
his soul.

In the video
(cut to long shot) the man
drops his head, rises briefly

onto his toes, like the lifting
of the congregation to
the light, up toward the point
at which, in the ceiling

of the synagogue, four beams
met and in those long

few years when I believed, imagined
Him residing there. Old men
davening all around me.

Blink, wipe, blink, eyes
for a flicker wide, then
set back into their sockets, even
and ordinary. Lining up the joists.

I have turned off the sound
of the president’s voice, because
I am weak and I do what I can

to resist the undertow, what the blogposts
call self-care. Breathe.
Woodpecker, leafblower, and this

from the television, separation
is an illusion. The man breathes, and blinks,
and a wind ripples his brow,

sheet shaken out, snapped hard
and firm. Behind him the others stand,
row of wooden nutcrackers.

And then unsuppressed, a baring of teeth

like each time you remember that thing
you said once, twenty years ago
now, and still
every time you cringe, and on
your own scaffold

and beg forgiveness.





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