Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE PHOSPHORESCENT MAN, by KAREN SWENSON



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THE PHOSPHORESCENT MAN, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The smell of roast beef and browning potatoes
Last Line: Clung to the stair obstinate as salt.
Subject(s): Grandparents; Memory; Grandmothers; Grandfathers; Great Grandfathers; Great Grandmothers


The smell of roast beef and browning potatoes
grew stronger, caught in the dimness of the stairwell
between the street door's stained glass and
the climb to the dining room, where my father
was a black-and-white unrecognizable child
with a collie above the sideboard;
and the old woman who lived alone with a brass bedstead
huddled in her furniture -
all that was left after time and death.

Her face was a blurred baked apple
surrounded by the canaries' fluff -
dandelions of song wired in the window's sun.
Under the table her black shoes hid
with her arthritic legs
that bloated above the laces
into pastry bags of pain.

But I never knew him because he died
before I was two, before my memory
could arrange him to the trophy of a grandpa,
as she became grandma with a foreign voice,
canaries, a silver creamer, and crippled legs.

Grandma and Grandpa
one sound and one silence,
as light is to shadow, presence to absence,
conscious to unconscious,
fact to the dark nimbus that is not knowledge,
but is fishhooked with questions,
always they divide.

She is visible.
He is the phosphorescent man.

In the Brooklyn house where I first found
I wanted to find him, her silver
was behind my glass face on the corner cupboard.
His books hung in their black bindings
cracking in the steam heat -
Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Swedenborg -
behind my breath on the bookcases' glass doors.

To see, to touch, that is all I know of him.
The rest is photographs, a wedding moustache
and a man holding my father for a Sunday photograph
in a dustless curling brim beyond the frame.
Beyond that there are other people's stories.

My father remembers his father,
a man who preferred Brooklyn to his patrimony
of acres by the Baltic Sea,
eating the roast beef in silence,
walking down to the basement
past the banistered angles
while his wife played the piano.

He read before the furnace's open door -
alone with the flames and the page.

The piano far away, compartment by compartment
of floors and ceilings, sang to the wired yellow wings
as the coal settled into ash and clinkers
until she rang him to bed with a silver knife on the radiator.

She snuffed out the canaries
with hoods made from leftover bits of curtain
and covered the keys of her music.
He banked the fire, closed the furnace door.

The clang of embers followed his finger
in its place in the book,
up the banisters' barred shadows as he
put out the lights landing by landing.

I see him as my father tells it,
but I know him the way the artist knows Plato's Ideal -
a second removed remembrance
a picture of a man
a story of a man.

Some people have graves but some have only stones,
and you cannot bring them the ransom
of flowers or flags on appropriate days
because you do not know where they died.

Someone walked alone in his own where;
after the music was over
and the coals caught their burnt out stones in the grate,
he extinguished the shadows lamp by lamp that
clung to the stair obstinate as salt.





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