A Personal History of Violence
I only lost two fights in my youth.
The first, age 13; his name was Tom.
He said a girl I liked was flat-chested.
True, but I hated him saying it.
He had a long thumbnail that caught me
on the eyelid, blood and sweat
pooled together so I couldn’t see.
We wrestled to the ground and I conceded.
The other, a year or two later;
my father, my opponent, was pissed
in both senses, as often the case.
He caught me sneaking out to a concert
he’d forbidden me to attend.
He made me tear up the tickets,
after nearly putting my head
through the living room wall.
The last fight I ever had in school,
I’d overreacted, perennial hothead,
almost made a junior classmate one with a locker,
grip closing in on his throat.
Then I heard my brother’s voice or my memory of it,
“Dad, what are you doing?! Dad?!”
And I let go, smoothed my classmate’s shirt,
“Years Are Not a Life”
Everything develops at its own pace,
rivers erode the nearest bank, slowly
over time, washing away silt and sorrow.
Years are not a life: whether spent
sequestered in a smoke-filled room,
knitting afghans for grandchildren,
walking two miles to the meat-packing plant,
or learning how to feel the passion
of an abiding friendship—.
“Whatever it is that fills life up,
and fills it full, it is not time,” she says.
Her husband ignores her, reads the golf scores.
“Years are not a life.”
Half-baked on drugs and electric shock treatments.
“To have a rich, full life
every woman should own a pair of red shoes
and have a breakdown.”
Cada coisa a seu tempo.
(Everything in its own time.)
“Nathan Burgess: He likes work,” reads the caption.
At the age of ten, he signed on as a cabin-boy
aboard the bark Sunbeam, a whaler
bound for Newfoundland; then the Greyhound,
several square-riggers, tramp steamers and the Navy.
“I made three trips around the Horn,”
he told a reporter from the Sun Chronicle.
Short-order cook, street-car conductor,
woodchopper, insurance man:
“Work and I were always good friends.”
As a “bo’man” on the Greyhound,
he had to keep the ropes straight
after the harpoon was thrown.
If the whale dove, he had to cut the lines,
or the whaleboat would go under.
“Whaling was a tough life: 24–hour work
and you slept in bunks loaded with grease.
But if anyone else could do it, so could I—
lots of times, I got the worst of it.”
On our Sunday visits, my mother’s grandfather,
Nathan Lewis Burgess, always told stories
and displayed his tattoos. “Whale meat
had a gamey taste, like deer meat,” he liked to say.
Between the knuckles of his fingers
were tiny blue ink rings, a kind of crypto–calligraphy.
One day, I got up the courage to ask
what those tattoos were.
He made sure his wife wasn’t looking,
and laced his hands together so the fingers intertwined.
Now I could see that each finger bore a solitary letter.
Apart, the letters meant nothing,
but when so displayed — profanity!
We laughed out loud. “Papa! Don’t show that to the boy!”
Grandma Burgess yelled from the parlor,
where she sat at the pump organ, playing hymns
and Stephen Foster tunes all through our visits.
Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks in Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). You can follow him on Twitter @greenskeptic and check out more about him at scottedwardanderson.com.