Poetry | June 01, 1998
Poetry Feature: Gary Fincke
Featuring the poems:
- The Uses of Rain
- During Sixth Grade
- The End of Uncertainty
The Uses of Rain
We sat, in geography, for nine weeks
With water, a marking period of rain.
We followed the dittoed diagrams
Of water’s efficient recycling-
All the clouds we memorized for exams:
Cirrus, cumulus, the great thunderheads
Like the ones Mr. Sanderson called us
To watch at the windows. Snow, he told us,
Was nature’s cheap ice cream, more air in drifts
Than water. A barometer, he said,
Could thrive inside an injured knee, but he
Made us read the names for irrigation,
How crop rotation and the geometry
Of plowing could safety-net the earth.
He taught the proper times for lawn sprinklers,
The folly of building in the flood plain,
And we remembered the timetables
For tides, the value of deltas, wetlands,
And the extraordinary ecosystem
Of the ocean. And though we conserved
For extra credit, though we catalogued
Our care, we took our test, turned it in,
And listened, books closed, to Mr. Sanderson
Tell us the story of the crested bustard,
Whose desire is triggered by the sound of rain.
“Because it lives in the desert,” he explained,
“Its courtship dance must be timed just right.”
He held our stack of tests to his chest
And walked among our rows. “In zoos,” he said,
“In captivity, those birds begin to dance
When they hear a keeper’s hose. They prance
To the simple sound of washing, believing
That rain will water the luck of their children.”
My mother’s old bacon grease filled a jar
That sat among flour and sugar and salt
As if that unlabeled glass held one more
Kitchen staple. 100% fat,
100% thrift-the smoked flavor
Worked its way into eggs so we could eat
More meatless breakfasts. Or no eggs at all,
Just that grease, with green onions, reheated.
That meal took timing, taking the rye bread
To the barely hardened, sopping up schmaltz
Like uncles who drank coffee to cut it.
Such richness stayed overnight in the mouth
Where German melted into the English
Of memory, its sentimental schmaltz.
People my age were forgetting the waltz,
The fox-trot, and my father’s sad box step.
What would be left, my mother worried, when
Conventional dances were gone? When thrift
Was laughed at? And all those warnings about
Salt and fat, the satisfaction of grease.
Already there were complaints about Heinz,
The soups my uncles made. Pittsburgh was home,
Now, to high blood pressure and heart disease,
All the Germans fleeing to the suburbs
Where bacon was drained, salt never slathered
On the crisped skin of chickens.
My mother said we could shimmy it off in no time,
Doing the Twist and the Mashed Potato,
The dances of the slim who’d never heard
Of real schmaltz and the terrible success
Of learning place, those who wouldn’t admit
To grandfathers who ate pure grease and lived,
Who’d punched in for fifty years and carried
The company’s gold watch to prove it.
During Sixth Grade
We learned the Redcoats lost to Patriots
Who wore drab hand-me-downs and mended rags.
We memorized the spellings of handsome
And beautiful, vanity and conceit.
Miss Blatt said listen to this lesson: birds
With the brightest feathers are attacked first
By their predators. We wrote it down so
We wouldn’t forget the consequences
Of fame. We passed around her photos of
Harlow and Valentino, beginning
An album which stopped at the red jacket
Of James Dean, who the year before had been
Pecked by the great beak of our jealous God.
I memorized the size and shape of each
Sixth grade bra cup and thought Elise Nestel
Would surely die before the rest of us.
My father, the troop leader, testified
To the character of a Boy Scout who
Confessed, at last, to a series of rapes
As if any girl’s body had beauty
Enough to attack. The homely brother
Of a classmate crashed his old car and died.
The perfect proportion of bright plumage
To death broke like schoolbook bindings; nothing
Excluded me from the spell of disbelief.
The End of Uncertainty
Researchers are said to have golden hands
when experiments produce a result only for them.
During our two-week retreat, we campers
Had to be praying by sunrise, alone,
Then together, and never for ourselves
Before hymns by the lake where the cold fog
Clung like God’s contempt for our indifference.
Our counselor, when we slept in, told us
The tale of St. Cuthbert, who sank neck-deep
In the sea to prepare himself for prayer.
Thanks be to God for the monk who followed
And his careful recording of such faith.
He showed us, that morning, his Widow’s Mite
And his authentic splinter from the cross.
Because the holiness of parts could keep
Us whole. Because, at night, he kept his fists
Closed in sleep, his fingers curled around them
With Christian discipline, what we could learn
So we’d never worry about God’s fire
Or the cyanide of the gas chamber
That had punished the sins of Caryl Chessman.
There were capital punishments, he said,
For countries, the recent executions
Of the French Sudan and Belgian Congo.
Think what’s happened to the Gold Coast,
He said, and we waited until he breathed,
“Ghana” like the amen at the end of prayer.
His last sermon explained how the world’s maps
Were revised and revised until they were
As reliable as the Vinland Map,
Forged to give Vikings credit for first claim
Of discovery. And there were further frauds,
He preached, naming none, but I could tell him,
Today, how Libya, finally, produced
A map without England, expanding
The North Sea to excise what it loathed.
And I could name the astronomer who,
For love of belief, altered photographs
Which proved additional galaxies.
This year the Shroud of Turin is making
A comeback tour while someone claims he owns
The armor worn by Joan of Arc, its nicks
And scratches where her sacred wounds would be.
Soon there may be a whole host of returns:
Piltdown Man, Cardiff Giant, and Barnum’s
Colorado Man, all of them called out
Like the planted sick of a faith healer’s
Audience. This week, from the riverbank
A mile from here, a skeleton unearthed,
Each day regaining more of itself from
Six fillings and the evidence of wounds.
This morning, the published photographs
Of the long-missing woman, interviews
With her parents, nothing like armor
Keeping their daughter from harm. It’s the end
Of uncertainty, the mother declares.
It’s the end of miracles, the father adds,
Continued on the page where a woman
Displays one thousand origami cranes
She owns to bring fulfillment of wishes.
And I’m thinking, now, that we should forgive
The scientists who have doctored data,
Forgive the golden hands of researchers.
Absolve the man who marked mice with the ink
Of false verification and pardon,
The doctor who beat probability
With a simple shift of answers. For they
Do the work of our wishes. For they bring
Miracles and divine intervention.
There are so many God-signs in science
We need a library for likely fraud,
Space enough for enormous paper flocks
To dream among, letting go of no coins
Or splinters, and willing the body not
To shift in sleep, those frail, paper birds so
Securely settled they will not startle.
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