The Coney Island Translations
Thank God, I speak in tongues
more than any of you.
-1 Corinthians 18:18
-The Giant Michigan Mayfly
After long illness, I call my father in ICU
and speak to his charge nurse. She says
he is resting, but rings me through.
My father, holy-carded, blessed, so anointed
now, mutters along in a nonsense-tongue—
undulant, a fogged soundscape of low trills
and sleepy sonorants and, at its stagy lull,
in the just-heard flow of a nymph-laden river—
weighty, unfledged, so-tired of sliding over stones.
He coughs once, and I hear his flukey liver.
He coughs again, and I hear the bile,
the gruel-thick blood, clotting at his spleen.
And then, though I feared this, in syllables
and fricatives, in mumbled glyphs and fractals
of speech, his words, their tangle-fall,
slowly come upon me—the Frankish,
the hot dog Greek of Corinthians,
the Gaelic of failure and whiskey-bred anomie.
I hear something of the Great Lakes farm boy,
touching pencil-lead to tongue, scrawling bad
advice on when to plow the muck-field,
of the buck private, deployed to pack lettuce
in dreary Stockton, as his regiment sailed off
to ribbons and death on Saipan. I hear, yes,
the words “Abbas” and “a great wind,”
and now, fully comes the fearsomeness of God—
a raptor’s talons grasping my shoulders,
the Spirit’s gray infested wings vastly moving
the staticky air, and a blue flame rising,
as of a great iris, as of a fire-ring set on high, hissing
propane-blue beneath a galvanized steam-table,
and at last, I know my father is passing on
the secrets of his Coney Island hot dogs—
Listener, we keep such secrets!—the snap-skin
franks, two pounds of browned hamburger,
tomato paste, salt, sweet cumin and chili spice.
But father, I say, I already know this.
It was beaten into me through days and nights
at your blaze-orange hot-dog stand, from
dawn through the all-night mayfly hatches,
the Hex risen from water, whirling at every lot-light,
at canopy light, at every high-beam, endlessly
rising for the fat yellow moon, the duns
free-popping and their spinners, falling, slicking
your lot with pale egg sacs, their spawned-out
husks, as the tires of pickup trucks spun donuts
and flattened whatever detritus was left behind—
the emptied mayflies, go-bags, drink cups,
french fries, coney boats— and crushed it all
into the bitumen of your weepy, chlorinated gravel.
Father, the Hex would do what they’d come to do
and die. You, furious, could not stop them.
And I, ever the disobedient son, finally
toss the phone, drop and roll-away the flames
that scorch my forehead, before your secret is
truly told, in whatever hellish tongue
you always felt called to speak—your shotgun,
your knot-lashed belt, the machete-cut hawthorn
switch, the welts, my slap-blooded mouth,
your unholy names for me, even your silence—
each of these a lifelong curse and none a blessing,
your story told in a voice so dark, so baffling,
it has taken me these seven years
to translate, to speak again, to finally
wrestle your drunken, dead, night-angel body
to a heaving draw, to re-call you but once, father, out
of this deep, deaf Coney Island sadness
and ask for you by name.