Tom Sleigh

(Texas / United States)

Oracle


Because the burn's unstable, burning too hot
in the liquid hydrogen suction line
and so causing vortices in the rocket fuel

flaming hotter and hotter as the "big boy"
blasts off, crawling painfully slowly
up the blank sky, then, when he blinks

exploding white hot against his wincing
retina, the fireball's corona searing
in his brain, he drives with wife and sons

the twisting road at dawn to help with the Saturday
test his division's working on: the crowd
of engineers surrounding a pit dug in snow

seeming talky, joky men for 6 a.m., masking
their tension, hoping the booster rocket's
solid fuel will burn more evenly than the liquid

and keep the company from layoffs rumored
during recess, though pride in making
chemicals do just what they're calculated to

also keys them up as they lounge behind
pink caution tape sagging inertly
in the morning calm: in the back seat, I kick

my twin brother's shin, bored at 6:10 a.m.
until Dad turns to us and says, in a neutral tone,
Stop it, stop it now, and we stop and watch:

a plaque of heat, a roar like a diesel blasting
in your ear, heatwaves ricocheting off gray mist
melting backward into dawn, shockwaves rippling

to grip the car and shake us gently, flame
dimly seen like flame inside the brain confused
by a father who promises pancakes after,

who's visibly elated to see the blast shoot
arabesques of mud and grit fountaining up
from the snow-fringed hole mottling to black slag

fired to ruts and cracks like a parched streambed.
Deliriously sleepy, what were those flames doing
mixed up with blueberry pancakes, imaginings of honey

dripping and strawberry syrup or waffles,
maybe, corrugated like that earth, or a stack
of half-dollars drenched and sticky...?

My father's gentle smile and nodding head—
gone ten years, and still I see him climbing
slick concrete steps as if emerging from our next door

neighbor's bomb shelter, his long-chilled shade
feeling sunlight on backs of hands, warmth on cheeks,
the brightness making eyes blink and blink...

so like his expression when a friend came
to say goodbye to him shrunken inside
himself as into a miles-deep bunker...

and then he smiled, his white goatee
flexing, his parched lips cracked but welcoming
as he took that friend's hand and held it, held it

and pressed it to his cheek... The scales, weighing
one man's death and his son's grief against
a city's char and flare, blast-furnace heat melting

to slag whatever is there, then not there—
doesn't seesaw to a balance, but keeps shifting,
shifting...nor does it suffice to make simple

correspondences between bunkers and one man's
isolation inside his death, a death
he died at home and chose...at least insofar

as death allows anyone a choice, for what
can you say to someone who's father or mother
crossing the street at random, or running

for cover finds the air sucked out
of them in a vacuum of fire calibrated
in silence in a man's brain like my father's

—the numbers calculated inside the engineer's
imagination become a shadowy gesture as in Leonardo's
drawing of a mortar I once showed my father

and that we admired for its precision, shot raining
down over fortress walls in spray softly pattering,
hailing down shrapnel like the fountain of Trevi

perfectly uniform, lulling to the ear and eye
until it takes shape in the unforgiving
three dimensional, as when the fragile,

antagonized, antagonistic human face
begins to slacken into death as in my own
father's face, a truly gentle man except

for his work which was conducted gently too—
since "technicals" like him were too shy for sales
or management, and what angers he may have had

seemed to be turned inward against judging
others so the noise inside his head was quieter
than most and made him, to those who knew him well,

not many, but by what they told me after he died,
the least judgemental person
they'd ever known—who, at his almost next to last

breath, uncomplaining, said to his son's
straining, over-eager solicitation,
—Is there something you need, anything?

—That picture—straighten it... his face smoothing
to a slate onto which light scribbles what? a dark joke,
an elegant equation, a garbled oracle?

Submitted: Monday, July 14, 2014
Edited: Monday, July 14, 2014

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