Taking a Bath

Saturday night and the house full of holiness.
The metal jacket of the oil stove sings,
swelling and shrinking, and the wind
at the shuddering windows is a wild dog
whose breath whitens the rug
rolled at the door. Behind the stove

a boy shucks off his shirt, dipping a cloth
in a basin to wash the cornsilk hairs
of his body. In the calm field of lamp
light the backs of his father and mother,
his brothers, make a circle
round the slope-shouldered radio.

Words about the war, words
out of the foreign world, invade the room,
marching to the hushed beat of his father’s
shoe brush and suddenly large and personal
as the odor of fresh shoe polish—honeysuckle
perfume, he thinks, or the sweat of draft horses.

Mother’s ironing board creaks woodenly;
when her sure stroke sears the white sleeve
of a Sunday shirt, sun rises,
or the smell of winter morning.
Today he tried for an hour the sweet
cascade of a meadowlark’s whistle.

He thinks defeat
must sound like labored breathing
of the baby sleeping in the dark hall room.
And if the staccato voice of the radio
echoes the sad world crying, inside he too
is sad in his weekly preparations.
If it says victory, why does he hear
the thud of soldiers falling
somewhere in the house?

Report will come of dancing
in the streets, and he will wonder, dropping
his underdrawers to soap himself,
that sometimes sin is not really sin.
He has not yet heard how Mad King George
watched gleeful as his royal orchestra barge
hit ice and sank, the royal oboe
players and the cellists rising all in unison
to laughter and applause, the last
sounds they hear before
fine bones in the ear freeze over.

Under the table his little brother plays
among chair legs, making engine noises
so animal the brown dog lifts her head
from the box in the corner. He may
turn so the hot skin of his thigh faces
the drafty wall, the cold buttock
laid inches from stove enamel.

Cries from the hall say baby has lost the nipple
from the sucking purse of his lips, or
wet himself, suddenly cold. One day
a woman will shift the child from her breast
so he may bend to its place, tasting
a sweetness he has lost
and looks for everywhere.

from Kissing the Ground: New & Selected Poems by Daniel Lusk