I see him tracing the letters in the air,
His hands rotating his brush
As he paints this last virtual sign.
I have never seen his expertise so close up before.
I always focused on the letters he produced when I watched him paint—
Never on his hands and the brush itself.
I never noticed how all the skill
Is in the twirling and manipulation of the brush by the fingers—
A crisp choreography.
I sit near his bed—
What is it he is writing?
Or a proclamation?
Only muscle memory?
A moment later he stops breathing.
The forbidden trunk, green and black, metallic.
In the basement, in a corner, near where he painted.
I had touched it many times before, felt its coolness, its mystery.
I had run my hands over its sharp corners, fingered its latch.
Why had we been ordered,
By a man who never ordered anyone to do anything
To never open it?
Once I had lifted its lid, just a bit, just enough to see darkness inside.
Then quickly, guiltily,
Released my anxious curiosity, surprised by the weight of the lid
And the thump of its closing.
Forty years later I share with my own son the drawings done by a young man—
A boxing match with the audience silhouetted,
A Watusi warrior in headdress and mid-dance,
His house on Noble Street,
A Camel cigarette ad,
A bruised face peering out from between drawn curtains,
An hysterical man crouched in an abstract corner:
“Already the nuclear energy was out of control,”
Portraits of Asians,
Inks of water buffalo, shelters on stilts, Guady cemetery,
Colored drawing of the map of Green Island: “Or will rotation never come,”
A watercolor of an MP’s accoutrements: flashlight, baton, lit cigarette.
And his photos
Of a half-grinning man holding a decapitated head,
Indigenous women with bare breasts,
Burnt bodies in frozen poses emerging out of holes in the earth
Or washed ashore
Or in piles,
His brother in Germany with a cartoon bomb drawn at the top,
A sign asserting, “Kill the yellow-bellied bastards,”
Himself behind an anti-aircraft cannon,
Guarding prisoners of war,
His mother formally posed,
And Japanese money,
A document declaring he had crossed the equator,
A telegram from an art teacher in Ohio,
Sketches of my mother in labor with me.
(My father died 39 years ago today, on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I have been crafting this poem, off and on, since last June.)