The Last Conversation

He looked his eighty years: eyes fluttering
behind closed lids, his head tossed aimlessly
about the pillow, skin translucent, stained
the yellow of old age, sweat beading mist
onto his forehead as he groaned at pain.
I stood above the bed and stared at him
and tried to understand what twist of life
brought death alive upon a living face.

He’d told me once: "The artist doesn’t give
a damned. When Wright stood on a hill, a cape
around his shoulders, every eye glued on his back,
he didn’t give a damned. The moment was,
and when he swirled around, the cape swung out
against the dark green backdrop of the hills,
he knew that universes flared to life
and died inside his gesture, every eye
of every man and woman on the hill
a record of that moment made alive
inside a time lost just as it was made."

But now, a stranger to the man who was,
but never was, my father--in my grief--
I knew that artists give so many damns
that every moment flares to life, then dies,
then dies again in hope that somehow men
and women will remember how their cape
swung out against the backdrop of the hills.

And, waiting in that room of coming death,
I listened to the rattle in his breath
and raged against those fools who would forget
and wondered at the callousness that locked
us all into small particles of sand caught up
inside the torrent of a river-waterfall
that thundered down into a chasm deep
beyond the possibility of deep.

He’d told me once: "We’re animals without
the grace of soul possessed by animals."
And I’d raged back that we were men with minds
and said that it was mind that made us more
than animals, that gave us greater grace of soul.
And he’d barked back that we had minds, all right,
but all they’d ever given us was grief
and knowledge that we’d been agrieved.

And then he’d said: "Wright haunts me like a dream.
He was a glorious bastard, giving life,
but making those around him feel both small
and great. He wasn’t fair. A bear is fair:
Enraged, it kills; in heat, it boils with sex;
surrounded by a wilderness, it lives.
I am a sculptor, Wright an architect:
He was a bastard making art from life.
The bears are mindless. Only bears are fair."

At ten o’clock he started mumbling. Dreams
and troubles grown from pain caught in his throat
and tumbled incoherently into the room.
And then he opened up his eyes and saw
me sitting watching him.

"It’s Tom," he said,
suprised. Then chuckled. "Tom," his voice so soft
I had to strain to hear. He closed his eyes
again, then turned his head toward my chair.
"I told you not to come back here," he said.
"You’ve got to make a place inside the world.
This little town can’t hold you. They’ll pick
your bones bleach white with pettiness and jealousy."

"But you came back," I said.

"A well-known man,"
he countered. "Sculptor. Lover of the space
beneath a jumping horse above its rail."

He turned his head away again. He talked
about O’Brady going wild inside a bar.
He’d told me once: "A man can’t be a man
without the feel of Irish coffee in his mouth."

I thought about the town outside hospital walls
I’d left. He’d said that I should leave to find
a bigger, better place.

The townsfolk, honest, true
to small town rhythms, didn’t quite know what
to make of him. He wasn’t comfortable with peace.
The four grim horsemen of apocalypse
he’d sculpted on until his strength deserted him
had always leapt to life inside his eyes.

But now I wasn’t sure. I’d learned that art
exists where artists are. I felt like shaking him
alive and forcing him to face that truth.
He owed me that at least. He’d taught me. . .everything.
And teaching puts a man eternally in debt
to those he’s taught.

Near dawn his mumbling stopped.
He looked at me again, his bloodshot eyes
so blue with courage that they made me blink.

"Tell Ruth," he said. "Someday. That she’s still loved.
All this means nothing."

I looked at him, but didn’t speak.
He’d told me once: "An artist should be hands
and belly, eyes and brain, all working overtime."

I didn’t weep. He mumbled incoherently,
until, at last, he slept.