Family Elegy in a Late Style of Fire
After Larry Levis
In the story no one will tell, my Great Uncle Salvatore
is an errand boy for the mafiosi and how he ends up
on the dance floor of Cocoanut Grove in Boston,
November, 1942, an hour before the club ignites,
is one version of justice. Now Levis would say that fire
is so American. We know he drank until all that remained
of his world was a match trembling down a dark hall
in a cheap motel—the flame finite and manageable—
while behind the bolted doors of every room on the floor
little Neros played embossed harps and muttered, E tu, ignis, e tu!
It’s true, I’d rather drown than burn, but the best death
is undoubtedly getting lost in a blizzard. Frost spends
whole books stumbling through snowy woods, though he never
mentions how he ends up in them, or how he gets out alive.
Deer have been known to swim out to sea without reason,
and though the dumbest end up as road-kill, I’ll put my faith
in the long distance swimmers, the Aeneases that wash up
on strange shores and found profane cities. Like fire and water,
facts are purifying. His last few months Salvatore bought jewels
no one in Reggio could imagine, and never wore them.
One is a saint’s knuckle cast in 18-carat gold. My grandfather keeps it
in a backlit shadowbox. In my drawer, there’s a blood-coral cornuto
because the dead will play the same dirge in the dark for years.
And what is more haunted than the curled, feathery music of fire?
This November, I’ll get it right. I won’t imagine the revolving door
jammed with bodies, or the flashover’s hollow boom, like the trapdoor
of an ancient tomb stunned open. I’ll go back to Calabria and find myself,
at fourteen, reading a mystery novel under a bergamot tree.
I might miss T.V. I might be extravagantly bored. I might talk about
churches where no one is lighting candles for dead relatives.
Whose stage are you on? Whose pyre are you in? I’ll ask myself,
knowing I have to become someone else to answer this.
If, in the end, we get what we pay for, then I would like a receipt,
please. If, in the end, the band is playing Bell Bottom Trousers,
let that be his favorite song. Let him wade onto the dance floor,
into the slack-tide of a forgotten life; let him think of nothing,
or home, when the plastic palm fronds begin to blacken
and the cigarette girls scream in a language he’ll never learn.