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Tom Sleigh
Tom Sleigh
Tom Sleigh was born in Mount Pleasant, Texas. He attended the California...
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Oracle

 
by Tom Sleigh

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?






Copyright © 2005 by Tom Sleigh. Previously appeared in Colorado Review. Reprinted with permission.
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