Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Pornography Box


The Pornography Box

Dave Smith

At eighteen, the U.S. Navy eye-chart
memorized, reciting what was unseen,
my father enlisted for the duration.
At nineteen he caught a casual wave
wrong off Norfolk, our home, called
Hell by sailors. The landing craft
cast him loose and burst his knee.
He lived, and wore his rigid brace
without complaint, and never in his
life showed anyone his Purple Heart.
I stumbled into that brace and more
when I climbed to our sealed attic
the year a drunk blindsided him
to death in a ditch, and me to worse.

Today I watch my ten-year-old son race
over the slick pages of Playboy,
ashamed I brought it home, imagining
his unasked questions have answers.
I remember the chairs I stacked
and climbed, the brace I put on
to see how it felt and, buried
deep in his sea chest, the livid
shapes shoved so far in a slit
of darkness a man could reach them
only hunched, on all fours. I clawed
through families of discharged clothes,
ornaments for Christmas, to feel
the spooky silk of webs slickly
part on my face where blood rushed.

Trussed on their wide bed, my mother lay
surviving wreckage, stitched back
beyond the secrets I knew he kept.
I shimmied through a dark hole
in the ceiling and listened to pine
rake the roof like a man's shuffle.
But he was dead and the box unlocked.
His flashlight pulsed through my body,
each glossy pose burning my eyes
that knew only air-brush innocence.
Sex rose in me like a first beard.
A woman with painted nails peeled
a foreskin, another held a man
kingly rigid at her tongue's tip.
I could not catch my breath.

I blinked at one spread on a table covered
by lace grandmotherly clean and white.
Here might have been service for tea,
dainty cups, bread, a butter dish,
except she was in their place, clearly
young in middy suit. Behind her a vase
of daisies loomed, the parlor wall
held Home, Sweet Home in needlepoint,
and curtains were luminous at a window.
I remember the eyes, direct and flat,
as if she had died. Girlish stockings
knuckled at her knees, her plain skirt
neatly rolled. The man, in Victorian
suit, cradled her calves in furred hands,
and looked at the window, placid as
a navigator. He cut her like a knife.

After school, at night, weekend afternoons,
I raced to see them do it, legs cramped
in that freezing slot of darkness, gone
wobbly as a sailor into the country.
I came and went in the black tube,
ashamed, rooting like a hog to see.
In one sequence a black man held a pool
cue to a white woman, a black woman
held in both hands white and black balls.
The uniforms of sailors were scattered,
wadded everywhere I looked. I smelled
the mothballs from my father's chest
when late at night I woke to vomit
and stare at a clock's one-eyed glow.

How long does it go on, the throbbing dream,
waking obsessed with a hole in the air?
In Norfolk, from loaded cars, we spilled
at sailors passing alleys, asking where
we'd find some girls, beer, a good time.
All answers were sucker punched. By-bye,
, we screamed, then headed down
toward the Gaiety Theater and whores
bright as moths. We spit at mothers who
yelled Fuck you, kid! They never would.
The secrets of our fathers, we cruised
the hopeless streets blank as razors,
remembering nothing but naked images
whose neon flared like pus. Seeing now
my son bent to see I imagine at last

my father climbing before me in blackness,
with the tiny light a man carries, bent
on pained knees where I will kneel also
at nameless images we each live to love
and fear. One is a young Spanish dancer
whose crinolines flare out around her
hidden rose. Another cooks in highheels.
Among these are angels, blonde sisters,
classmates suddenly gone from our towns,
one on a patio reclined, her long leg
crooked in invitation. She does not hide
the shorter leg. Each grins and burns
into our memory, speaking in shy whispers,
who are born to teach us violations.
At eighteen what fathers teach is wrong,
for the world is wrong, and only women
know why, their eyes dark and flat.

It isn't eyes that sons remember, blinded
by what never lies or leaves, but
sun's glint on that raw breast, that
thigh where face should not be but is,
and is the curve of the world's flesh
radiant in its rottenness, the secret
that leaves finally apart and other
all who walk on the earth. In memory
I see how each breast, each leg, each
face hissed our shame. By accident
I became the boy-father of the house,
owner of obscenities and a family
of creeps who fingered me as one.
What else is the world but a box,
false-bottomed, where the ugly truths
wait sailing in the skins of ancestors?

Escaping them at last I left for college.
But first climbed to what he left me,
carted that box and brace to grave,
and spilled those mild faces down
under the looming Baptist spire.
I spread gasoline where he lay, then
with his Navy Zippo snapped it off.
Quick bodies coiled and flamed, ash
flecks disappearing in sun forever.
I gouged the remains in a trench
of churchly dirt, tried once to spit,
then turned in the dark to catch a bus.
His pea-coat was black as the sea
at midnight but I took it and wore it
sweating against the cold to come.

Women smiled at me as if I'd been flush
with cash from months at sea. Welcome,
, one said, You can sit by me.
I was free, I thought, discharged from
Hell into the world that, for Christ's
sake, waited. I left home in a wink.
And would not go back at Christmas,
being after all busy, being holed up
with the nameless girl, the long blade
of her body even now slicing memory,
that darling who took my coat. But
by Easter was ready, went. House sold,
mother gone, maybe married, maybe Florida,
they said. I wandered in a cold sea- wind,
almost on shore leave, until I came
cast up where my father lay. Posters

of the nailed Jesus littered the grass,
announcing our inexplicable life. I saw
the crones kneeled there in sunbursts,
faceless, soft, as if to serve the sun
dying in the background. I shivered,
then rose up, hearing traffic hiss,
and walked until I found the old road.
I wished I had our goddamn stolen coat.
Boys yelled at me, but no one stopped.
Freed, I was myself. Who understands?
I walked hours in hard places, into night,
my first beard tingling, dreaming what
fathers know. I came to a seedy house.
Among sailors I, a man, heard the siren
call us forward to sit with the darkness
under reels of lighted, loving women.
At love's edge, braced, we were nineteen.

So we did.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter 1980-81), pp. 47-51


Author Photo of Dave Smith

Dave Smith is the Eliot Coleman Professor of Poetry in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent books are Hawks on Wires (poems, Louisiana State UP), Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry (essays, Louisiana State UP), and Little Boats, Unsalvaged (poems, Louisiana State UP).