Jeffrey McDaniel

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KEEPER OF THE LIGHT

 

I fork rice and breakfast beans into my mouth. Gnaw
a slither of beef, rough as a donkey’s ear, then wash it down

with boxed apple juice. Read the paper on the sofa.
My job doesn’t start till the sun drops

to its knees and fires pink arrows into the bellies
of clouds. Only then, do I climb the two hundred stairs,

spiraling up through the guts of the tower,
that from a distance in daylight looks like a brick telescope

wedged into the ground. Only then, do I load the lamp
with whale oil, and trim the wick so it burns evenly

like a red beard across a pirate’s face. Only then, do I scrub
the layer of carbon off the reflectors and adjust

the Fresnel lens, which is like a lampshade made out of shards
of an expensive mirror, harnessing the many stems of light

into a bouquet to be hurled out, in three second intervals.
Only then do I turn the shortwave to the chatter

of ships. Only then, binoculars around my neck,
do I slide open the door and walk the rail,

a salty breeze curling through my pores, as I comb
the dark waves with my eyes. Flag whipping

overhead. Thunder cooking up in clouds.
Then the voices start rumbling in. I read you

thirteen year-old girl pinned down by your friend’s
nineteen year-old brother in a basement and excavated

as your favorite Crosby, Stills and Nash song
plays cruelly over the speakers. I read you housewife

with a crushed starfish in your belly, clutching
a wine glass like a buoy. I cannot promise

help is on the way, but I read you high school senior
razor marks ricocheting up your forearm. I read you

husband watching school after school of naughty minnows
swim across the screen of your smart phone, as the rain gathers

around your ankles in the matrimonial rowboat. I read you
twenty year-old girl, smearing kerosene over your breasts,

like baby oil, a carousel of men assembling, jerking up
and down, like warped horses on a misery-go-round. I read you

friend from childhood, counting the petals of a daisy, I kill me,
I kill me not. I read you dockworker, wandering

the corridors under the ocean’s surface,
stuffing your unemployment check into the belly button

of a slot machine. I read you sixteen year-old girl,
getting jabbed with the t in the word slut

as you tremble on the train platform and lean back
into the broad metal arms of eternity. I read you

and chart your coordinates. Note your howls. And no,
I cannot save you, or bring supplies—just sit inside

this giant candle and fling thimbles of light
in your direction, whispering, I hear you, hold tight.
 

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JEFFREY MCDANIEL is the author of 5 books of poetry. His fifth book, Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, comes out this winter from University of Pittsburgh Press. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in the Hudson Valley.
 
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Read more work by Jeffrey McDaniel:

 
A selection of work at The Poetry Foundation
Poem at Poets.org
Article in Poetry

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