The Prodigal Son Makes Notes for a Eulogy and Never Mentions the Fatted Calf

by James Owens


I write around the borders of some territory
we have lived our lives in sight of and never crossed.


What else can anyone do, except grope unlighted
around the edges of loss and fumble to describe


the intricate gap, like the blind who depend on touch
to know a face? In the American myths, a boy


born to hard circumstance, but smarter or more resourceful
or more ruthless, will rise to wrest himself from history


and genetics and geography. But what about an ordinary boy,
born into coal dust, suckled from the weary veins of the Depression?


What life except his own life? Can we love the hidden things?
How to choose detail? It all glittered. It all disappeared.


Fragments shattered, clattering, caught in the throat of his dying
memory. Is it in the common dirt that we know each other finally?


There was a Christmas morning in the sixties. I sat warm
as he held me, and he, who could hardly read, read


from the new book of stories. I will try to recall other things to tell you,
but writing it can only fail, and now there is only the writing it.


I could stitch my own myth of the man from story and archetype—
and what else does anyone have? does any son think he has more?—


but I would rather lose him than remember lies. Loss is real and heavy
and as hard to carry and balance as a shuttle of slack coal,


and loss is better than falsification. Is that true? It had better be,
as I say his name above this hollowed earth and you say it back.

JAMES OWENS’S most recent collection of poems is Mortalia (FutureCycle Press, 2015). His poems, stories, and translations appear widely in literary journals, including publications in The Fourth River, Kestrel, Adirondack Review, Tule Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Southword. He earned an MFA at the University of Alabama and lives in Indiana and northern Ontario.

Featured Image: “Return of the Prodigal Son,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain]