The Innisfree Poetry Journal

by Gary Fincke

The Face-Blind

Prosopagnosia—the inability to recognize faces
Because the rich detail of each face can
Be so frail, because all that’s remembered
Of even the familiar is the brief
Chorus of its anthem, now, in this blue
Morning, I’m working at preservation,
Taking this self-taught instruction from when,
Happening on a crying child, I knelt
To ask that girl the lost questions, her name,
Who had mislaid her in Gimbel’s, a store
That featured thirteen floors of merchandise.
Toys were above everything but furniture,
But we were on the first floor with perfume,
Cosmetics, and well-dressed saleswomen who
Offered samples. Security, like her mother,
Was somewhere else, but when she clutched my hand,
Such evidence of terrible intent
Was suggested by a choice of exits,
I half-expected an abduction alarm.
No one hailed that girl or me, not even
When we approached the gilded, outside doors.
The air was funereal, the shoppers
Old women who had driven to Pittsburgh
Since World War II, so few of them by then
The store was rumored bankrupt. The day before,
A local woman had revealed she could not
Recognize faces: Her daughter’s teacher. 
A friend from church. The identities of wait staff.
Her daughter, seven, prompted the names
Of neighbors, reminded her which friends
Had arrived for sleepovers. Like a bride
Receiving guests, she’d taught herself to smile.
A wonder we recognize anyone,
She said, so much we have in common,
Believable, earlier today, when
I was twice greeted by name and could not
Cough up recognition, when a stranger
In a park, this summer, called out to my wife
And me, mentioning a class reunion,
And I slowed to fumble for a lost name
Until my wife tugged me past a sentinel
Into a crowded, well-lit path, hissing
As if she were teaching a child who still
Searched the mug book of the everyday
For the identity of those to fear.
Each blessing is lace. A woman, at last,
Recognized her granddaughter’s trusting face.

Listening for the River

My father, the Scoutmaster, had a friend
Who was a coal miner, someone, he said,
Who would teach all of us to straighten up
And fly right with an hour underground.

Absolutely, the miner instructed,
No wandering off, your helmet lamps on,
And we followed in a stooped, single file,
Poking each other like classroom clowns.

When Joey Rask flicked his light off, then on,
Then off, saying SOS to laughter,
I was embarrassed for my father’s shhh,
How he held his position at line’s end

Like some elderly substitute teacher
Afraid to challenge boys. Again, that shhh,
And his friend steered us through a corridor,
Then another, stopped and said, “All lights out,”

Orders we welcomed, our hands turned spiders
Upon necks and faces, hysterical
Until that miner said our neighborhood
River ran so close we could hear it through

The wall. In darkness become universe,
He said an upstream mine had flooded once,
The river breaking through a wall like this,
Drowning twenty-eight miners like a sack

Of puppies because someone decided
That wall was thick enough. No lights, he said,
Absolutely none, his voice steady as
A newsman’s. Now, he said, hands on the wall

And listen. Which we did, one, then three boys
Crying, learning fear for a future made
By strangers, choices that could smother us
With or without our electric helmets.

Later, inside our car, the radio
Forbidden, my father held me hostage
With his silence, and I did nothing but
Notice the sky empty until he said,

“A man can become as angry as God.”      
As if disobeying deserved terror,
That he agreed with his friend whose outrage
Assaulted thirteen boys with tragedy
Until he’d taught the simple alphabet
Of light and dark, all of us confessing
Helplessness in order to resurface
Into the natural light, into air.

All limber buildings, all the skyscrapers that sway more
than most, have a P-Delta moment, the possible point
of collapse when weakness, weather or weapons attack.

Though what we’ve already done defines us,
There’s desire, always, to be forgiven,
Mourning become the primary language
For the disabilities of our lives.

So often, we need to test resilience,
How much the heart can take, as if it were
A tall building that has to handle wind,
Its speed and angle, things that threaten height.

Sunday, leaving New York, my wife and I
Stopped speaking, that refusal, from anger,
Then pride, stretched until Tuesday’s planes-as-bombs
Resurrected our speech to seek the sound

Of our children’s voices from three cities.
That day and the next, talking and talking,
We were new to each other again, filled
With words for the daughter we could not reach,

The Manhattan child I’d wanted to slap
For declaring me selfish, ranking it
The best of my sins, as if she could count
The hours I justified my silences.

She talked like an engineer explaining
“Close to instability” in language
Meant to amplify fear, hurried me down
Shame’s stairs to safety.  And then, from outside,

The surprise of what saves us, those we love
Untangling themselves from ruins that shift
And shudder and steady, then open to
An extraordinary pocket of light.


Just often enough somebody comes back
From certain death, prompting us to believe
We might be the fortunate who go on
Like my friend thrown clear of his Thunderbird
That exploded on impact, my neighbor’s
Young son who survived eleven minutes
Under frigid water, or once, even
Myself skidding into a four-wheel drift
Across a low median and both lanes
Of oncoming, rush-hour, freeway traffic.

Unscathed. Upright. But not miraculous.
Not free fall ten thousand feet to a swamp
Or twelve stories to a sturdy awning.
Not, the week I rejoined traffic and kept
Close escape to myself, a young pilot
Bringing in a plane with a blown hatch door,
Ferrying a full manifest of ghosts
Back to the everyday task of living.

Safely on earth, the one in ten thousand,
He spoke about trying to keep that plane
Alive, throttling up, working the small chance
Of improvisation while it banked left
And dove, drawn sideways and down by its wound.
“If I land this damn thing,” he admitted,
Was the first phrase of his hurried promise
That ended with “all the rest of my life.”

And then he started the full-time labor
Of recognizing how, after those first
Breathless minutes of surviving, he would
Never again be as skillful, that it
Saddened him until he seemed an athlete
Just retired, his gratitude so awkward
He understood this was the first day of
The long sentence of dissatisfaction.

Copyright 2006-2012 by Cook Communication