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Greg Keith

Woodgrain, flesh and stone

Sitting at the bar we agree a friend dead at 38 hits
harder than an uncle at 90. Talk turns to upcoming birthdays.
My big knuckles knock the maple plank, the dowels' end-grain.
Then the knuckles of her gracile hand knock too.
Neither of us Druid, we still touch wood. Is tribe a verb?

Mama's Indian sixteenth meant land in the Twenties and intermittent
money for years later. She knew next to nothing Cherokee.
Sequoia and his syllabary. The musty trunk her great-grandma
hauled along the Trail of Tears, the laths of its domed lid
white and dry. My sister got that.

One thirty-secondth of one hundred thousand genes
still means I bear three thousand plus.

At work, en route to lunch, one guy faults another for sitting
eight ritual days when his mother died. "He's not that Jewish.
He even married a, what do you call it, a shiksa, for Christ's sake.
Why does he have to put her and the kids through that?"

A Rosen in the car said, "You don't just sit. You eat a lot. And
you talk. It's not that solemn."

Years back a friend knelt in a temple in Ladakh taking rubbings
of inscriptions and reliefs when a young man, sweating and trembling,
lugged a big rock into the courtyard and set it down.
His father had died the week before and he'd carried stone grief
around the town and brought it to the center to put down.
His muscles would be sore for days.

I took my guitar to Mama's funeral. My daughter and I sang
two hymns we don't believe, both high lonesome redneck gospel.
Mama was an Okie after all. Next Saturday marks
a year since she died. I must wear bright colors that day.

Next fall, knock wood again, I'll be fifty. Why wood?

Xylem, phloem, parenchyma -- a tree's body can't forget
how, where and which years it stood rooted to earth.
We drift and scramble, struggle to remember -- Queen Maeve,
Lacondon string lore, five Etruscan words --

Ah Mama, if I knew a single Cherokee prayer I'd recite it tonight.

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