This poem first appeared in the Spring, 2014 Issue of The Antioch Review.
by Jacqueline Osherow
They say there’s no trusting memory,
but where else could I have acquired this red
moon-shaped blur against a deep-black sky
simultaneously vague and vivid,
this cryptic language on my father’s lips?
(I’m in a blanket in his arms; snatched from bed)
lunar eclipse, he’s saying, lunar eclipse
guiding my still-half-asleep gaze upward,
until, just beyond his pointing fingertips,
something red elaborates each word.
Lunar means moon, I hear him say
(or am I just infusing what I heard
with all his later lessons in vocabulary?)
eclipse, covered by the Earth’s shadow
all incomprehensible to me.
What could it mean, the Earth’s shadow?
and how would it reach across the sky?
There’s nothing of the telltale crescendo
or decrescendo (the essential quality—
I’ll learn—of an eclipse) It’s instantaneous;
I’m in a blanket; my father’s holding me
and pointing to the sky; I hear his voice.
It’s the middle of the night and we’re outside,
the sky’s red blur almost extraneous—
except that only it could ever provide
the occasion for such an outsized memory.
Could there be a luckier child
than the one whose father—even when she’s three—
can’t bear for her to miss something wonderful?
It must have been March thirteenth, 1960.
I searched for total lunar eclipses visible
from Philadelphia (there’s no red glare
if the lunar eclipse isn’t total).
I was eight before the next one would occur
and by then didn’t need eclipse defined;
there’d been a solar eclipse the year before
when I so worried about going blind
I wouldn’t even approach a curtained window
until I knew danger was at an end.
But a moon’s eclipse is pure bravado
on the heavens’ part, at its most emphatic
an innocuous, one-night-only show,
and more of a celestial practical joke
than anything else when it’s just partial;
I can remember doing a double take
at a crescent moon—wasn’t the moon just full?—
on the last night of camp; we’d stayed awake
all night, already mourning our magical
utopian respite on the lake
from a world we loathed for its conformity.
This was precisely one year after Woodstock—
August seventeenth, 1970—
a partial eclipse visible from New England
two days after my fourteenth birthday
and I was the sort of adolescent,
a would-be poet in the Age of Aquarius,
who cared if the moon was full or crescent,
regarding, more or less, the entire universe
as a personal communiqué to me,
ecstatic when, an hour before sunrise
the moon was full again, and dormant memory
(a blanket, my father pointing to the sky,
his voice saying eclipse) came surging back to me
as it did last night, though it was cloudy
and I couldn’t see the promised eclipse at all:
instead, that vague red blur against the sky,
a moon from full to crescent back to full—
one atop the other, like an overlay
transparent, in a textbook—against the dull
low-hanging, heavy, winter gray,
fifty years since that full, forty since that partial—
the only eclipses of the moon that I
have managed in all these years to see
though I did point my daughters toward the sky
on numerous occasions, most recently
—it was near my birthday, so they humored me—
the most spectacular Perseids in decades.
All three drove up the canyon with me, lay
on a ratty blanket, tilted back their heads
and even joined my ecstatic oohs and aahs
without irony for once (motherhood’s
for me become a matter, more or less,
of providing fodder for jokes; at least they’re funny)
when one atop the other, simultaneous
twin meteors expended on the sky
their incandescent, one-time-only banners—
so fleeting and improbable that I
wouldn’t have believed, without my daughters,
I’d seen what I had seen: almost a proof
that there exists a music of the spheres.
What other music could have carried off
that thrillingly unlikely pas de deux?
so indelible that if I live long enough
to outlast, as my father has, lucidity
—his answer to every question: ask Evelyn—
those twin shooting stars will single-handedly
intercept my mind’s spreading oblivion
with their evanescent double arc.
That’s what he says to me: ask Evelyn,
or, sometimes: ask my wife. It’s too much work
for him to remember she’s my mother;
some connective apparatus has gone dark.
But he does know that he’s my father,
his face when he sees me something splendid
(his expression now an open bellwether
of what is going on inside his head);
and it’s infectious, that perfect joy;
so I feel it too—however mitigated—
would almost welcome this endearing envoy
from my pre-history, this left-field chance
to know my father as a little boy,
if it weren’t so absurdly out of sequence,
so heartbreakingly immutable.
Besides, he always had a kind of innocence,
marveled at a world he saw as full
of endless opportunities for wonder . . .
and though a bit afraid of the natural
(a true city kid, more at home with cinder-
blocks and cement than trees and grass)
was always after showing us the splendor
of this magical (if deadly) universe—
though he took no chances, preferred his ocean
from the undertow-free vantage point of shores,
every excursion an occasion
for still more lessons in vocabulary.
At the ocean, for example: horizon:
the line where the ocean meets the sky
confounded me summer after summer.
I saw no line or even opportunity
for a rendezvous of water and air
though I was enthralled by the idea.
And then, when I was what? in junior
high school, he began stuffing me
with words he’d circle in every article
of Time magazine: zenith, probity,
clandestine, assiduous, apocryphal. . . .
Even now certain words I come across
regardless of their contexts will still
assert themselves in my father’s voice:
juxtapose, harbinger, alacrity. . . .
I’ve passed them on to my daughters, their ace
SAT scores my father’s legacy;
Why not try his game on him?
What’s largesse, Daddy? Generosity.
He barely skips a beat. Opprobrium?
Public disgrace. Abjure? Abstain,
each precise, well-chosen synonym
a perfect marvel of illumination
in an otherwise unbroken spell of shadow.
It’s as if I’ve found a pristine lexicon
in the rubble of an earthquake or tornado,
every other household item lost.
Unless my father—incommunicado,
and not, manifestly, at his best—
is still himself, in there somewhere. Perhaps
his mind’s just resting: a palimpsest
in the hiatus between manuscripts—
the first rubbed out, the second not yet written.
Whoever heard of an eclipse
wholly immune to orbit or rotation
moving straight from partial into full?
Meanwhile, word and definition,
twin meteors, tail on top of tail,
interrupt the darkness in unison
and I’m the witness-daughter in their thrall,
all of memory the fleeting outline
of that split-second interregnum
between the obscure and the uncertain
from my first foray into nighttime:
a blanket, my father’s arms, cold air,
his finger pointing to something dim . . .
to this articulate, beseeching blur
(suspended as the meteors take aim)
reconfiguring my father’s stare
as Earth’s long shadow eclipses him
Jacqueline Osherow”s seventh collection of poems, Ultimatum from Paradise, which will include “Eclipses of the Moon,” is forthcoming from LSU Press in autumn 2014.
© 2014 The Antioch Review