artwork for John Amen's poem Breathless

John Amen

Richard rented a Corolla, blitzed the highway
from Brooklyn to Beaufort. A week in the orchard,
tripping among the apple trees, then we rocketed to the coast.
He ignored the lifeguard’s whistle,
splashing with great whites & killer whales.
I read on the beach, Richard swam.
I read War & Peace, he staggered in the hot sand,
gasping as I finished War & Peace & started Don Quixote.
The sun crawled across the sky & the sky & sky.
Home, he called to say there was a monster thrashing in his stomach.
He said it was our dead parents
carving their initials in his blood.
The doctor gave him a bad diagnosis.
His girlfriend Sylvia read to him as he sat in a rocking chair.
They watched reruns on a miniature tv.
When Tricky Dick appeared on the screen, hunched over,
flashing peace signs, he burst out laughing.
He asked me what was going on with the horses.
He asked me if my pages were dry,
if I still cooked chicken paella for the bankers in Argentina.
Then it was June, I was the one with the rental, speeding up 95 at dawn.
I don’t recall his funeral as much as dressing for it,
suiting up in his fourth-floor apartment.
No shades, diamond light glared, slicing through dirty glass.
I couldn’t find my breath, I was alone,
not for the first time, certainly not the last.
I remember thinking, & now the misgiving returns
as muggy summer whelms, I too am stranded
in dangerous water, no ghost ship swelling on the horizon,
no mermaid rising from the weedy depths,
I’m the only one who can get me back to the shore.

John Amen’s Comments

“Breathless” is a reconfiguration of my father’s final days. Richard, at least in this poem, serves as a surrogate, a stylistic choice which somehow helped me to gain clarity. My father was indeed diagnosed with cancer shortly after a very strange near-death experience at Coney Island. When he later asked me, over the phone, if “my horses were OK,” I knew something was wrong. Things went from there. And then, unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as lonely or disconnected as I did the day I dressed for his funeral.

Table of Contents

Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 60 | Fall/Winter 2022