John Brehm author photo
By John Brehm

I cannot save her, she will be broken, is broken,
will be broken again and again, this little girl,
five or six, in a grubby pink dress,
black hair, fat cheeks, hard black eyes
on her father—a giant version of herself
inflated by time and half-controlled
rage—who grabs her shoulders
and shoves her down on the sidewalk,
against the brick wall of the bookstore
I’m about to enter, and stands back
waiting as she gets up, tries to run
past him, unstoppable force,
immovable object, and grabs her again,
slams her down, the exact same motions
but harder this time, both of them
like marionettes the god who rules over
ruined childhoods guides with gnarled fingers,
and my hard-wired, Paleolithic radar
for violence flares inside me, turns me
towards them, makes me want to slam him
into the next universe, and horrible things
will happen today that none of us can stop,
savage human fear everywhere in full swing,
the need for comfort never-ending,
need beyond all depth and measure—
everything will happen and none can stop it
but this will not happen, not here, not now,
though she will be broken, and I say,
“Hey, man, you do that again, I’m calling
the cops—what is going on here?”
and he says, “She’s having a time-out,
call the cops if you want to,” and the raspy
mother smoking on the street corner says,
“She’s having a time-out, that’s good discipline,
daddy,” and I stand there, held in this moment,
and then he starts to gentle her, sets her
softly down, and she snarls her lip, sputters
up at him, five-year-old for go fuck yourself,
and I think good for you and he calls her
honey, kneels down close to talk to her,
and I can’t tell if it’s a show for me or if it’s real,
though I can feel he feels my eyes on him,
and I’m not going anywhere, until he takes
her hand and walks her inside the bookstore,
a shimmering mirage of loving father
and trusting child, and I follow them
to where all the helpless words are kept
and time itself rests inside the covers
waiting to be set free now
and forever and he lets
me walk away.

(Today’s poem originally appeared in Rattle, where it was a 2012 Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist, and appears here today with permission from the poet.)

John Brehm is the author of two books of poems, Help Is On the Way and Sea of Faith, and the the associate editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, Boulevard, The Missouri Review, and many other journals and anthologies. He is a freelance writer and lives in Portland, Oregon.

Editor’s Note: Today’s poem captures a moment, and within that moment the history of the life of the poet. The artificial lines we humans create with the idea of time become blurred. Space vanishes. A child becomes everyone’s child. A man becomes as powerful and ineffective as a god. And the whole of the world retreats “to where all the helpless words are kept / and time itself rests inside the covers / waiting to be set free.”

Want to read more by and about John Brehm?
John Brehm’s Official Website
Buy Help Is On the Way on Amazon
Buy Sea of Faith on Amazon


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