Book of Death

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Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)
William Gibson
I hesitated
before untying the bow
that bound this book together.

A black book:
ALBUMS
CA. AGRIPPA
Order Extra Leaves
By Letter and Name

A Kodak album of time-burned
black construction paper

The string he tied
Has been unravelled by years
and the dry weather of trunks
Like a lady's shoestring from the First World War
Its metal ferrules eaten by oxygen
Until they resemble cigarette-ash

Inside the cover he inscribed something in soft graphite
Now lost
Then his name
W.F. Gibson Jr.
and something, comma,
1924

Then he glued his Kodak prints down
And wrote under them
In chalk-like white pencil:
"Papa's saw mill, Aug. 1919."

A flat-roofed shack
Against a mountain ridge
In the foreground are tumbled boards and offcuts
He must have smelled the pitch, In August
The sweet hot reek
Of the electric saw
Biting into decades

Next the spaniel Moko
"Moko 1919"
Poses on small bench or table
Before a backyard tree
His coat is lustrous
The grass needs cutting
Beyond the tree,
In eerie Kodak clarity,
Are the summer backstairs of Wheeling,
West Virginia
Someone's left a wooden stepladder out

"Aunt Fran and [obscured]"
Although he isn't, this gent
He has a "G" belt-buckle
A lapel-device of Masonic origin
A patent propelling-pencil
A fountain-pen
And the flowers they pose behind so solidly
Are rooted in an upright length of whitewashed
concrete sewer-pipe.

Daddy had a horse named Dixie
"Ford on Dixie 1917"
A saddle-blanket marked with a single star
Corduroy jodpurs
A western saddle
And a cloth cap
Proud and happy
As any boy could be

"Arthur and Ford fishing 1919"
Shot by an adult
(Witness the steady hand
that captures the wildflowers
the shadows on their broad straw hats
reflections of a split-rail fence)
standing opposite them,
on the far side of the pond,
amid the snake-doctors and the mud,
Kodak in hand,
Ford Sr.?

And "Moma July, 1919"
strolls beside the pond,
in white big city shoes,
Purse tucked behind her,
While either Ford or Arthur, still straw-hatted,
approaches a canvas-topped touring car.

"Moma and Mrs. Graham at fish hatchery 1919"
Moma and Mrs. G. sit atop a graceful concrete
arch.

"Arthur on Dixie", likewise 1919,
rather ill at ease.
On the roof behind the barn, behind him,
can be made out this cryptic mark:
H.V.J.M.[?]

"Papa's Mill 1919", my grandfather most regal amid a wrack of cut lumber,
might as easily be the record
of some later demolition, and
His cotton sleeves are rolled
to but not past the elbow,
striped, with a white neckband
for the attachment of a collar.
Behind him stands a cone of sawdust some thirty feet in height. (How that feels to tumble down,
or smells when it is wet)

II.

The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
A lens
The shutter falls
Forever
Dividing that from this.

Now in high-ceiling bedrooms,
unoccupied, unvisited,
in the bottom drawers of veneered bureaus
in cool chemical darkness curl commemorative
montages of the country's World War dead,

just as I myself discovered
one other summer in an attic trunk,
and beneath that every boy's best treasure
of tarnished actual ammunition
real little bits of war
but also
the mechanism
itself.

The blued finish of firearms
is a process, controlled, derived from common
rust, but there
under so rare and uncommon a patina
that many years untouched
until I took it up
and turning, entranced, down the unpainted
stair,
to the hallway where I swear
I never heard the first shot.

The copper-jacketed slug recovered
from the bathroom's cardboard cylinder of
Morton's Salt
was undeformed
save for the faint bright marks of lands
and grooves
so hot, stilled energy,
it blistered my hand.

The gun lay on the dusty carpet.
Returning in utter awe I took it so carefully up
That the...
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