Michael Diebert

from Eastman Meditations

     
   

4

Smoke blacker than a bomb,
barrels blowing up every six seconds,
steam screaming from pipes
harmful amounts may be absorbed through the skin
A steel lintel ripped from its door,
pinwheeling, severing
a fleeing man’s leg at the knee
and the man continuing to flee
material can ignite without an ignition source
A woman in a business suit
darting around a line of firemen,
scaling the ten-foot chain-link fence,
climbing over the barbed wire,
and dropping straight down on her spiked heels
into the melting street, her feet
slipping quickly out of those prisons,
carrying her up the block, out of sight
into safety, history
may polymerize in the presence of heat
Today, if you’re still, you can still
see the humpbacked door frame,
the sheared sill, the hairline crack
catches fire if exposed to air
Space station, holy land,
perpetually answered prayer,
picture postcard of a higher purpose
reacts with water in a dangerous or unusual way
Barely a smell or sound,
hard to believe anything bad ever happened
two million consecutive safe working hours
At the side of the Lincoln Drive gas station,
near the pallet of propane tanks,
two men share a cigarette
and yet—and yet—
My inner muckraker sees black trash bags,
hush money, concrete
poured over dirty secrets
everything was done that could have been
A long, fact-based, poker-faced article
on how the plant came to be:
one little paragraph about that day
buried in the middle
who’d want to remember it anyway
I worked there.
I breathed that stuff a whole summer.
In the winter, I went to the doctor
and my white cell count
no, don’t go there, you don’t know

     
         
 

 

     
   

5

Dad is practicing a talk for work.
Lights off and the slide projector fan
a warm, dry breath.
Mom and I are the warm bodies.
He talks with hands, talks above our heads,
talks white text on royal blue background,
talks facts, talks in a tone
meant to reassure.  Forty minutes
drone with a bee’s exactitude.
He asks how he sounds.  Mom says
everything he wants to hear.
I’d hate to have to be the people
he has to impress.  I’m in third grade
and I don’t know what he does.
He draws compounds with his mechanical pencil
for hours.  He mixes things,
makes cakes from mysterious elements.
When he tries to explain,
my eyes drift up to a spider web,
down the spines of his college texts.
Once and only once do we see him in his office.
Heavy green pre-war desk,
gray hard hat and green coveralls
hanging from a coat rack,
binders bursting on a shelf,
phone with a row of silent buttons.
Wednesday.  Lunchtime.  He has a meeting at one.
He unwraps his sandwich
and asks us if we’re doing anything fun.
Probably.  I don’t remember.  The summer is stalling
in a hamburger-and-milkshake haze.
I remember thinking I am glad
I see no pictures on the wall.
His Ph.D. in a dusty dime-store frame.
This is around the time I learn to swim.
He plays bridge in the middle of the week
but the other offices are empty.
I’ve never changed the music for this scene,
a faint grinding whine
somewhere beyond the fire exit:
proto-dynamos, pieces of neo-steel
fighting for their God-given rights.

     
         
 

 

     
   

6

George Eastman shot himself in the heart in 1932.
His suicide note spoke volumes:
“My work is done.  Why wait?”
Philanthropist par excellence,
avid traveler, lifelong bachelor.
The shy, retiring type,
the world’s most anonymous millionaire.
He had a few suitors,
but none could come close to the silence of a darkroom.
Control freak of the highest order.
Opportunity was a horse to be ridden hard.
We the people wanted proof that we were alive,
every birthday, every bug and beehive,
and he obliged—
the film, the camera,
the dawn of point and click.
But we had to send the whole kit and caboodle to him
if we wanted to own our moments.
He lent his share of chemicals to the Great War,
his name to a music school.
Kept quiet a bad back and a creeping depression.
Toward the end, gave to Tuskegee,
MIT, dental clinics, philharmonics
as though his wealth might bite him.
Bought up a chunk of land in east Tennessee.
Men logged it,
mules dragged the logs in wagons
and the wagons through the wilderness
becoming less and less itself,
and the wood went to fuel a fire some would say
radiates to this day.
But you’re fishing for a story.
You want the man behind the mission,
not the mission.
I imagine him in his mansion
in the middle of Rochester, New York
in the final stretch of a lavish dinner party.
The string quartet is playing its last pizzicato,
everyone except him stuffed
and respectably drunk.
He excuses himself from the small talk,
the cigars and cognac,
content to stand cold sober on the landing
and let industry do his speaking.

     
         
 

Gladhanding

     
   

He was the type to pull you onto the deck
at his party, just you and him, to tell you

he was a busy man, he spent his weeks
wheedling alpha males with acres

of money and opinions, dudes who thought
they knew better than him how best

to get these stalled projects back on track
and built to last, no shortage of that

but precious little about doing it smart
without a hundred thousand false starts

and stomped hearts—anyway he was swamped
and wished he had a minute now and then

to look up from snuffing fires at what he did
and what he did was build, fill needs,

knee-deep in debt to the dream, definitely,
he’d admit it, but see, he had to believe,

he had little choice, things would pick up.
He could turn on the charm and keep it on

like a light, to the point where he might seem
to be confiding in you, inches from your face

and nursing the same tepid beer, perhaps
punctuating the air with a potato chip,

where you could see the start of gray in his goatee.
He’d say he had to wear a lot of hats,

pile high a lot of plates every day
to see how long they could teeter there,

and this was his riposte to the rumors
that he and his wife were getting divorced:

work.  He was the husband of a friend
of a friend.  I knew him somewhat.

I have made him somewhat into the worst
sort of self-serving surface dweller.

But I did know him.  And I suspect
deep down he wanted to up and leave,

pack some clothes and walk into the night.
But he had a gift for keeping it together.

I have sat around the same campfire as he
and watched him play guitar eyes shut,

singing a single unbroken syllable,
have seen him march into a floral shop

and emerge with a rainbow for his wife.
Was he a good guy?  I suspect he tried.

There was no divorce.  There was a child
and later a modest prosperity,

and he and his family stayed in that house
with the pressure-treated cedar deck

and the camellias blooming in November.

     
        return to poetry
 

Michael Diebert, a native of Kingsport, Tennessee, is the author of the collection Life Outside the Set (Sweatshoppe, 2013) and serves as poetry editor for The Chattahoochee Review.  Other recent work has appeared in Kentucky Review, Iodine Poetry Journal and jmww.  He teaches writing and literature at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, where he also co-facilitates the Writers’ Forum, a writing critique and feedback group.