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A Chain for Stephanie

John Reibetanz
From:   Midland Swimmer. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 1996, pp. pp. 52-55


     It caught the sun in a narrow river
of grass, for three backyards along the hedge,
     colossal: you could pass your fist
through each shaft's ribs. Scales of rust
     flecked the black links, their joints
tensed—locked in an iron sleep, but alive.

     We woke it almost by accident.
First we tried to pull, but even both
     big twelve-year-olds tugging one end
got nowhere. Then, our last, disgusted wrench
     took off through the chain and told out
our put-down in a scribble along the ground.

     Try that again: we heaved and pitched;
a sketchy, bent-backed creature ran the chain's length.
     We spent the morning lashing him out
and (one at each end) riding, catching him
     as he bucked off the chain
and the shock of his pulse grounded in our feet.

     The more expert we grew, the more
he grew: by noon, every unfurling sent
     a small bull barrelling along the chain,
lifting the targeted boy and tossing him down.
     Sheer power, our coming-of-age present;
that and, shaking our bones, a chained thing's fury.


     It seems right that it be pinned down
in the museum case: slave collar, lifted
     from the neck of a skeleton
turned from its Roman grave. But lifted how?
     No cut-and-solder on the bronze:
the smith's one join outlasted the captive.

     Either the neckbone lost its skull
rooting around underneath the caves,
     or someone broke it for the collar.
Unchaining brought worse loss: since no one saved
     the bones and set them under glass,
the bronze collar is all that's left of the sleeper.

     Inscribed on it—less epitaph
than tease—no name, sex, age: just "fugitive slave"—
     a lie the untried join betrays—
and an owner's name and street. The emptiness
     at the collar's centre tells
a truer story of the missing life.

     Voiceless, windpipe gone, it mimes
the whole inhuman cycle: bred, then herded;
     tagged with toy names like pets; girl'd
or boy'd into old age, the will so tamed
     it slept the collar's bronze embrace
into a dream, and loved it like a spouse.


     Some slaves never rebel. Some chains
are thin as dreams, or smoke. I see my mother,
     moon-eyed behind coiling gray bars
her cigarette offers her, the yellow stains
     on thumb and first two fingers seals
of long immurement in her wispy cell.

     It is mild servitude, compared
to that completely unseen prison camp
     inside her head, where dream-braced walls
shut out her mind's light, and the guard compels
     the yellow fingers to add more names
to a scribbled list of traitors and informers.

     My name was there; Dad, his boss,
and all our relatives and friends. Even
     the Sister Superior of the convent
she tried—writing with younger, whiter fingers
     on the flyleaf of her hymnal:
"The Way of the Cross is the Path to Happiness."

     The list never got finished: she
left early, tied down in an ambulance
     the morning I unleashed the chain.
And then? Shock therapy; return; thirty
     years lost in tranquilizer haze;
cancer; cremation; liberated ashes.


     An otter, in his deep freedom,
turns water into air, rocket and swoop
     signalled by creases in the stream
and chains of bubbles crossing the surface
     with echo-patterns of scaled riffs.
The chains body his breath and score its movements.

     On quiet water, smoky chains
of spawn embrace, like ribcages, the heart
     of life—before its beat startles
the river's calm, before the gills filter
     its flow. Link by link, the future
breaks from the chain that anchors the frail launch.

     There, as in every living cell—
the hundred million million that are me,
     or you, my daughter—double chains,
too fine for microscopes to catch, unfurl
     the coded scribble of genes
that underwrites the launch of our uniqueness.

     So I have given you a chain
for graduation. It trails round your wrist,
     the pipe-shaped links cars in a train.
Play on it, ride it all day, if you wish.
     Dream on it wakefully. Shake
its silver in the sun. Be free to break it.

John Reibetanz's works copyright © to the author.

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