John Thomas Wetmore
A hundred yellow jackets huddle
in the ceiling light, carcasses casting
angel-winged shadows over the living
room as mother pours jigsaw
pieces from a 5,000-piece box.
I stare up at the cardboard rain
in awe. The puzzle, a recreation
of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel,
seems impossibly difficult
for a five year old to finish,
but the puzzle almost smells
of the sun-baked limestone
arches it depicts—each piece
stiff and certain of its ability
to fit into an infinite whole.
Mom’s hands are dishwater raw
as she scatters the jumbled
mosaic on the coffee table.
Her thin lips longingly pinch
the ghost of a cigarette.
She counts out enough of dad’s cash
for newspapers, lottery tickets,
and other sinister indulgences
whose evils I have yet to learn.
It feels there are ten million things
I do not understand, but mother
assures me that doing puzzles
will make me smarter.
She calls me her Johnny Bear
and tells me to pay attention
as she instructs me in the honey-warm
tongue children best understand—
a mother’s voice a nourishing
soil in any land on God’s earth.
She tells me to seek edge pieces out,
that it is easy to build borders
before worrying what belongs inside.
So I find the edges and start
to construct sea and sky—
gutters of blue-and-red-roofed
houses of Shinar. I get lost
in clay and beige. I believe
I am building skywards
for my own enlightenment.
The task transforms my soft
hands into those of a polyglot
stonemason. My fingers learn
a new language of color
and shape as I whistle
a workman’s song, searching
for the next fragment of Babylon.
Hours later, Nana calls to ask
if my mother is there. I search
the house and report back
on her absence. Your father is coming
to get you…it’s not your fault—
I hear Nana say, as well as dad
cursing somewhere behind her.
That stupid bitch, I hear him spit,
his new word for mother my
first plunge me into a vast,
violent lexicon—a brutal
confusion of tongues.
When he finally arrives
to carry me off to a new place
far from home, the tower
my mother told me to build
is still rubble, the walls complete,
the inside empty except
for the shadows of wings.
John Thomas Wetmore is a poet who teaches creative writing at Arts at the Capitol Theater in Willimantic, CT. He loves tattoos and wild wolves. His work has recently appeared in print in The Sandy River Review and Steam Ticket. He was also a featured poet in an online edition of After the Pause.