The Courtney Holley Literary Award FATHER AS DISTANT BOAT

Far across the lake, on the other shore, the family

takes off their hats, loosens their neckties, unbraids

their hair. There is a man and woman,

a girl and small dog with floppy ears. They board you

through the mist and stink of weeds. You pitch wildly.


Not until the shore’s too far gone will they realize

the wood underfoot is rotten soft. Delicately,

like a slowly flooding room, it will dawn

on them: no one ever survives you. At sunset

they’ll leap from your edges like flames.


Help, as usual, arrived too late. In jugs slung across

          the backs of cows, the water sloshed and spit itself out,

the daughter tugging and hustling the animals

          flameward up the hill. By the time she reached it,

the house lay in charring heaps, the trees

        hissing like blown-out wicks. The daughter knew

she should’ve burnt too

          and spent the soot-stained afternoon

watching herself in a reckoning blaze—

          bound up in the curtains, her fingers fretting hot cloth,

holding a melting plastic pail

          twisted like a wrung bird’s neck,

chaining herself up in the dim attic.

          And oh the savage heat of it all—

But let her rest now. Let her lie down in the ash

          and shut her eyes. Let her always wish the house

back to burning—when the portraits still held

          a familiar flaming hand or eye, when smoke rose

into the air like new blooms, when a door,

        smoldering but whole, was still there to be opened.