Summer of Ash

Our father burned the piano—the only
measure of your childhood that remained,

As we had in a sweltering Baltimore rowhouse
with its basement gathering a crown of filth,

Our rugs leavened with sawdust falling
from beams he rasped in the night.

You remained with a brother, eighteen years
younger, when our mother and sisters fled

His brawl of manic neurons. In flaring hours,
my mind’s eye trained on shadows, but you saw

Clearly as he stood at the stove’s gas flame
with a pot of ashes and spent cigarettes,

Insensible leavings like scraps of meat,
strands of tinsel seething in the broth.

His face was raw and swathed in steam
as he stirred the glinting ashes.

My remaining sister: What grace let you stay,
calm him—and shield your brother’s eyes?