The Mission

Soot everywhere. Trains, as if World War Two were our era,
pulling out of old South Station. At every grimy window,
two or three men—their postures grief-struck, heroic.

The iron terminal all my grandparents had arrived at,
their valises and sacks abulge with whatever mean
practical possessions they’d thought to lug into their futures.

Now I had their copper pans, their Sabbath candlesticks.
Gloom saturated the enormous room—no light motes,
no cappuccinos, no New York Times bestsellers. No matter

what the mission, you’d be too proud to fail to carry through….
The hanging clock’s hands could hardly bear the inching heavy weight
of time; I couldn’t see the arrows move, but if even one local clock

were taken for repair or replacement, we’d be saved from separation.
Were we—was I—certain you had no rational choice but to report
for duty? You shouldered an Italian leather case I’d never seen,

I, who’d polished and folded all your belongings. I touched your face,
you, already distant, aching to “get on with it,” and I—I knew
a great hole was being torn in my life, my life that felt like

the kind of rice paper Japanese printmakers always seemed to use—
such colors, such defined images of comfort and beauty ripped away.
Who’d ordered you to go, to cross three continents

and three oceans, knowing the inescapable dangers? Was it
the Secretary of War, that garrulous fool? What could I have thought
to do or say to keep you from the mysterious assignment you welcomed,

impelled as you seemed to be by your headstrong restlessness,
your admirable infuriating insistence on doing what’s too hard?
Was it too late? On Track Ten, obstinate, oblivious of your wife

pleading in the metallic din, were you off to rescue, or murder,
a harmless sinner, were you already doomed to end in a dark alley,
iron and soot, by good angels untenanted? Don’t go don’t go don’t go

Gail Mazur, “The Mission” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Reprinted with the permission of the author.