Words carved on an antique box:
J.A. Egen, Prisoner of War, Burt’s Island,
Bermuda, November 11, 1901
What proof do we need of existence?
Sometimes only a carved letter box inlaid
with lilies, the corners coupled in half-blind dovetails.
A box chiseled by a prisoner of war,
a South African Dutchman who fought
the British and lost, a box tucked between
my first edition copy of Great Expectations
and the peeling leather volumes on my bookcase.
Not necessarily a sheaf of yellowed envelopes,
a lock of his Egen red hair or a deeply creased photo.
Inside there is nothing and everything.
Over a century later, do we need anything more?
Imagine a family stands in fog at the gate and
something about hens and a Hereford cow.
Imagine a care-worn wife strains to regain control
of five children and a dog, wagging their ragged good-byes.
Imagine a husband shoulders a rifle heavy as regret,
adjusts his hat, turns north and never returns.
Sometimes all our memories are neatly assembled
with dovetailed corners by a loving family
and the complete proof is revealed at the end.
Sometimes proof of life is a moth-riddled
V-neck sweater with patches on the elbows and
it still smells like Old Spice after twenty years.
And every so often we hold a small signed box filled
with imagination, inhale the same sweet cedar smell
that was drawn in by another man’s breath, and it whispers,
I lived once. Thank you. I was here.