From the train car's grimy and slightly
beveled window, she watches dawn
rake over snowdrifts ridged along the stubble
rows of last year's wheat.
Her fists in fur-cuffed gloves grip a cellophane-wrapped
yellow rose nodding out from a bleak spray
of Baby's Breath.
A parting gift from someone she loved once
and loves yet? Who knows.
With such flinty skies so early in the month,
that near-lemony bloom
seems an awkwardly bent bit of pageantry.
But then I face backwards, so the passing
blur of landscape
reinvents itself as it falls behind this
slow length of train.
She, however, stares to where the fields
begin flat and compact;
then, almost wind-blown, rush alongside
us in total disassemblage.
Woods. A rusted harrow forgotten under a
copse of beech.
Always another shape emerges into motion
then yields to the still,
passing eye. . . No. Not a 'harrow.'
A 'tractor,' clunky and useless
and, therefore, of goddamn Soviet design.
And look at her stocking runs, her glued-together
gum sole shoes!
And look at the towns. Nothing new (or nothing
going on forty years. Disassemblage, yes.
Well, also movement over the winter farmland
at least: tractors, trees, the odd harrow
between us. When the draw close, they come
No. No. No. There is nothing between
you; she is
not concerned with such fancy things out
And you don't pay attention.
The rose is her story, but you can't imagine
how. Consolation is how
she regards it, I suppose. One firm gift
she might carry into the world
that smears out of shape even as she looks
to it for coherence. Like life.
Wrong, wrong. Not like life. Certainly
not like your life.
everywhere snow banks discolored by brown
burnt daily in Ostrava, choking all points
Not a 'copse of beech,' but charred, defoliated
you don't pay attention. The rose is for
her father and mother,
a small dressing for the dinner table tonight.
It is a bright spot.
There is nothing in the moon or stars or
what is in your head.
There is nothing about the fields or how
motion defies form.
There is something in her you cannot bear
to get close to,
but her heart does not break for that.
The child asked for money and I gave him
At the South Africa-Zimbabwe border
I thumbed for a ride. A small boy of maybe
nine or ten asked for money but I gave him
Try to imagine the heat, and still so early
in the day.
At a distance, under the shade of an acacia
a group of young Zims watched their friend,
small for his age, walk over to me. He wanted
extended a small empty hand and I gave him
I gave him nothing. He was young and wore
But, there was no hesitation in his step;
not even the sun-
cooked pavement fazed him. In the shade
his fellows waited
with cool gazes. They needed money too,
I was sure.
He wore no shoes. Only a pair of blue slacks
cut off above the knee, a white shirt,
yellowed twine tied round his wrist.
He was young, wore no shoes and wanted
a little money. Dollars, pula, rand. His
watched patiently in the shade. The heat
bore down on the withered scrub dotting
as if to prove there is no limit to ruin.
I studied the face
of my pocket watch and glanced into South
for oncoming traffic. The boy with no shoes
reflectively at my side, studying me, glancing
back to the acacia's shade. Dollars, pula,
rand, he said.
He chatted a while, asked if I were English.
His English was poor; the sentences stumbled
over their own inversions. I waited in silence.
The young boys under the tree waited in
The occasional passing car never slowed.
And the boy
in blue shorts, white t-shirt, with terrible
grammar and no shoes,
ran through his well-rehearsed lines. Dollars,
or rand, or pula.
When he left, he tried to make me feel ashamed.
He wanted to say I was making him suffer.
He wore no shoes,
his English was minimal: You are suffering
You are suffering me, he said, when I gave
Though I knew what he meant, I was amused.
And with that sun,
and no ride, and his friends just waiting
for a sign, I thought,
I am suffering him. Now and again
I think about him.
I was amused at the time. At the time.
Knoxville, 1977. The question is an accusation,
split from the tight smile of a boy
just a grade or two ahead of me. He asks:
Are you a nigger lover?
He does not wonder because my parents
are activists (how could he know?),
or because my older sister domestically
thumps cantaloupe at Kroger's in public
company of a black man. I have no older
sister to push ahead. The case is much simpler.
This boy, who seems just shy of man-
hood (awkward cigarette between his lips,
the milky shadow of a mustache),
knows my white face is the only white face,
the only face framed by straight hair and
in a regular after-school carpool. And when
he dares me with who I love, I am standing
on a sidewalk in front of Chilhowie Elementary,
unsure what to say, and terrified my ride
will arrive before I've escaped the answer.
It isn't the word nigger that raked
in my chest,
but lover. Lover, I realized
must be touching
another's naked body; "lover" was reserved
a taboo in the curious world of my childhood.
But on spring afternoons whetted with the
scent of cut grass, and after the day's
I sometimes visited my neighbor Mary.
shutting ourselves in the gentle dim of
we undressed and lay together close. Quietly
played at love, each coaxing the other's
flesh into wakefulness with mouth and tongue,
like babies who learn first the world by
Her flat nipples shone like ebony nickels,
a bodied currency, freshly minted desire,
We traded childhood for something we did
know how to speak or value, and thrilled
in our half-found, half-concealed provinces,
fearing only parents discovering-- the punishment
we knew would attend such adventures.
So when that boy's voice broke over me,
Are you a nigger lover? I heard not
but an affronted adult, the glaring eyes
widening at a privacy suddenly gone public,
and the word lover hovering there,
naming what I was.