Author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both published by Story Line Press. Other poems in print and online journals. Adjunct professor creative writing George Washington University.
The Former Tenants
The town-house where the group home was
isn’t selling. Perhaps it’s the recession;
perhaps the barred windows, odd in this neighborhood.
Or an echo of screams in the walls.
Except that such effluvia don’t exist.
Paint cures what it covers; people live
dreamlessly where prisons were, and torture.
Which probably didn’t happen here.
The caregivers were mostly big and ponderous,
not patient so much as having
their disgust under control, accustomed to it.
They seemed, when outside, leading their charges
to the van for visits to specialists
or day-trips, like bison herding people.
Pale, nervous, stooped and hooting
people. People who stopped and cried
and had to be convinced to move.
A few, judged harmless and unlikely to be harmed,
ranged freely: the sunken-eyed and somehow
mouthless man who inched his way
to the corner. The youth
of forty who strode with an empty backpack,
shouting in whispers. The small
man-mountain. The earnestly,
shapelessly gabbling, crew-cut one,
visible only from certain
angles as a woman, who wanted to be friendly
but wanted above all a cigarette.
Gone now – mysteriously, but not really.
For years across the street I tried
to grasp what they saw, failed. Now only the bars
remain. And stained cheap walls
awaiting the revival of the market,
young upscale couples, children;
preserved meanwhile by a thin coat of pity.
The Master spoke with the headman
of the village. The headman said
he was honored, that his village was honored,
and bowed repeatedly. So the next time
somebody died (a laborer,
the next day), the body
was placed in a grave but the grave wasn’t filled,
and the Master’s most promising
acolyte came to sit
beside it. (While he was there, newer dead,
the usual children and seniors, received
the far side of the hill, and peasants
took other paths to the fields;
twice daily, the women brought him riceballs.)
In the sun
and stench, already severe,
he mentally set out
before himself the Five Hindrances –
sensuality, anger, sloth, worry, doubt –
which he resolved to fight. The corpse
lay oddly splayed
in its torn cloak. Already
it was black, fluids
soaking its rags. The young monk
dutifully thought, Such is my body;
so shall my body become.
Later, as birds overcame
their fear of him and began to peck, he recited
the same wisdom, and would again –
carefully distinguishing stages –
when the bones were contained only
by skin, and then when they were not.
Despite himself he anticipated
that point, because from the start
there were distractions. Why was the cloak torn?
How had the man (it was a man)
died? Plague? Conflict?
As the face stretched and changed,
the monk believed he saw
a scar reveal and advertise itself;
the mouth seemed both to grin and to cry out.
Sometimes he hated the corpse
and the flies that brought pieces of it to him.
He fought back by recalling
universal compassion, and that as death
was the cause and condition
of the corpse, so was the corpse the cause
and condition of the flies; but irrelevancies
returned: the cloak.
Its frayed, dissolving cloth.
As the bones appeared, they were those
of someone who had carried
heavy loads since childhood; the acolyte
remembered such bones. As the corpse,
whom he now often
the eighth stage of corruption, and he
the corresponding stage of meditation,
the headman reluctantly alerted
the Master. Who ordered the youth
back to the monastery, where
his career as a monk was not brilliant.
We didn’t know it was over
till we gathered as usual
in the office of Boris Borisovich
for political analysis
of the coming week’s production goals.
This ritual was no longer even
a joke – a blanker stretch of time
We liked Boris Borisovich,
that failed cake of a man,
because he no longer expected
anything from us
but politeness. But that Monday
work had apparently stopped
in the plant. A steam whistle wailed.
Boxes were being dollied
along our corridor, and some of our desks were gone.
“The State has detached itself,”
he said, “from the Party,
which must give up all property.
My future here is uncertain
and this is our last meeting.
Be seated.” His tone was as usual,
dull and perfunctory,
if anything calmer. “Our failure was assured
by the defeat of revolution in
the West, by habits of servility
and authority, and by the sheer weight
of the opposing system.
We shall be regarded as premature.
That is all.” In the corridor
an ill-made door had swung open,
and through it we could see
a well-dressed man
shoving a thick envelope across
a desk to our Director, Akaky Akakievich.
Some time later, to our surprise,
we gathered – those who remained –
at the graveside of Boris Borisovich.
It was late autumn, and the usual
ash of poems and people drifted down;
hardly noticeable, lost in the first snow.
He would have a simple stone,
not one of those extravagant crosses
that distinguish the capitalist dead.
She spread the towel, then her light cotton wrap
on the passenger seat, and sat, all windows
down, the playful landscape racing past.
Mildly yearned, once,
for a convertible. Salt water, sunblock, beer,
evaporating, were replaced
subtly by her. And once she begged
a cigarette, and once
pulled up her knees to check her painted toes.
Twenty miles south and inland,
a left exit led
to a kind of reconstituted town:
false fronts, a General Store,
the ancient grid with angled parking,
but everything was name brands and fresh colors,
pleasant against the brown of the Coastal Range.
She got out, draped her wrap
over her arm and shopped
in her thong –
remarking that the signs didn’t say
she couldn’t; that the original settlement
would have dragged her into an alley;
and that she was enjoying
the real experience of a fake place.
©2014 Frederick Pollack