This poem is from Fairchild’s new book, An Ordinary Life, which just came out. It’s full of wonderful poetry.
Often the Dying Ask for a Map
So when Locie, embraced by the great softness
of bed #12, her late blizzard of silver hair
fanning out beneath head and shoulders, asked
for one in plaintive, almost desperate tones,
I went out to my car and brought back my old,
frayed road map of Kansas, and she followed
the unfolding as if it in itself were a miracle,
and then held it over her head, scanning
the red interstates and blue country roads
without apparent method or intent but
smiling her morphined grand smile of awe
and wonder within an air of childhood
surprise and overwhelming acceptance.
Because here it was—the way there, or here,
or out or over or in, and here, sweetie,
let me hold it for you, let me hold…and
her trembling index finger knows no certain
path but wanders through the Flint Hills toward
Cottonwood Falls, then darts up toward
Osawatomie, and she can smell the new wheat,
its dark green deep as the jade of the necklace
her husband brought home from the war
in the Pacific. And now as she crosses
the Kaw River, she sees a young woman
standing beneath the moon in a wheatfield
in Kansas and wondering, what will I be?
Who will I marry? Where will we live?
Will I have children? And if, at the end,
I am lost, how will I find my way home?
This poem reminds me how poems can arise from any experience. I especially love the references to Keats and how the poem contains so much.
Today at the college library the students check out arms
and legs—towering models of muscles and veins
perched on a stand like a hat rack. The exam
just two weeks before Cadaver Day, when they will arrive
pale-faced and woozy in my lit class. I will read them
Keats and they will think of the vastus medialis
and the rectus femoris, and how they looked not strong
and red as on the model but brown and shriveled,
spoiled like old meat. They will think of the sound of their
blade slicing into a corpse’s leg, of the tibial nerve running
long and taut like a highway straight down to the ankle,
of the precarity of their bodies made only of body.
I will tell them that Keats trained as a surgeon before
donating his body to poetry, how he died just a few years
older than them. But their mind will stay lost in the length
of the leg on the table: how the toes wriggled with a tug
on the ribboned tendons, how the toes had nails, how
the nails once grew, how an old woman with a name
once bent to trim them over a toilet bowl. And now
after all to feel so temporary, to hear finally the words
within the words uttered sacred by the preacher,
the teacher, the nurse. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty,
but a body on a table is made of parts with names
that must be known as certainly as Adam knew the names
of the animals, or at least as I know my own—name of
the body I live in, a body I’ve long thought of offering,
so I can teach again in death. But that is not for today.
Today is for hopeful plastic models that snap together
like toys. Today they color the arteries red and the veins blue,
dreaming of their scrubs and their stethoscopes,
strangers to Keats and the plague they’ll soon grapple.
Today the answer is not: Someone once kissed this spot, so tender
behind the knee, but, Gracilis, plantaris, extensor hallucis longus.
first published in The Southern Review
I love the mysteriousness of this poem, the juxtapositions, the quiet ominousness, and the way it moves the way the mind moves. So lucky that translation brings this poem to us.
The thread of the story fell to the ground, so I went down on my hands and knees to hunt for it. This was at one of those patriotic celebrations, and all I saw were imported shoes and jackboots.
. Once, on the train, an Afghan woman who had never seen Afghanistan said to me, “Triumph is possible.” Is that a prophecy? I wanted to ask. But my Persian was straight from a beginner’s textbook and she looked, while listening to me, as though she were picking through a wardrobe whose owner had died in a fire.
. Let’s assume the people arrived en masse at the square. Let’s assume the people is not a dirty word and that we know the meaning of the phrase en masse. Then how did all these police dogs get here? Who fitted them with parti-colored masks? More important, where is the line between flags and lingerie, anthems and anathemas, God and his creations—the ones who pay taxes and walk on earth?
. Celebration. As if I’d never said the word before. As if it came from a Greek lexicon in which the victorious Spartans march home with Persian blood still wet on their spears and shields.
. Perhaps there was no train, no prophecy, no Afghan woman sitting across from me for two hours. At times, for his own amusement, God leads our memories astray. What I can say is that from down here, among the shoes and jackboots, I’ll never know for certain who triumphed over whom.
by Iman Mersal, translated by Robyn Creswell
First published in The Paris Review, issue 197, Summer 2011
Thanks to Sean Singer, I often get introduced to poets whose work I don’t know. Nick Flynn is one, and I thought I’d share this poem, Sudden, that I first saw from Sean’s post. I love how it sketches the shock of death so clearly with so little.
Nick Flynn, from Some Ether