for Robert Heyob

This is to thank you.
Not you but the boy
Marine whose nose was cracked
by a sadistic officer, summer of ’68 —
with a rifle-butt across the face.
Penalty for moving the eyes,
trying to see more
than the raw shaved neck of the recruit
in front. Of the recruit. In front. Of.
This is for the boy you were,
called Scum, Animal, forced to bark back
“Yes, sir!” Who resisted
just enough to survive
and drive a cab for 12 years through gray backstreets,
ferrying tourists, whores, and junkies.
Bless the stubbornness of your frustrated hands
who held on, knowing they could do more
than cock a gun, grip a steering wheel, or stuff
dirty dollar bills in a back pocket.

When I met you I saw the lined
monk’s face, the thin ponytail,
arms drooping like banana leaves beneath
sloped shoulders. Your deceptive
mildness that made jokes
instead of promises. The makeshift
massage table set up in a friend’s basement.
Did not guess
                                   the power,
what was in your hands. You held our wrists
like flowers by the stem. Listened. Did not know.

Nobody knew
what to do and
we were desperate. Alan pale
puffy and weak as pastry dough,
lay down under your hands,
accepted without faith the strange needles,
drank the bitter herbs you gave him.
I sat and watched
you work on him, your face still as stone water.
Only the eyes dowsed, searching
for the place to tap, the place to touch.
I saw a man hover
over another man’s body, not to kill
or take, but knead, stretch and pull
health from swollen joints.
Watched you press then cradle his leg
affectionately. “You’ve got legs
like goddamn tree trunks!” How you
laid it back down
with the care of a mother.
Over the months we came to trust
a healing we couldn’t understand

yet. Followed you into T’ai Chi,
your hands weaving baskets of air.
Carry the invisible ball
of energy, life-force, cradle it as if the earth
itself were between your breast
and hip, with great care,
great love, great
Great craft, a boy from Ohio
who moved like a block of wood
you told us, laughing.
How you had to persist three years
in this old slow excruciating dance,
had to study bears’ lumbering shuffle,
before warmth buzzed in your hands and made honey there.

Where is healing? Does it move
through our shimmering
moments like a snake
shedding its skin?
Or is it the stone
at the bottom of the pond we dive
and dive for, the stone we tossed ourselves
all those years ago?

This is to thank the boy who didn’t want to break
or be broken.
Who stood at attention
blood running down his face, insisting
he was whole.
Who could not then have dreamed
this, here, now, the herbs in neat rows
of spiky smelling jars, the people
in their bodies, each like music
locked mute in its ecstatic
violin. Thank you
for not knowing what
or how
but for being willing
to say yes
when this dreamed you,
there must be something
precious in what burns
between my hands.