This poem previously appeared in Chelsea.

— Ed.

 

I.
God gives a teenager nakedness 
​so he’ll have something to believe in, the curve
of a girl’s breast or the religious
straightness of her upper back.
No one in school suspects
how, all day, this kid has been taking pictures
in his head, snapshots: the shock
of bristling fur along a boy’s bare back,
every unfolding complication
of a girl walking, the soft assertion
of her pubis. He doesn’t permit his eyes
to feast. They hide and board
for later — like a camera. Clear prints are
developed only afterward, no ordinary
disorder of light now, but light
polarized, pored over,
as close as a fifteen-year-old gets to worship.
Shadows on a woman’s stomach, streaks of sun
in a boy’s hair — he knows the text,
its subtleties, its fine distinctions.

II.
Once you discover an island,
how can you keep from returning to it?
Dunes you sink your arms into
till your body feels as soft
and deep as they are.
Skies you watch until you are gazing up
into the dark inside your mind,
and inside your mind are stars, too.
And breezes that have traveled across a sea
to minister just to you,
to remind you
the world is not as unforgiving as you had thought.
Only you know how to find the island.
Once again you are shipwrecked,
and a girl is kneeling over you,
or a boy is kissing your brow.
The boy’s hair is streaked with light.
The girl’s arms, surprisingly powerful,
pull you to her,
rock you against her breast.

III.
Too much made of too little?
Of course. That’s part of the delight
to sex. The penis’s pride —
all at once,
triple its original size.
Gazed at, how can it not leap up
like a kid in class
rising in his seat, waving, eager to be called on?
In the morning, caressed,
do other men react as I do,
with shy astonishment?
As if, lost for days,
they’ve only now been found and can’t believe
anyone would search
so patiently
for them? Sex.
As a young boy I couldn’t imagine
doing it, let alone
anyone having it done to her or to him.
And now my wife lifts herself on top of me
and, as she rocks, strokes my neck
as if being gentle not just with me
but with the world,
cradling my head
and then pushing down harder.
So much joy.
How can I not turn away from it, trembling?
How can I not long for it,
not lean toward it,
each day, each ordinary day?

IV.
You can’t be a male and not have heard
other males brag
of their conquests. And so many men
                                            who do
have bodies about as lovable
as a refrigerator. Some look
like vacuum cleaners,
some like gooseneck lamps. What artistry
is in their hands?
                                          I trip in the dark,
stub my toe. Still shy after thirty years
of marriage, I need someone
who will put up with me
moping around the house day in and day out,
fretting about my failed ambitions,
our children’s future; someone
who, even after seeing me hop naked in front of her,
holding my injured foot,
                                      will still want to
              make love.
How does a man manage to fuck
someone he hardly knows? The penis
pushing in again
and again, an instrument attached
to a larger machine
whose controls no one really understands,
an act I still find impossible
to comprehend. It means
touching a person,
and touching a person I can do
only after long practice.

V.
A man pulls off the road to watch boys play basketball
for the same reason
he can’t keep his eyes off water
moving — it’s the fastbreaks:
a kid, sinewy as a wave, slipping loose
from the rest of the pack;
water hurtling itself ahead,
flinging itself free
of entanglements, giving itself over
utterly to the air.
The boy glides upward
in an arc of his own making, his shot
almost an excuse now
for rising into the sky, the ball
balanced on his fingertips
as if he were carrying something he knew
he must give up. He offers it to the air
as if he were leaving the earth,
as if he had no plans ever to return.

VI.
Do we think they will add up,
all our glances, our yearning? That we will look
and look and finally
be as beautiful as the young woman on the balcony
or the youth we notice
sitting on a ledge
staring out at the ocean?
Seeing the slant of his shoulders, the slope of the rocks
he’s nestled in, how can a person not want
to trace each curve,
as someone in a museum, against all prohibition,
is tempted to slide his hand over a sculpture,
as if by stroking its lines
he might be included in its beauty?
Yes, I am greedy:
I want to tell you of all I yearn for
and to yearn for it still,
as if each longing were a kind of casting off,
a weighing of the anchor,
a voyage that put our lives at peril,
and the true heroism were to return from it,
to come back from the adulterous seas,
and to tell what could be told.
I am so greedy, I want to be free
to imagine everything, and to believe that
you could still welcome me back,
knowing I had imagined it.
That I could still walk on the beach with you,
visit a museum, go to a movie,
take your hand, be led to the marriage bed,
as if life could be simple, easy,
at least with you,
your touch: the gentleness
that weds me to the world.