Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Here’s a man whose legs below the knee curl into smoky
tendrils of flesh, who pedals his wheelchair bicycle
with his hands; and here you are, with your excess of limbs,
trying to fit yourself against the body
of your lover. The sweat which coats your skins in bed
is also the river destroying the road —
willful helpless froth churning the land to ruin
while giving suck to crops, unrolling lush green tapestries:
ravage and redemption in a single swell.
Here’s the problem of love, and its desolation;
here are the leper’s tiny scalloped
palms — all of her fingers are gone —
clasping together the coins you give her; and
here’s your lover, asleep now, with daylight
splashed over her cheekbones, spreading
to her forehead, stopped by tender hairs.
Sometimes it seems wrong to love one person
and not another — to love one instead of another —
though you tell yourself it is all you can do; more light,
beam polished like an apple, shines on her uncovered
shoulder; her arms are defenseless in sleep, like a swimmer
held still in the water; bare, nestled like just-born mammals;
her mouth slightly open, her breath slowly keeping beat.
As long as she sleeps your eyes wander
the kingdom of her; we are always beautiful
when we sleep, when what is hard or frightened in us —
they are the same thing — reverts to unconscious grace.
It is monsoon. It rains as if the world
were only rain. When it stops, the streets are raw and clean;
even the mud is clean; even the sky seems
exhausted and grateful, its grief turned into such a flood
you could strip off your clothes and bathe in it.
The road is disappearing; its stones are being pried loose,
hurtling downhill to land in other rivers;
later they will be gathered, chopped by hand,
lofted on women’s heads;
brought somewhere else, to do some other work.
After your fine meal, you package up the food;
in this country where people are hungry
in the streets, you say, it is wrong
to leave bread on the table —
your waiter smiles indulgently at this.
You carry the food out into the street,
you mean to eat it later; when the girl in dirty rags,
holding a baby in her arms,
approaches you, points to the food, and then
her mouth, her stomach, then her baby’s mouth,
you say No. Walk faster, make your body rigid,
slide your eyes away.
(In your heart there’s an old leper
whose fingers are gone, who holds up stumpy
lumps of palm, whose pain is visible;
in your heart there’s one who sometimes
gives to her — though never too much.)
Passing at night by rickshaw through the old city,
where men sleep in their splintered carts,
you see one, wearing only underpants,
splashing his body — each perfect limb —
in a common fountain. It isn’t a lie to say he glistens
with muscle and promise, with not-yet-vanquished
possibility. No lie to say love still might save you,
if anything can; nor to say you will turn away
often; you will falter, fail. The rain will fall. The roads will vanish,
stone by stone. Your heart will flood. Somewhere a field will grow.
Ruth L. Schwartz