If you are lucky in this life, you will get to help your enemy the way I got to help my mother when she was weakened past the point of saying no. Into the big enamel tub half-filled with water which I had made just right, I lowered the childish skeleton she had become. Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed her belly and her chest, the sorry ruin of her flanks and the frayed gray cloud between her legs. Some nights, sitting by her bed book open in my lap while I listened to the air move thickly in and out of her dark lungs, my mind filled up with praise as lush as music, amazed at the symmetry and luck that would offer me the chance to pay my heavy debt of punishment and love with love and punishment. And once I held her dripping wet in the uncomfortable air between the wheelchair and the tub, until she begged me like a child to stop, an act of cruelty which we both understood was the ancient irresistible rejoicing of power over weakness. If you are lucky in this life, you will get to raise the spoon of pristine, frosty ice cream to the trusting creature mouth of your old enemy because the tastebuds at least are not broken because there is a bond between you and sweet is sweet in any language.
Copyright 1998 by Tony Hoagland. Used from Donkey Gospel with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org
There are people who do not see a broken playground swing as a symbol of ruined childhood and there are people who don't interpret the behavior of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process. There are people who don't walk past an empty swimming pool and think about past pleasures unrecoverable and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians. I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings do not send their sinuous feeder roots deep into the potting soil of others' emotional lives as if they were greedy six-year-olds sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw; and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality. Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon? There are some people, unlike me and you, who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as unattainable as that moon; thus, they do not later have to waste more time defaming the object of their former ardor. Or consequently run and crucify themselves in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha. I have news for you— there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room and open a window to let the sweet breeze in and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.
From Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. Copyright © 2010 by Tony Hoagland. Used with permission of Graywolf Press.
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam's twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man's legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who'll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can't bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can't count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother's,
it will always whisper, you can't have it all,
but there is this.
From Bite Every Sorrow by Barbara Ras, published by Louisiana State University Press, 1998. Copyright © 1997 by Barbara Ras. All rights reserved. Used with permission.