Enlightenment

Vijay Seshadri - 1954-
“It’s all empty, empty,” 
he said to himself.
“The sex and drugs. The violence, especially.”
So he went down into the world to exercise his virtue,

thinking maybe that would help.
He taught a little kid to build a kite.
He found a cure, 
and then he found a cure 

for his cure.
He gave a woman at the mercy of the weather 
his umbrella, even though 
icy rain fell and he had pneumonia.
He settled a revolution in Spain.

Nothing worked.
The world happens, the world changes,
the world, it is written here, 
in the next line,
is only its own membrane—

and, oh yes, your compassionate nature,
your compassion for our kind.

More by Vijay Seshadri

Survivor

We hold it against you that you survived.
People better than you are dead,
but you still punch the clock.
Your body has wizened but has not bled

its substance out on the killing floor
or flatlined in intensive care
or vanished after school
or stepped off the ledge in despair.

Of all those you started with,
only you are still around;
only you have not been listed with 
the defeated and the drowned.

So how could you ever win our respect?--
you, who had the sense to duck,
you, with your strength almost intact
and all your good luck.

The Descent of Man

My failure to evolve has been causing me a lot of grief lately.
I can't walk on my knuckles through the acres of shattered glass in the streets.
I get lost in the arcades. My feet stink at the soirees.
The hills have been bulldozed from whence cameth my help.
The halfway houses where I met my kind dreaming of flickering lights in the woods 
are shuttered I don't know why. 
"Try," say the good people who bring me my food,
"to make your secret anguish your secret weapon. 
Otherwise, your immortality will be
an exhibit in a vitrine at the local museum, a picture in a book."
But I can't get the hang of it. The heavy instructions fall from my hands.
It takes so long for the human to become a human!
He affrights civilizations with his cry. At his approach,
the mountains retreat. A great wind crashes the garden party.
Manipulate singly neither his consummation nor his despair
but the two together like curettes
and peel back the pitch-black integuments 
to discover the penciled-in figure on the painted-over mural of time, 
sitting on the sketch of a boulder below
his aching sunrise, his moody, disappointed sunset.

Trailing Clouds of Glory

Even though I’m an immigrant,
the angel with the flaming sword seems fine with me.
He unhooks the velvet rope. He ushers me into the club.
Some activity in the mosh pit, a banquet here, a panhandler there,
a gray curtain drawn down over the infinitely curving lunette,
Jupiter in its crescent phase, huge,
a vista of a waterfall, with a rainbow in the spray,
a few desultory orgies, a billboard
of the snub-nosed electric car of the future—
the inside is exactly the same as the outside,
down to the m.c. in the yellow spats.
So why the angel with the flaming sword
bringing in the sheep and waving away the goats,
and the men with the binoculars,
elbows resting on the roll bars of jeeps,
peering into the desert? There is a border,
but it is not fixed, it wavers, it shimmies, it rises
and plunges into the unimaginable seventh dimension
before erupting in a field of Dakota corn. On the F train
to Manhattan yesterday, I sat across
from a family threesome Guatemalan by the look of them—
delicate and archaic and Mayan—
and obviously undocumented to the bone.
They didn’t seem anxious. The mother was
laughing and squabbling with the daughter
over a knockoff smart phone on which they were playing a
video game together. The boy, maybe three,
disdained their ruckus. I recognized the scowl on his face,
the retrospective, maskless rage of inception.
He looked just like my son when my son came out of his mother
after thirty hours of labor—the head squashed,
the lips swollen, the skin empurpled and hideous
with blood and afterbirth. Out of the inflamed tunnel
and into the cold room of harsh sounds.
He looked right at me with his bleared eyes.
He had a voice like Richard Burton’s.
He had an impressive command of the major English texts.
I will do such things, what they are yet I know not,
but they shall be the terrors of the earth, he said.
The child, he said, is father of the man.

Related Poems

Now That We Have Tasted Hope

Now that we have come out of hiding,
Why would we live again in the tombs we’d made out of our     souls?

And the sundered bodies that we’ve reassembled
With prayers and consolations,
What would their torn parts be, other than flesh?

Now that we have tasted hope
And dressed each other’s wounds with the legends of our
     oneness
Would we not prefer to close our mouths forever shut
On the wine that swilled inside them?

Having dreamed the same dream,
Having found the water behind a thousand mirages,
Why would we hide from the sun again
Or fear the night sky after we’ve reached the ends of
     darkness,
Live in death again after all the life our dead have given         us?

Listen to me Zow’ya, Beida, Ajdabya, Tobruk, Nalut,
Listen to me Derna, Musrata, Benghazi, Zintan,
Listen to me houses, alleys, courtyards, and streets that
     throng my veins,
Some day soon, in your freed light, in the shade of your
     proud trees,
Your excavated heroes will return to their thrones in your
     martyrs’ squares,
Lovers will hold each other’s hands.

I need not look far to imagine the nerves dying,
Rejecting the life that blood sends them.
I need not look deep into my past to seek a thousand         hopeless vistas.
But now that I have tasted hope
I have fallen into the embrace of my own rugged          innocence.

How long were my ancient days?
I no longer care to count.
I no longer care to measure.
How bitter was the bread of bitterness?
I no longer care to recall.

Now that we have tasted hope, this hard-earned crust,
We would sooner die than seek any other taste to life,
Any other way of being human.