Poetry: Ned Balbo
“Nearing the end or not—I cannot say—
I’m grateful for the calm: ‘port in a storm,’
I might have said if traveling by sea,
and storms were forecast. Grateful for the breeze
I still can feel, new leaves under a sun
nearing its end or not (I cannot say),
that shade this cafe table I secured
by walking up without a reservation.
Maybe I’m famous here? A tired waiter—
rotund, genderless—rescues my water
from the kitchen’s limbo, while the square’s
scrubbed slate and stone abound with duplicates—
yes, hers, or his, cast in assorted roles:
garrulous bore, street-sweeper, walker of dogs,
phantasms of past or future who cannot stray,
uni-browed, gruff: alternatives, alter egos,
or harmless siblings? No one walks alone,
these dozen doubles prove, except myself.
And when I call to mind those I’ve cast off,
(not always honorably, it’s fair to say),
I feel the end’s near, whether I go or stay.”
“It’s not that I’m Victorian or prudish,
nor that seeing him provokes some longing
for a naturist’s lifestyle, long denied.
I know that nakedness is everywhere–
beyond all lust or gymnophobic fear,
plowed furrows, beasts, bald heads, and more, possess
that beauty which true nudity requires,
unknown to those Victorian or prudish.
That’s why his body haunts me. Flawed, un-furred,
paunchy, ordinary, it’s not one
I’d match to brief encounters on the path
to grocery stores and back: short errands fraught
with dangers underfoot, and worse waist-high–
thorn bushes, sharp sticks, hive-swarms, sudden clamor
of their industry, vaguely Victorian
in their tireless labor. Worse, his gaze
(placid, lobotomized) proves he’s sleepwalking,
neither prudish nor Victorian
but tireless, too, unclad, his last great quest
reduced to one blue bag. Do I look naked,
too, like him?—victory-obsessed, or foolish?”
A kingdom not exactly peaceable
is where you find yourself, footsore and sweaty
on the sand, sock off, curious locals
turning out to greet you: snakes again,
striped this time, writhing toward unseen oases,
kingdoms not exactly peaceable;
a vulture fixed on flesh, where flesh is weak;
horned lizard, spiked and sea-green; two wild boars,
one having left his offering of turds.
You’re thirsty, wrung dry by this arid realm—
A kingdom not exactly peaceable
is putting it politely. Black wings flap:
gourmands of carrion whose scaled talons
clasp green cacti, patient, fascinated
by you, Marco Polo, who dares brave
a wilderness all but impassable,
oblivious to all except the blister.
Pilgrim or exile, look up: in the caudex
of green flesh, spine-drenched and succulent,
water persists, unseen, yours for the taking—
Rise and seek. Nothing’s impossible.
Another porter soon to quit
“He calls his monkey ‘Adam.’ I’m his slave.
His treasures travel boxed up in the hand-cart
that I push or pull, as roads require
or stairs persuade. I hold my brother’s leash,
his thirst for stealing quenched, his eyes dismayed:
Adam the monkey, cheerless as a slave.
What does he see in my eyes, when he looks?
A servant desperate for reflected glory
from an expedition newly joined?
Brother, you see too clearly….There’s more haggling,
‘Madam, that’s too much money. I could save
a bundle in Kobiam’—the usual stuff
she hears from tourists, know-it-alls, and cheapskates
who pass briefly through her lean-to’s shade.
Can’t he just buy and go? I see her face—
tired of money and men, the stone macadam,
the rainforest’s penury…. I tug the leash,
just to make Adam jump: he squeals and lunges,
then retreats…. The Great Man shoots a look—
murderous rage—my way. Whom does he hate
the most right now? I will not be his slave.”
“A restaurant lurks beneath the catacombs
where diners wait for service in my dream.
A dream it must be: alcoves stuffed with bones
stare, hollowed-out, from cave-walls; pigeons quake
along the floor for stray crumbs, undeterred.
A restaurant lurks beneath the catacombs.
Beyond the cave-mouth, walls—carelessly plastered,
sun- and lantern-lit—betray a window
where one lamb looks down and almost smiles.
Daylight meets grotto-dusk; a waiter walks
from fire and kitchen down to catacombs,
the human foot that occupies his plate
ungarnished. I don’t want to meet the chef,
whoever he is, although I pay him praise—
Nice job! Murder will out!—whatever works
to please or placate one whose catacombs,
here in the earth’s bowels, fill our stomachs up.
The specials are a late lunch and Communion.
The cigarettes stubbed out on ancient stone,
as if life, too, were stubbed out, lie unswept.
Who’ll feed me, take me from these catacombs?”
“I’m too fastidious, even in dreams
where, finally, I could kick back, take a break,
and let things slide, let others take the heat.
Instead, I breathe the damp air of the caves,
bones mildewed in this underground cafe,
and wipe my glass, fastidious in dreams.
I have to lay a clean cloth on my seat,
sweep off the dirt, unknown contaminants,
small candle spilling wax, burning away,
while earth-bound pigeons look up quizzically.
It’s tedious, each night. I waste my dreams
on trivia when I could order steak—
cooked flesh of some kind, burgundy like blood—
consume my fill, and have a woman, too.
Instead, I’m here, trapped in the crypt-cafe
where cavern-walls hold bones for nightmares, dreams
from which no one returns. Even the sign
that hangs nearby—black slate with arm and leg
unsullied by words—is testament to Death.
No one escapes, clean glass or dirty plate,
and my turn’s next….Oh, wake me from this dream.”
“Somebody upstairs plays Exquisite Corpse
to while away the hours. By now, it’s late.
The door is barred. Nobody gets to leave
until somebody upstairs says it’s time.
It isn’t time. A new page, folded over,
makes the rounds; one more exquisite corpse
emerges from the careful strokes of guests—
the careless strokes, the angry strokes—until,
unfolded, each unwitting author’s part
in augmenting the image joins at last,
collaborators in Exquisite Corpse
amused and horrified. Downstairs, I wait,
thinking of bodies blessed, one more lost guest
who hopes the bread arrives before the meat,
the meat before the bill. I know I’ll make
somebody sometime an exquisite corpse,
as those abandoned in these reliquaries
carelessly maintained once did as well.
Who struck their flesh from bones, mismatched remains?
Whose every pen-stroke left them monstrous, changed,
with every new round of Exquisite Corpse?”
“I wake afraid—who doesn’t?—but the light
brings back the world: outside, my porter smokes,
boys mark the road in chalk, carts rattle past,
and vendors ring their bells. A woman sings,
somewhere, and I think only of my mother
singing me to sleep one night at twilight—
twilight: the time of two lights, when we rise,
asleep, awake, our bodies visible
yet out of reach, our souls’ eyes opened wide.
A child’s fears, the body’s appetites
forgotten, I can almost touch the light
and grasp it in my hand, moth-dust that glitters
as it falls like stars. My mother’s singing
carries me, as she did, falling silent
when she lays me down, in dusk, to sleep.
Today, I wake and find myself in light,
all that the dream encrypts already fading—
Death, the time of two lights; at my feet,
degraded doves, stone-gray, treading the tombs
from which, awake, I free them, and myself,
forgiven, not forsaken, by the light.”