Here where we, the blooded, are the ghosts
flitting like luna moths around these needled trees,
Restless even when we rest, slow learners,
yearning flesh. Yet here apprenticed
to these hunchbacked trees alive when Buddha
was on earth, who sat upon the ground
beneath his own green branching crown
and heard the voice no human ears can hear
slow forming words, one in a hundred years—
and there broke through to wordlessness itself.
As I sit now back propped against the base,
where root meets trunk and trunk uplifts to space
as slow of sap and sentience as they, which seers
on Turtle Island called The Standing Ones that Pray.
A young man steps out of a minivan
into the bone-bright dust of some forgotten history.
A mud-clad citadel Alexander might have built
hovering through scarves of winter sunlight
at the edge of Dasht e Margo, the Desert of Death.
He plunges through the cook-fire haze
past clanging coppersmiths, potters wetting wheels,
reeking tanning vats, blushing mounds of dyes and spices,
vials of attar of jasmine and rose. He might as well
be a ghost, rifle-toting tribals waft past him
arm in arm, flocks of the veiled and the half-veiled,
ungiggling children clutching slates.
None look up, but one crone squatting by the road.
She beckons, smears his arm with apricot oil,
then returns to grinding kernels.
Today that oil glistens like a newsreel in a dream.
The town, long since crushed in the fangs of war.
Nothing but the rubble of memory.
Yet he sleepwalks again to the edge of it
past black goatskin tents, a pot-marked, lonesome
boneyard to a blue-domed shrine, where an old man
kneels. A graybeard in the honey-light at dusk
chanting the suras of paradise to the winds.
I called you after you died to hear again your ducky voice
on the answering machine. For weeks you continued:
“This is Will at Bathrooms Restored, please leave a message
after the beep.” But I never did. What was there to say?
Even before-- what was there to say? You used to call
first thing in the morning, “Hey Richard, it’s Will,”
and I’d say, “Hey Will, what’s up?” We’d chew the bull, maybe
plan to meet that evening. “Will, there’s a concert tonight,
I can get free tickets.” And you would trudge over wasted
after a day of laying tiles, then nod off during the Beethoven.
Who else could sleep through the “Ode to Joy”?
Later we’d go to an all-night cafe and you would yatter
about your nonexistent love life, and I would tell you mine.
Guy talk, unrepeatable mostly. And then, go figure,
you were dying, and I sat there with the gaunt shell of you
too stunned to speak, and you too sick to speak
(although we both knew that there was nothing left to say.)
I could only hold you, but that didn’t feel right either:
two awkward and dry-eyed male animals clutching.
Give me a break! Later, of course, the tears did come,
for me at least, when you moved upstate. I’m guessing
that you had already gone beyond the veil where tears
make sense. On my last visit, your eyes, not exactly vacant,
but impenetrable wells, so purged of wanting
and of needing that they were no longer entirely human.
Was this the enlightenment that we both pursued to India
and beyond? Or maybe just pain, which also clears the deck
magnificently. Or death. That will do it too. I’d like to ask.
But it has been years since your answering machine
stopped answering. And talk was never your thing,
Will, nor mine, when I was with you. We understood
each other without it in those days before male bonding,
when no one said the word “love,” or needed to.
All poems copyright © Richard Schiffman 2017