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Mumbling Over Rosary Beads

                                    Tony Morris


     What’s the stuff of poems?
                         ~question from a poetry workshop

And I remember Heléna, her dark hair
across my face, her breath heavy and moist
on my neck, whispering querido mi querido as I traced
     the scar running up her thigh where the Salvadoran soldier

tried to make sure she would never
have a child, and wonder why she lay with me each night,
quiet in that humid Latin American country and sang,
     her voice a thin wire plucked by angels in black masks,

so I answer: It’s far down at the cold root
of a thing: dreams, hunger, desire—
and my students say What about blackheads and warts
     and shit?
and I say

Sure, I guess, but I just can’t seem to forget
somewhere in the back of my mind, back when
everything wasn’t so clear, I had some idea
     that poetry could somehow

sniff out, unerring as a blue-tick
hound, some nugget of truth
that might explain the confused smallness
     of our lives, something

beyond shit and warts and blackheads—
and then a vision of Christ’s blood-veined
stare racks my brain and I laugh, because right
     between his eyes, smack-dab in-between,

is a huge, dark, hairy wart, brown
like the shit-covered grass on the hills of Calvary,
and a soldier is using a crimson-tipped spear
     to prick a boil that seeps

milk-white, and slow like honey, down
the royal blue robe while the putrid
smell, moldy-soft and velvet, wafts up
     to the Christ, and his sorrowful eyes strain

upward for relief, redemption, mercy,
when he notices the wart between his eyes,
and a tear forms at the lip of his lid as he realizes why
     the people shunned his words

of forgiveness, of turn the other cheek, of reap
what ye sow, and laughed instead, and he, now gazing
beyond that wart, sees God smiling down from above, all giggles
     and chortles, grinning and pointing that long,

damnèd finger right between his eyes—
and I flash to my first pair of eye-glasses
and how Fat Anthony (his own black horn-rimmed
     spectacles taped at the bridge)

pointed and laughed when I claimed
my lenses were unbreakable and to prove it placed
them on the floor and leaned all my pride into the heel
     of those black brogans

and onto that convex glass sending
splintered shards of transparency skittering
across the schoolroom floor—and sending me home
     to wait for my father,

so I can try to explain to him why
he needs to go out and buy another pair
of glasses on his twelve-thousand-dollar-a-year salary:
     why I’m so stupid, gullible, too arrogant to back down

from anything, of which he reminds me, thirty years later
when I’m forty and he’s sixty-four and he tells me
I need to grow up, that leaving my wife is nothing
     but selfish, childish ways,

like he would know, because he does after
forty-eight years and a cancer-stricken wife, and I remember
his hand, hard against my mouth when I’m fifteen,
     and my mother cries,

even though his callused palm is less
callused and stinging than her words, sharp
barbs that jab and hook and dart about our heads—
     and he knows it, and I know it, but we both let it go on

like some Southern Baptist Gothic ritual
we can’t let go of—and now I’m standing over
the old man who sits glaring up at me and I know he knows
     what I may never know—what it takes to be

the kind of man he is: and I realize that maybe
I never wanted to be that kind of man anyhow, and
maybe he never wanted that either, that maybe the life of music,
     reading, and daydreams he’d lost

working at the factory were all he ever wanted
for me, not the warts and shit and blackheads he’d lived,
and maybe Jesus really isn’t so funny hanging on that blood
     smeared cross staring beyond

that warted forehead: a mark that scarred
every word he said with a taint of human imperfection—
and who would want a savior without warts anyhow,
     like Heléna, praying as if her constant low mumbles

over rosary beads could reach Mary in all her virginal
nobility and she would intervene and somehow make me
stay—but Heléna was lost because she couldn’t imagine
     Mary with a pimple on her immaculate ass,

and we all know, at one time or another, everyone gets
a pimple on their ass, and when you can’t imagine,
won’t allow, can’t even expose yourself to that possibility,
     then you’re lost—like when I came back to the states

and got a job working at the paper factory
in North Carolina, a job in which Phillip Levine,
I’m sure, would have found Romantic
     undertones and written finely wrought verses

on the sacrifice of body parts, like the end of my thumb
crushed by a twenty-gauge sheet metal plate, or my brother’s hand,
snatched by his wedding ring between two gears, pressed
     so flat that when I pushed the stop and turned

back the rollers, bracing his body against mine, fine
beams of florescent light broke through the tissue-thin
translucence of his fingers and caused me to stare,
     ashamed at my own curiosity,

which reminds me of Heléna’s scar,
and the soldier who must have seen the human
body as I now did, dead flesh, crushed bone,
     inanimate like the paper we threaded through machines

that stopped running two years later
when the banks foreclosed on the business loan
and I started to college looking for something
     besides warts and blackheads and shit.

So here I am, sitting in a writing workshop,
fifteen years later, staring out the window questioning
the worth of anything I have to say, write, tell of blackheads,
     warts, shit, and I notice

a tree limb framed in the sill,
orange sun balanced in the blue space between
an ash-parched branch and wind-spun
     leaves, green and rusty bronze,

and wonder why I always ask that damn question.


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