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Tuesday, August 20, 2013


by Richard Jeffrey Newman

Image source: Postnoon

In Laurie Garrett’s book, The Coming Plague,
death is microscopic, indifferent,
hovering in a friend’s sneeze
or riding piggy-back
on the kiss of reassurance your husband gives you
before he leaves for work in the cotton mill
Joe McCormick later figures out
is where N’zara’s Ebola epidemic started—
a microbe no one in Sudan had seen before,
or anywhere else for that matter,
and so, in the makeshift hospital
that took your husband in the day he started bleeding,
how could they have known what they were facing?

And when nothing they did to treat you helped,
and you died a few days after they buried him,
and your family came to push and pull the waste from your bowels
and to make your corpse vomit
the food sitting undigested in its stomach,
how could they have known
that curled inside this cleansing
meant to send you as pure to your grave
as you were when you fell from your mother’s womb
a death waited to be born
that would cleanse the earth of them as well,
and of all who came to make sure their dead too
had left behind in this world
the last things they’d taken from it?

Or sometimes death is a darkness honing in on you,
a Muriel Degauque, whose Roman Catholic life began
in the coal-mining black-country corner of Belgium.
Handpicked, The New York Times suggests,
for the color of her skin
and the way the voice she spoke her language in
could pacify suspicion, Muriel
stepped off the edge of her days
on November 9, 2005 in Baquba Iraq,
a Muslim come to kill American soldiers,
choosing, though no one knows why—
after she exploded herself,
they found her passport and some papers
but no explanation—choosing
the world to come promised to its martyrs
by her new husband’s religion.

Now, sitting here by myself
in the garden’s south end,
the morning quiet more quiet than usual,
I’m remembering those bullets years ago
that you and Shahob fled,
even though they were fired
far from where you were shopping,
and the shooters were apprehended
before you reached the mall’s exit.
You told me the story that same night,
and after I closed my cell phone,
I went out to walk
beneath the lowest
full moon I’d ever seen,
across the tree-lined campus in Hamilton, NY
where I was writing poetry for the week,
down to the lake,
passing without thinking
close enough to the swan’s nest
my friend had found the day before
that the cob—I was surprised
he was awake—stood up and hissed at me.
He followed behind me a few quick steps,
though he probably thought of it as chasing,
and only when I was safely distant,
returned to his post,
confident his mate and soon-to-be cygnets
were, at least for the time being, safe.

“Stray bullets kill no differently than well-aimed ones,”
you’d said before we hung up,
and as I turned to watch that male bird
settle back down—
one eye, I’m sure, locked on me—
and I plotted a way back to my room
that would not disturb him,
I thought how no vigilance
would have been sufficient
if the force pushing one of those bullets
through the commerce-filled air
of middle class Long Island
had pushed it instead at an angle
precisely intersecting the path
you thought meant safety.

I did not then, as I do not now,
pray, and the gratitude I felt,
large enough though it was
to hold the moon now risen high
and all the endless stars
trying to fill infinity with light,
invoked no debt,
though sometimes
I wish it had.

Richard Jeffrey Newman writes about the impact of feminism on his life as a man and of classical Persian poetry on our lives as Americans. He has published four books, three of which are translations from classical Persian. The Teller of Tales (Junction Press 2011) is the most recent. The Silence of Men, a book of his own poetry, was published by CavanKerry Press in 2006. Newman is Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY. He also curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Queens. The poem published here is one part of a longer piece called Because Fear Now is Never Foreign to Me.