The Temple

As fire is covered by smoke, as a mirror is covered by dust,
or as the embryo is covered by the womb,
the living entity is similarly covered by different degrees of lust.

Bhagavad Gita (3:38)

i. Scissors: Rock

Night fragments into so many stories over India that I have to see
If you still sit beside me in the bicycle rickshaw, looking at all
The spires and minarets of places we wouldn’t sleep that night,
At strings of lights from wedding festivals, at puddles shimmering
In roads of dust and ashes fallen from pyres burnt beside the river.
And the dark sway of an elephant musks the night with a burden of scent
That might be camel or horse or oxen in another country.

But these are only comparisons, drawn beneath the same stars—Pleiades, Pollux,
Deneb—under the same stone moon which, earlier, crushed its manganese light
Through the stench of Calgary slaugherthouses and humid Dallas smog.
So none of this is new, and the shadow of the elephant has passed by anyway,
And I may have just confused its odor with the drying pats of cowdung
Mixed with straw, the cooking fuel that lines the mud walls
Running beside the tracks through Benares, back toward Calcutta.

So I have nothing to say, and can only point, an inarticulate guide, weary
By day’s end, at more minarets and spires drawn beneath a moon I recognize
Vaguely, and can even name, moon, with the stone my tongue has suddenly become,
And I can’t name the hotel I’ve read of in the guide, so the driver pedals us to anyplace
Modern and dark, looming tall and windowed awkwardly in this dim light,
Where we surrender, beneath a slow fan wobbling above, to the exhaustions of travel,
To a quick conversion from dollars to rupees, to a sudden diffidence
With words, with bodies, this burden of so many stars.

ii. Scissors: Scissors

In the morning a gecko does push-ups for flies against the mirror before the sun
Comes up, and greets us with a pair of nods. I am pleased to say morning
And gecko, but you still sleep, and the lizards find their opposite ways down the glass
Until one disappears into the carpet’s weave of animals hidden in leaves and vines,
And the other just disappears.

I push you awake so we’ll be in time for the Ganges tour,
So we’ll be in time to say our names against the horrors or the beauties
Friends might ask about when we get home. We’ve kept a log
Smudged with penciled words and drawings, so when we visited
Other countries for the first time, we would try other words for beauty—
Bellissima at Roman fountains and portraits in museums,
Or Wundersam, or magnifique. But in India we kept beauty
And satisfied ourselves by placing oppressive before it, a talisman
Against the heat, against the eyes of those who stared
While carrying their burdens of the dead to the river’s ghats.

So when we step into the wobbly boat, we are not prepared to witness the river
And its bloated eye of sun rising over distant cut-out fronds of jungle palms,
Rising above sandstone temples and mosques gathered beside the river,
Which shines beneath the black boats plying a slow current laced with ash
And cries of bathers massed on shore, waiting to cleanse themselves
In the pure river of the dead and living, and all the while, smoke spires rise
From the bank, and we are silent.

When we leave, I can’t put any of these visions in the small, brass vase
I bargained down to twenty rupees as we ride the tour bus to the next stop,
The Monkey Temple. Your reflection wavers, distorted on the urn
Against the curving curtain of trees on the horizon, or maybe
It is confused or angry at the face behind you trying to peer
Into the space between the nape of your neck and the shirt you’ve loosened
Against the heat, against the oppressive beauty of four thousand years,
Of so much distance, so many souls rising into fire-thickened sky.

iii. Scissors: Paper

As we walk to the Monkey Temple, we check our cameras
While the guide speaks rapidly about Krishna and the monkeys,
About the uncleanness of our shoes, so we all take off our shoes
Before we climb the steps to look for rhesus monkeys,
Spires, golden statues, and paintings both like and unlike many
We have seen elsewhere, and which, after all, we are paying to see.

So when I take a picture on the stairs, I call you down to look
At a monkey holding her dead baby like a doll, and she screams
At me because I might take her baby instead of this picture
Of her hysterical madness, of her rag of a child smiling stone teeth for me
After so many months in the humid, jungle air.

And there is so little left for me to take, I wonder if it is the heat that makes her
Stop and try to nurse what becomes a lighter burden in her arms,
Nurturing what only becomes truly dead, and held tightly against all
Catastrophe this temple excuses to the light. She holds on
Even against the heat, even against her child’s tightening smile.

iv. Rock: Paper

If we had seen the woman shopping at a Texas grocer’s,
Picking out casaba or tomato, thumbing a rind, scoring skin
With a nail for something firm and ripe and living inside,
We wouldn’t have noticed that she had carried something dead
Inside her, until it turned into a kind of stone.

Later she might stare through the coffee shop window,
And the rain would wash the curb with gasoline iridescence,
And the letters would turn their backs on anyone
Who might come inside to see what all the fuss was about—free refills.

She would wonder at her childlessness and remember children in tight rows
That failed to contain their nervous laughter when she taught them, in Health,
Names like epididymus, fallopian tube, vas deferens, or even Mons Veneris
The mountain of love—spoken in perfect Latin to the lucky girls
Whose parents signed goldenrod slips, because they didn’t think
That the body, fossilized in dead languages, could be resurrected
By the archaeology of fingers pressing for something living inside.

The coffee by now would be tepid, and her husband—who’d finally consented
To a test and was fertile, who remains so in the grassy joke each grave becomes,
And at whom even then she would smile, remembering,
Because he never blamed her and nights would kiss her low on the belly,
As though having a child was still possible into their sixties.
He would have laughed at the irony of such a monument to fatherhood,
Blamed it on his rock-hard manhood to friends, until he’d get to the part
Where it was a little girl, and he wouldn’t stop until he had named her,
In the small fiction she makes up while gazing into the stainless steel instruments.

When she removes her surgical gown in the small waiting room so she can dress,
She can’t decide whether Tuesday or Wednesday would be better
To give birth to her fossil child, because she won’t be able to eat the night before,
Or because death has had such a long gestation inside of her,
She’s reluctant to give it up despite the pain.

v. Paper: Paper

Because neither my wife nor I can decide whether my daughter was conceived
In the Hong Kong Ritz by the shadowed blue of the BBC talk show,
Or in our San Francisco apartment among the unsteady moments between bank account
and employment
While lights outside quaked from cars and voices too full of the city—
Because any conception loses its memory of origin, only to fall
Back on the sciences of ultrasound to trace a sequence invented after the fact—

Because of this, my daughter is upstairs right now at the writing desk you gave her, Larry,
And she is pressing the bones of her hand to pen a story of her life
Without having to lie, and she is succeeding, I fear, to weave something
I will never understand, something that can’t be threaded back to me or traced
To any stone that I might leave behind for her to hold
Against the loss of my soul, or whatever eddies up from dust or fire or water
Or from her simple act of breathing as she concentrates on the next, perfect word.

vi. Rock: Rock

On the outskirts of Calcutta, I pass a man dead or dying on the hot dust
Of a wide and empty street, and I do not know whether to shoo the flies
From his open sores, or to add to the coins which have blossomed around his body.
I do not know the fare for such a journey, so I go on, buy a chance
Against doubt with the flower-shaped paisa coin I toss to buy his fire.

I have erased, so many times from this poem, the word soul
Because soul is what is lost in these transactions between fire and sky,
Lost to photos taken of smoke, lost in all that memory loses,
So that soul becomes what I’ve invented to explain all that I’ve lost,
And because of all that I keep losing, I’ve discovered my soul is inexhaustible.

Eddies of ash lighten the currents swirling in the wide, sun-streaked river every
And thin reeds of smoke from funeral pyres write nothing on the rising humid air—
And all these rivers that we stand beside, these fires that we burn—
They aren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything.


.     .     .     .     .     .

©M. L. Williams