I Fell in Love with All that Struggled in you Not to Drown
Inching the car today
past what Shahob called snorts
for his first eighteen months of words,
the rhythm circling in me,
a riff the composer in my head
lifted whole from the song on the radio—
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps”—
sent me back to Floral Park, the bird
Joey and I watched flap wounded to the ground,
and how Joey lied when the cops found his gun.
Then the beat changed, fast
triplets I drummed the wheel to,
conjuring you instead,
pen in hand, the desk lamp
casting your shadow
large against the wall behind you.
You whisper the lines to yourself as you write them,
believing this joy language brings
is all you’ll ever want.
Then the traffic eased,
and the DJ played “Born To Be Wild,”
and as I sped singing past Lakeville Road,
hoping to make up lost time,
I was singing for you,
aching to know the girl you were,
to have been the friend
to whom you showed that first ghazal
you couldn’t keep to yourself,
because love means giving the world
the room it needs to move through you,
and to love, in this past I’ve fashioned for us,
eshq shadan, was what you stitched your couplets with,
as it was also, corny but true,
the chorus I turned the car off in the middle of—
The Beatles’ “All You Need Is…”—when I parked.
In class, we talked fashion: piercings
and why men shouldn’t wear thongs
unless they’re strippers,
and not one of my students
thought pink on a man
could mean anything but gay,
and I remembered—
no, it wasn’t memory;
you’ve never told me—I imagined
you getting dressed for school
on the first day of the public womanhood
the ayatollahs gave you no choice
but to learn to wear.
The breeze has been my lover,
you recite in the mirror,
and the sun, and you
tuck under your chador
the last few strands of hair
you need to hide, check
the length of your sleeves
and that your ankles
if you have to run
won’t emerge into light.
And I have let the ocean pull me naked to its chest,
and with my fingers probed the earth’s flesh,
and filled my mouth with its fruit.
Then you pick up your book bag,
call goodbye to your parents,
and appear next in this film I’m scripting
with the front door closed behind you,
a fledgling crow with no wings to spread
and a gauntlet of enemies to outsmart,
seeing again the face of the flasher
who when you were eight
invited you to share
what he held in his hand.
You’ve told me how you watched him
standing hopeful at your family’s front gate,
waiting for you to come back
with your mother’s permission—of course
she’ll give it, you told him—and then,
once he understood you’d tricked him,
how he turned, crestfallen,
closed his pants and moved on.
Now, here, you realize
he never actually left,
but you have no choice:
you must move forward.
So you step small onto the street,
out into the gaze
of Tehran’s great male eye,
knowing the cover you’re wearing
will never cover enough,
and praying: to the beat
of your own walking,
asking your god
not to let that pedar saag see you,
as you fill your own eyes with nothing
that is not the three inches of air
directly in front of your face.
The bird was a dove; the gun,
a blowgun Joey ordered through the mail.
We took it wrapped in a green cloth
out back by the tracks.
Joey placed the weapon
in my outstretched hands,
holding up once he’d done so
a dart, toothpick-thin, blunt end buried
in a marble-sized plastic orange sphere.
Don’t inhale once it’s in the tube, he warned.
You’ll break your teeth.
I crouched down behind the bush
blocking the view from Albert’s house,
slid the long metal barrel through the fence,
and put the dart in the blow hole.
I don’t remember Joey urging me on,
or if he tried to stop me,
but the moment the breath
that killed the bird
left my lungs,
I wanted nothing more
than to inhale it back.
A dull thud
ended the arc
the dart traced;
wings beat air
and the wounded cooing
landed in the shade
not five feet away.
Still on my knees, still
the dove into flight,
I didn’t move
the first time Joey pushed me,
but then he yelled Oh shit!
Let’s get the fuck out of here!
and I ran with him
I don’t remember where.
When the cops found the corpse,
they knew to question Joey,
who told them the gun was mine
and where in my backyard
we’d hidden it. The cop
inching the black and white we sat in
down Tulip Avenue
about the murder I’d committed,
the game warden they’d just called,
whose trip my folks would have to pay for,
and I’d better hope his undercover operation
trying to bust that ring of poachers
in the Everglades was over,
Or he’s gonna be more than pissed, you know?
Sitting silent in the back seat,
grateful not to be cuffed like on TV,
I was scared as they wanted me to be.
Joey had been through it before.
Fuck up one more time, shithead,
the officer riding shotgun
sneered as Joey’s smartass grin
threatened full-throated laughter,
one more time, and it’s the real thing.
Your mother won’t be able to save you.
You in the early years of our marriage
running light across the snow,
in that Persian blue coat
you no longer own.
Though you must have left footprints,
I do not see them now.
Instead, like the spirit
a caged animal projects
staring out at what we call freedom,
you glide over my memory’s white surface,
leaving no trace that you were there.
I let the snowball in my hand
make an inches deep hole
in the dune marking the grass’ edge,
and I stand there—
I’m making this connection now,
not revealing what I felt back then—
I stand there, dumbstruck,
and you are telling me
in the apartment that was mine
before it was ours
how your first husband
abandoned you in Turkey,
divorced you, as you’d been wed,
by proxy, and how
for letters in which you
criticized your government
he tried to have you jailed.
Then we’re sitting in my car,
creeping through a blizzard,
heading east on the LIE
to a party at your uncle’s,
the one who tried to stop our wedding.
Hunched in the passenger seat,
bundled in that same coat,
you curse the plows
that haven’t yet pushed
this fucking “barf” out of the way—
a Persian word I don’t know,
the “a” as in “cat” not “father,”
and when I explain what barf means in English,
you laugh, and I know for sure I’m dreaming:
you told me what you tell me next
not caught in a winter storm
on the way to see your relatives,
but in our bed on a Sunday morning,
the tray between us
filled with bagels and lox.
Everyone warned me
not to drink the water
once we got to Pakistan,
but when I asked in our hotel
for bottled water,
that bee-sharaf idiot
behind the front desk
filled a bottle from the tap instead.
I got so sick
I almost couldn’t leave the room—
and it was there, in Pakistan—
Karachi and then Islamabad—the third
embassy you stood on line in front of,
trading stories with people
who’d slept in the street
not to lose their spot,
all of you desperate
to make a break for it,
it was there that a woman
chose your story to believe—
spouse waiting for you back in Iran—
and stamped the tourist visa
that brought you to New York.
It’s always been women
who’ve engineered your escape.
Even in the jewelry store,
your boss near death on the floor,
the men who shot him
pointing their guns at you—
it was the woman among them
who convinced them to let you live.
The summer Joey murdered himself
on the front of a Penn Station bound
Long Island Railroad train
the news found me too late for the funeral,
and so I see him now
the last time I saw him whole,
sitting next to me on the wooden fence
he climbed out of his room to smoke on
one last time before he left for the army.
The beers I used my early beard to buy
were gone—we were sixteen—
the friends we drank them with as well,
and Joey held out a joint
he said he didn’t want to share
with anyone else. My father,
he chewed the words, can be
a real asshole sometimes,
and because it was me,
he didn’t need to say
Then he’s home on leave and we’re walking,
his right arm conducting
a slow four-four march
he explains he can’t stop,
not even after three years of no acid.
He says he feels like a fucking drum major,
like when we were fourteen
playing bass baritone bugle
in the Floral Park Knights of Columbus Drum Corps.
He was first horn; I was second;
and Maureen the drum major
led us down the street
of each parade we marched in.
Remember her? Joey smiles.
He always had a crush on her,
but then he grabs my wrist,
pulls me behind him,
and holds his finger up for silence,
staring at the Tulip Avenue sidewalk,
waiting, he explains
once we’re moving again,
for the hole in the ground I couldn’t see,
because it isn’t after me,
to close—and I still
don’t know where he’s buried,
have not, till this moment,
told him goodbye,
or that I miss him,
or that I’ve carried in me
since I heard how he died
the certainty that if I’d been there,
we would’ve talked,
and he’d still be here.
Teens pulled like weeds from their families;
parents wailing at prison gates,
begging to bury the bodies of their children;
the guard who finally deigns to respond,
pointing to an unmarked stretch
of newly packed earth
just visible in the distance,
Go get them if you want them.
Or the man they stand
seven days in a row
before a firing squad,
laughing each time
the rifles’ empty chambers,
echo in the courtyard;
the one who tells him gently,
locking again the door of his cell,
they’ll remember to load.
Or the war with Iraq:
cannon fodder children
running over landmines
the ayatollahs promised
would lift them to paradise;
clouds of chemical annihilation
emptying whole villages
of breath; your family
huddling in whichever corner
your father says is safest;
the other families—friends,
right then being bombed to dust.
Of course you wrote poems.
How could you not?
You tell me they were nothing special,
love lyrics any teenage girl might’ve written,
but love is how we carry our dead;
love is how they live within us,
and so, my love,
these lines are for you,
because even before
there was more to what we said
than what we had to say,
I saw in your eyes
the daily ebb and flow
of resignation and despair,
and I fell in love
with all that struggled in you not to drown.
Poet, translator, essayist and educator, Richard Jeffrey Newman is the author of three volumes of poetry: The Silence Of Men (CavanKerry Press, 2006), a book of his own poems and Selections from Saadi's Gulistan and Selections from Saadi's Bustan (Global Scholarly Publications, 2004 & 2006 respectively), translations of two masterpieces of 13th century Iranian poetry. As well, he co-translated with Professor John Moyne the poetry in A Bird in the Garden of Angels (Mazda Publishers, 2008), a selection of work by Rumi, also from 13th century Iran. Newman's poems and essays have appeared in a wide range of journals, including Salon.com, The American Voice, Circumference, Prairie Schooner, Another Chicago Magazine, The Pedestal Magazine and Birmingham Poetry Review. His work has been anthologized in Access Literature (Wadsworth Publishers, 2005), and the title poem from The Silence Of Men has been translated into Dutch. In addition, he has completed a verse translation of a book-length section of Shahnameh, the Persian national epic. Richard Jeffrey Newman is Literary Arts Director of Persian Arts Festival, sits on the advisory boards of The Translation Project and Jackson Heights Poetry Festival, and is listed as a speaker with the New York Council for the Humanities. He is Associate Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York, where he coordinates the Creative Writing Project. His website is www.richardjnewman.com.