Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com

You’ve Given Me A Place To Start

I didn’t think of Dante
when I read your let­ter,
but now it seems to me
I’m sit­ting in the only cir­cle
of a very small hell,
and if there is a god
who con­demned me to this,
he also must be very small.

When I was a boy,
liv­ing in a city far from here,
a cat whose name I can’t remem­ber
would step in sum­mer
when the sun could rise no high­er
out onto the fire escape,
sit­ting near­ly shad­ow­less
for longer than my patience
would let me watch.

I want some­one
who’s tak­en risks
with love, who’d be
as glad as I am
to have these lines
you left me with:

There is out there
a heat that if we let it
will burn us clean.

Clean

The first bus of the morn­ing
screams into gear, pulls slow­ly
into traf­fic, a beast
stretch­ing itself to start the day.
At the red light beneath my win­dow,
as a few rain­drops hit the pane
above the one I’m look­ing through,
the dri­ver turns his wipers on
and the thick gray clouds
spread out above  this city
release the drunk and venge­ful man
they’ve been hold­ing back
since last night. He beats
his fists against the glass, trem­bles
my entire build­ing when he screams.

I want to feel his rage
against my skin, so I head
down­stairs, my shorts
torn, with­out
pock­ets, my shirt
as well, in san­dals
that if I left right now to search for you
would not sur­vive to the end of my block.
I walk the gar­den path
till I’m stand­ing at the south end,
soak­ing wet and watch­ing
the water in the foun­tain
dance its wel­come
to the water from the sky.

The win­ter I was sev­en­teen,
Kristin pushed me down
into this fountain’s cen­ter, her face
framed by trees I climbed
when I was eight and nine and ten.
“Do you trust me?” she asked.
I nod­ded. She smiled,
bent between my legs,
and as she fum­bled my zip­per open
noth­ing, noth­ing as I
hard­ened against her tongue
came to me of the man
push­ing him­self between my teeth,
pour­ing into me
out of who he was
who he was,

and then who I was
gath­ered itself
to a point in me
I kept for myself
as long as I could,

until, in answer
to a sum­mons
I’d only half believed
the world con­tained,
it rose up out of me,
white against the white
flakes just start­ing to fill
the qui­et air around us,

and it was,
I was,
clean.

You’d Better Finish Knitting: A Ghazal

So I’ve decid­ed to embrace his death,
the way, before, I did not embrace his death.

I slam the phone down on his mother’s voice.
I won’t allow her to deface his death.

One by one, the cars behind the hearse
pull out, slow run­ners forced to race his death.

Autumn leaves sweep the air above our heads.
Few fall. That we’re still here amazes death.

They put their broth­er in the ground and leave.
“Revenge,” his sis­ter says, “replaces death.”

Sun-bleached on the sand, bones stripped of flesh.
The tide ris­es, recedes, dis­places death.

A moment comes when what has ripened falls.
Your hunger is a hole that chas­es death.

I’ve kissed a woman young enough to be
my daugh­ter. Age reced­ed. Face this, death!

Snow accu­mu­lates and melts, gives way
to each fruit in sea­son. Come, taste this death.

I’m nev­er more alive than when I come.
Only true sur­ren­der eras­es death.

No oth­er path will lead you to the end.
Each step, if you are fear­less, prais­es death.

They’ll tell you Richard’s words besmirch this page,
but vir­gin white will not efface his death.

Because I Can’t Not Know What He Saw

—remem­ber­ing a pho­to­graph from Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking

This month, Harper’s “Read­ings” brings
from the peo­ple of Boro in east­ern India
a list of verbs impos­si­ble in Eng­lish:
khon­say, to pick an object up with care;
dasa, not to place a fish­ing instru­ment;
asusu, to feel unknown in a new place.
Some sound like Yid­dish curs­es:
“You should ur,” dig soil like a swine,
or “May your chil­dren gob­ray,”
fall in a well unknow­ing­ly.

I want that kind of verb
for the way who­ev­er-it-was
pulled the woman’s robe
up over her head,

for how the men
the man who did this to her
forced to watch—brother,
father, hus­band, son,
neighbor—for how each of them
invades my sleep;

and for the way I felt
when I first saw it,
what I feel now
remem­ber­ing it,
the way I kept tak­ing Iris Chang’s
The Rape of Nanking off the shelf
and crouch­ing in the cor­ner
of Bor­ders’ low­er lev­el
to stare, and to stare—
for that too I want a verb;

and I want a verb as well,
and it’s not rape,
though cer­tain­ly he raped her,
for the sword hilt ris­ing
from between her part­ed thighs,
and for the way I hate myself
for hop­ing she was already dead
when he buried his blade in her.