I Gave You Back To Yourself As If I’d Never Touched You
Sitting here at this table
so like the ones in the cafes and diners
we’ve spent these decades meeting in,
the cheesecake yours, the apple pie mine,
the words we’ve shared leaving us more naked
on either side of the plank of wood between us
than if we were whispering
across each other’s bare and trembling thighs,
sitting here, where I’ve stopped for a drink
after the opening you couldn’t come to
because your lover’s parents are in town,
as I watch the skirts and loosened ties
of Manhattan’s night life saunter by,
my breath fogging the window
of this bar in the Roger Smith Hotel,
the half pint in front of me still half full
of a beer you might actually like,
here, where you and I have never been,
as I place in my mouth
a sliver of Spanish cheese
I know you’d love, its flavor,
sharp smoke and salted cream,
melting into my tongue,
there is nothing left but to let you go.
The woman hanging on that wall tonight
did not have her knees tucked in tight
against her breasts, and her face was not
turned away from whoever came to look at her,
but everything else, even the camera flash
caught by the mirror above her right shoulder
echoed the image you handed me
last night in the Mark Twain Diner.
“This,” you said, “is what I’ve been up to all summer.”
“Who shot it?” I asked.
“Me,” you answered,
The steam rose like vines
from the Earl Grey in our cups.
“You can’t feel them,” Danielle said.
“Feel what?” I asked.
“The scars where is knife sliced into me.
I was, he kept saying, raw meat on his plate.”
I’d wanted her to feel
that I too had seen the sky
from the roadside ditch
he left her to die in, had watched
through that same cross-hatch of branches
the cotton-candy clouds
moving west with the traffic,
that I’d tasted in my own mouth
the dirt he’d forced into hers,
heard the little boy—straight
from a Law and Order episode,
she’d laughed—whose mother
left the car idling
to rush him to the edge
so he could pee, “Mommy,
there’s a lady down there!”
Danielle took my hand in hers,
“I can feel them,” she whispered,
then dressed in a silence
I did not know how to break
“Don’t,” she said,
when I stood to say goodbye.
Three months later, in a letter
from somewhere she called far enough away,
she sent these lines:
And when he was done
fucking me he pulled
my head back by the hair
hissed through clenched teeth
that he was going to shoot
in my mouth and if I let
a single drop of him
spill whore that I was
he’d slit my throat and who
would miss me anyway?
The night before she flew to France,
as the last of her roasted lamb
cooled between us, Danielle
pushed my farewell gift,
across the table. A woman’s
genitals sketched in pencil
filled the page. Danielle
had drawn the clitoral hood
as the hood of a cloak,
the labia minora
as the cloak’s flowing fabric,
which the wearer held open,
arms spread wide, and,
in the lower right hand corner,
Learning to write poems
has been easier than loving people
and harder than counting syllables
but words grow
and sentences shape
time into meaning
and learning to let that happen
has been learning to shape my body
and I am my body
into somewhere I can live.
You’ve heard by now, I’m sure, that I refused to let [your friend] publish my book. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to tell you, but you’ve known him so much longer than you’ve known me…I guess I was afraid.
I sent him my manuscript a couple of months after I got to France. You can imagine how excited I was when he wrote back almost immediately saying he’d be honored to publish it. More than that, he said he’d be visiting friends in Paris during the coming weeks. They lived just down the block from a small bookstore, and since he made it a point to hear all his authors read at least once before publishing them, he said he’d try to arrange a reading there for me, which he did.
The bookstore was small, maybe the size of your old one-bedroom apartment, but it was perfectly suited to the warmth and generosity of the people who came to hear me. At the pub we went to afterwards, I stood silent at the bar, trying to keep up as they discussed in French the poems I’d read to them in English. During a lull in the conversation, [your friend] sidled up to me and offered to buy me a beer, raising what he said was his third scotch to toast my work. I smiled and lifted my glass in return.
When I put it down, before I had a chance to say anything, he leaned in close, cupped my elbow with one hand, and whispered, his lips almost touching my ear, “Do you know why I’ve agreed to publish you?”
I left my Guinness on the bar and took a step back. Something in his smile made me choose silence as my response.
“I read All That Struggled In Me Not To Drown in a single sitting,” he said, shuffling a half-step in my direction, “and when I finished”—he raised his tumbler for emphasis, splashing some scotch onto his shirt sleeve—“when I finished, I was hard all night.”
When I tell this story face to face, I say his name.
In print, you’ll understand, it’s wiser if I don’t.
The Rape Of Nanking
—remembering a photograph from Iris Chang’s book
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
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 hoping
she was already dead
when he buried his blade in her;
and a verb too for the way I hate myself,
because no matter how hard I try
I can’t not know what he saw,
what he wanted me to see.
Richard Jeffrey Newman is a poet, essayist, and co-translator of classical Persian poetry. He has published two books of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done (Guernica Editions 2017) and The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006). He has published a chapbook of poetry, For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016), and three books of translation from classical Persian poetry, most recently The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Junction Press 2011). Newman is on the executive board of Newtown Literary, a Queens, NY-based literary non-profit and curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Jackson Heights, NY. He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College. www.richardjnewman.com