"What Will Not Let Itself Be Washed Away" and "Four Variations and a Theme"
What Will Not Let Itself Be Washed Away
On that boy’s night out in Jamshil thirty years ago,
in the song-in disco at the far end of the Saemaeul Shijang,
the dancer your friends insisted you had to see
stepped down from the stage
when the applause stopped
and paraded herself naked around the room,
pouring drinks for the men
but not the women
seated at the tables
lining the dance floor.
When she reached yours, her eyes widened—
your white face was not a common sight back then—
and she shimmied past the knees
of the two men sitting to your left,
who did not touch her as she passed,
to curl like a kitten in your lap.
She filled your soju glass
precisely to the brim, without a word
opened her thighs wide enough
to press your hand flat against
where you’d have to pay to enter.
Then she shimmied back out
to join the man waiting at the door,
holding out for her the robe she wore
when she first strutted into the spotlight,
but before she turned her back on you forever,
her gaze fixed to yours,
she plucked a rose from the centerpiece,
tucked it neatly into your breast pocket,
a blossom you kept
in a window-sill-soda-bottle vase
till only the stem remained.
Tonight, your skin a solitude
you cannot wash away,
you want to feel again
the moment of that giving,
so you lift your tumbler—
scotch you’ve been nursing since 8:30—
and toast the two of them,
dancer and handler,
as he drapes the robe
over her shoulder, watching
to make sure no one gets too close,
as she walks out ahead of him,
eyes focused nowhere but forward.
In second grade,
a girl whose name
you want to say was Rachel
walked with you every day
halfway home from school.
As if on cue, at the corner
where she turned left
and you turned right,
she always turned
her large and hazel eyes
to you, waiting
for you to say goodbye first.
Once, in spring,
a rhythm entered you
and you found words
you wish you could remember.
They were perfect,
meant I love you,
but then the girl is gone,
and nothing you have written
has ever brought her back.
Four Variations & A Theme
Embrace your broken wings; forgo the clouds.
Force a fledgling’s language from your mouth.
The time for patience and restraint has passed
so leave aside the mercies you’ve received.
Your hunger will dissolve what doesn’t burn.
Offer what you dare against the wind.
None will intercede who do not grasp
what lies beneath that pilfered wedding dress.
You chose disbelief and lived bereft.
Metaphors cost what love’s last kiss redeems.
Let coherence be your creed. Let laughter
be your shroud. Prepare yourself to lead.
Desire feeds on what it finds. How else
explain the threat you’re here to document,
the severed head of a lonely zealot’s hope?
What leaves the body leaves itself behind.
Let the dream unfold you as you kneel,
contrite, before your own virginity.
Thread the needle pain your god has blessed.
Console yourself that fear is a god’s first gift.
This landscape gravitates towards gratitude;
the page embraces what defiles it.
The ridicule you have endured; the strife
your fucking kept at bay; the ownership
your deity commands: you’ve borne it all.
The failed dishonesty you call your lust
lives in the hollow carved out by your guilt.
Edges bleed where other edges meet them.
This battlefield is not without its charms,
till memory insists and meaning forms.
The past you grieve will rise. The turning world
will fling your dust beyond these pregnant skies.
Here, at least, you know what you know is true
so bend your back as if the weight were real.
The snow’s indifference will not repay your debts.
Stalk the need that begs you to return;
wrap your tongue around the root and pull.
What draws you forward through the faith you’ve lost
will not desert you. Mourn what you have marred
and bind yourself to what this path demands.
What hangs around your neck will not take wing.
What closes like a fist around your heart
will never keep you safe. Pick up your pen.
Refuse the comfort of your own white skin.
Richard Jeffrey Newman has published two books of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done (Guernica Editions 2017) and The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006), as well as a chapbook, For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016). In addition, he has co-translated three books of 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-based literary non-profit and curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Jackson Heights, New York. He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College. His website is www.richardjnewman.com.