Strange, that all of a sudden I remember the poem — the smell of the book it was in, like a palmed cigarette stub sweaty and stale with old smoke, and how worn it was, and loose in its faded jacket — and I don’t recall the poem itself.
Just that it was about a girl — I imagine her with oily hair in waves rich with grief that you could dip your fingers in — and perhaps a convenience store, closed for the night with security fluorescents churning in their cluttered hollows, or a living room in an old apartment with the shades drawn, or at least some other dark, crowded place where the noise and hands are hard and constant, tearing the throat out of dirty evening sunlight.
And about how the girl was beautiful because everything else was ugly.
How all the other people were ugly, hunched, bloated, without adequate faces, it seemed, missing teeth or noses, spaces where there should have been eyes or lips to speak with or close solemnly in recognition, in self-possession — but she was beautiful, her hair in perfect dark rivulets down her cheekbones and neck, a painting in oils turning in queazy pools over the surface of the water,
and about how she did not speak, or at least not well or for very long. And the poem ends like that moment
when you stand on a wet cliff, slick black rocks slouching into the ocean, and watch as a gull shifts uneasily in the air, its starved crescent form like a piece of bone scraping against the sky, watch as it seems to see the thick sliver of a fish below, watch as it slams itself into the sharp, ugly water —
because it is that hungry.
by Stephen Dobyns
The father gets a bullet in the eye, killing him
instantly. His daughter raises an arm to say stop
and gets shot in the hand. He’s a grocer from Baghdad
and at that time lots of Iraqis are moving to Detroit
to open small markets in the ghetto. In a month,
three have been murdered and since it is becoming
old news your editor says only to pick up a photo
unless you can find someone half decent to talk to.
Jammed into the living room are twenty men in black,
weeping, and thirty women wailing and pulling their hair —
something not prepared for by your Episcopal upbringing.
The grocer had already given the black junkie his money
and the junkie was already out the door when he fired,
for no apparent reason, the cops said. The other daughter,
who gives you the picture, has olive skin, great dark eyes
and is so beautiful you force yourself to stare only
at the passport photo in order not to offend her.
The photo shows a young man with a thin face cheerfully
expecting to make his fortune in the black ghetto.
As you listen to the girl, the wailing surrounds you
like bits of flying glass. It was a cousin who was shot
the week before, then a good friend two weeks before that.
Who can understand it? During the riots, he told people
to take what they needed, pay when they were able.
Although the girl has little to do with your story,
she is, in a sense, the entire story. She is young,
beautiful and her father has just been shot. As you
accept the picture, her mother grabs it, presses it
to her lips. The girl gently pries her mother’s fingers
from the picture and returns it. Then the sister with
the wounded hand snatches the picture and you want to
unwrap the bandages, touch your fingers to the bullet hole.
Again the girl retrieves the picture, but before she
can give it back, a third woman in black grabs it,
begins kissing it and crushing it to her bosom. You think
of the unflappable photographers on the fourth floor
unfolding the picture and trying to erase the creases,
but when the picture appears in the paper it still bears
the wrinkles of the fat woman’s heart, and you feel caught
between the picture grabbing which is comic and the wailing
which is like an animal gnawing your stomach. The girl
touches your arm, asks if anything is wrong, and you say,
no, you only want to get out of there; and once back
at the paper you tell your editor of this room with fifty
screaming people, how they kept snatching the picture.
So he tells you about a kid getting drowned when he was
a reporter, but that’s not the point, nor is the screaming,
nor the fact that none of this will appear in a news story
about an Iraqi grocer shot by a black drug addict,
and see, here is his picture as he looked when he first
came to our country eight years ago, so glad to get
out of Baghdad. What could be worse than Baghdad?
The point is in the sixteen-year-old daughter giving back
the picture, asking you to put it in your pocket, then
touching your arm, asking if you are all right and
would you like a glass of water? The point is she hardly
belongs to that room or any reality found in newspapers,
that she’s one of the few reasons you get up in the morning,
pursue your life all day and why you soon quit the paper
to find her: beautiful Iraqi girl last seen surrounded by
wailing for the death of her father. For Christ’s sake,
those fools at the paper thought you wanted to fuck her,
as if that’s all you can do with something beautiful,
as if that’s what it mens to govern your life by it.