after Saint Ignatius
Try this next time. Walking home from the elevated train
pay close attention, as you always do
to sights along the way. Like the abandoned
lace mill, its red bricks floating mortarless
on shaky foundations, the whole structure crumbling.
Like the Gypsy Church, silent now—
no young brides in parade, no men
puffing away on the stoop, no queen taking
possession of the neighborhood after a slow
and regal descent from the bus. Hear — if you can —
the tambourine snap and sizzle. Let all chords
be augmented. Match your step to its summons.
Like the produce depot. Loiter
by crated Jersey tomatoes bursting
through their scars, the last
of them this year. Cradled corn,
unshucked. Cannonball stacks of honeydew. This one,
though, is somewhat different. It has
three stages. First, scatter their seed
so that enough roots in the sidewalk cracks
enough to make of this neighborhood
a verdant garden. That done,
place yourself irrevocably outside
as if some corner tough or bouncer were hanging out
like the Archangel Michael, barring the way
back in. Then make that same fruit rot.
Choke on the stench of fermenting nectarines
wafting through the alleyways. Lured bees
and yellow-jackets, their sting. Lessons
like these are easily learned—
so it’s time. As you hoist yourself up
to the el platform, up
the ante, board the train. Avoid
the chatty word processor, the drowsy teller,
the fidgety account exec. If one is available
take a seat. A large youth occupies
no more than half of it. His hair is trimmed
so close his scalp shines through. Rock music
seethes in his ears, a garish tie lassoes
his neck. Bookless on his way to school
he will not budge, not even when the Little Flower
girls embark, their stiff hair, icon nimbuses
gilded by the morning sun. And on his one slab-like hand,
the only limb exposed, note the wound:
a football spike, almost fresh, encrusted.
It’s really there, bright as lipgloss, round as a token.
The trick to this exercise is seeing
that it’s not an exercise. At all.
The spoil-sport breaks the magic world. . .
he is a coward and must be ejected.
— Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens
Always the post-practice fear — Redhot
smeared all over your balls. Starters,
they’re the ones who’ll do it, linebackers
left back, at least a year too big,
hungry to match the coaching specs.
Those who in and out of scrimmage
hurl their bulk like moral imperatives
into the blocking sled unjustly
weighted down by three unmoved movers,
the barking assistant coaches’ heads.
Hustle up for wind sprints, bear
down in three-point crouch to get
some cleat of praise: Your name son?
I like the way you hit. But when
the molded mouthguards float in locker
pools of salivated sweat, it’s something
altogether different. Between
the steamy shower and the hop-on
athlete’s foot dispenser, hidden
in a wadded towel that may or may
not mean more comradely whipcracking
horseplay — the can of Redhot lifted
from the trainer’s bag. The spoil-sport
is the coward who must be eliminated
from the game. Or else he must
eject himself. Ask the cheerleaders,
marching band, fans in the bleachers howling;
the pep rally and scores piped to every
classroom. There’s no way out but unfaked
injury: groin or hamstring, shoulder
separation, hero’s limp off field
refusing teammate prop; the pain
walked off, shrugged off, transformed
to vengeful sack or clip, roughing
excused — all violations impossible
from my place on the bench. And so
I have to injure myself. At home I let
the five-pound barbell drop from dresser
down to smash my propped-up wrist,
unable even to raise a bruise — though later
the unshattered arm begins to throb.
Into the night the soreness stays.
The next day, because it is the Day
of Atonement, my parents make me go
to synagogue, where old men rue
the passing of time: when they
can buy a cock and by swinging it
around their head three times and muttering
a prayer, transfer their sins to it.
As the pain subsides, displaced by
fasting pangs, I realize I’ll have to make
a story up, borrow my mother’s old
ace bandage and talk my sister
into binding up my wrist, succumbing
to the strains and dislocations and
the succor of the Kol Nidre, forgiving
us again from debt and contractual
obligation. A young optometrist
plays the fiddle. And the engineer’s
widow with the trained voice sings.