Note: I've published twelve volumes of poetry, with a thirteenth due next fall. I'm a former Pulitzer finalist, and have also published a novel, a collection of literary criticism, and four volumes of personal essays. My collaborative work with former Delaware Laureate Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, is now available, and my more recent literary essays, The Music of What Happens: Lyric and Everyday Life, will be out in 2019.
Men without Women
I turned a corner in Montreal
just after the poor dope went down,
the one who’d hit him having proved himself
The Better Man, and showing
that almost sexual victory face —
all heavy lid and smirk.
I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t angry.
I couldn’t know after all
what started this mess. It was something else,
the look in the light-colored eyes
of the fallen one– down on his knees
and not about to get off them–
that quickened my step and made me wish
I could close my own eyes now
and still make my way along the sidewalk.
I didn’t like how the kneeler
was knocked the whole way back to his childhood,
no hint of swagger left,
just pain and confusion in eyes of lightest
blue, which might start leaking
at any moment. Or so I feared.
I know that what I say
is so much hairy-chested horseshit,
and yet I know as well
how hard it can be for a man to be
shown up like that. I recall,
all but six full decades ago,
stepping outside from a club
where Clyde McPhatter had ended his set,
and how full I felt of all
that wail and funk, how I saw the stars
as they winked between the buildings,
everything right with my world except
I had no lady-love.
The shore-leave sailor lurched my way
-- little bit of a shit,
but drunk enough to be eight feet tall
and growing. He shoved me hard,
or hard as he could manage, perhaps
because I happened to be
the only other white man there
on that sidewalk, by that door.
He called me Ralph. “Hey, you ain’t messin’
with no little baby, Ralph.”
As if I’d been the one to start the messing.
I straightened, stared him away,
and turned to go. His flailing swing
brushed my ear from behind.
Completely painless, it turned me crazy:
I had only wanted to love
the way I was feeling and was only wishing
I had some girl to share it.
So I laid him flat, and down on his knees,
the poor man shook his head
and hacked, the punch I’d thrown having caught him
not on the chin but under,
right on the Adam’s Apple. He started
to cry out loud, I swear,
his skinny chest rising and falling so
he looked– well, he looked like a baby,
complete with sailor suit, complete
with that innocent confusion
in the pale pale eyes, like eyes just now
on a street in a Canada city,
miles and miles from that club yet close
as close can know. And so:
I bent and helped my sailor up
and left after brushing him off.
All this as I remember occurred
after Clyde had left the Drifters,
but it was, I think, before he recorded
the aching “Without Love.”
© 2018 Sydney Lea
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