My Neighbor’s Body
Nov. 20, 2011
What can I do tonight about the wild camels in Australia
whose herds the government will thin by aerial gunning?
The truth is all I do these days is watch the neighbor’s hedge
of brooding oleanders sway, heavy with dark red blossom.
They are twelve feet high on his side of the arroyo
and hide his house. I don’t know who lives there
but I know he has a truck and listens to the country station.
I can’t help what I know and what I don’t know
helps me. I stand out on the patio and smoke when I have work to do.
The blooms light their deep pink auras. All spring
my neighbor rattles things behind his house, throws
things on top of other things. It echoes. I haven’t done
a good day’s work since that day in class when I required
every poem henceforth to have in it a jacamar & hereby
have followed policy. It’s the least I can do. My neighbor’s song tonight
rues some faithless woman as he kills the engine, leaves
the radio on until the song is done. I have never seen his body.
I have never seen his faithless wife. I am on the side of
the black oleanders moving their great mind
under the little moon. They are fifteen feet high
and hide my house. It’s been good, our not knowing each other.
He won’t mind me still out on the patio not telling him
in Egypt once I heard camels call to one another
as they milled about and one by one kneeled for tourists to mount.
It is an ugly cry trapped, I can only say, like
the body of the letter m set on fire in their throats. In Cairo’s heat
I moved around like royalty with a retinue of children
asking for American dollars. Like royalty I gave sometimes
and sometimes not. The hotel that summer was filled
with engineers working on the underground, work that stalled
each time they hit a buried wall or well of ancient kingdom,
and late afternoons they’d drink with Madam Ariana, the manager,
a Coptic Christian and a true believer
that ketchup was the cause of cancer and that opera
refined the soul. Tonight the moon holds its high white note over
the desert slopes. Here we are. What can we do
about camels in Australia stunned in the warm sheen of
their own blood? Dry yellow petals scatter on the patio.
They do this when they are alone. The world is full of the helpless,
seeing its one hand, the petals mounded briefly at the patio wall.
Their whisper like the guard’s pulling us aside in the museum
where they kept animal mummies, mostly ibises and cats.
Their necks were wrung in sacrifice, their bodies emptied, filled again,
sewn and wrapped like dolls for gods who looked just like them.
For a dollar, he said, we could touch one. I know
everyone has to make a living. I don’t know how my neighbor
does. He has somewhere to go to and somewhere to come back
and isn’t that enough? Each day if I say he’s happy he is happy.
If I say he is miserable he is. If I say put on a song sometimes
he does. Then I don’t get much work done, another iridescent
jacamar lies unwritten. Tonight a hundred living things
chirr in the arroyo, the rest is quiet. Our lives are quiet.
We know what we know. I know my neighbor’s body must have fire
like mine. It must have dim soft places no one’s touched
for the longest time. I know it must rise sometimes at night
for no reason and then must go somewhere and sit . I don’t know
what it is that aches. The body does not know how to speak
for itself. It stands out on the patio in the dark thinking this time
of John-Michael who has tattooed across his chest a line
from a poem he loves. He is brave. Think of the women
who’ll face it there, a love no thing or woman will come between,
and turn & some come anyway. They’ll know and not know.
There is no language there. The hedge shifts its thick
ocean of leaves in the wind and John-Michael is gone. Light
winks through. My neighbor is home, and if he knew he was
on my mind tonight he’d call the police. For all I know he’s a cowboy
and would kick me to crap. For all I know he is
the police. For all I know he is lonely and would weep.
Beware of the neighbor. Beware the one who imagines you
in some form other than your own, filled with other desire, empty
of other emptiness. Beware the one who does not.
You are the gentle camel. You are the rufous-tailed jacamar.
Your blossoms hang open in the dark, riding the black
wave of oleander. And I am kissing my neighbor’s full mouth, tracing
the moon above his left nipple. I am lying against his body,
reaching down and cupping them, gently, in my hand, for didn’t we
come helpless into the world, my love, but we came anyway.
--for H.C. and for J.M.B.
Beckian Frtiz Goldberg was born in Hartford, Wisconsin, and raised in Arizona. She has published six books of poems, most recently Reliquary Fever: New and Selected Poems (New Issues Poetry and Prose). Her poems have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry in 1995 and 2011. She is a Professor of English at Arizona State University.