From Donkey Gospel
by Tony Hoagland
I thought I saw my mother
in the lesbian bar
with a salt gray crew cut, a nose stud
and a tattoo of a parrot on her arm.
She was sitting at a corner table,
leaning forward to ignite, on someone's match,
one of those low-tar things she used to smoke,
and she looked happy to be alive again
after her long marriage
to other people's needs,
her twenty-year stint as Sisyphus,
struggling to push
a blue Ford station wagon full of screaming kids
up a mountainside of groceries.
My friend Debra had brought me there
to educate me on the issue
of my own unnecessariness,
and I stood against the wall, trying to look
and nonchalant, watching couples
slowdance in the female dark,
but feeling speechless, really,
as the first horse to meet the first
horseless carriage on a cobbled street.
That's when I noticed Mom,
whispering into the delicate
seashell ear of a brunette,
running a fingertip along
the shoreline of a tank top,
as if death had taught her finally
not to question what she wanted
and not to hesitate
in reaching out and taking it.
I want to figure out everything
right now, before I die,
but I admit that in the dark
(where a whole life can be mistaken) cavern of that bar
it took me one, maybe two big minutes
to find my footing
and to aim my antiquated glance
over the shoulder of that woman
pretending not to be my mother,
as if I were looking for someone else.
Just before she flew off like a swan
to her wealthy parents' summer home,
Bruce's college girlfriend asked him
to improve his expertise at oral sex,
and offered him some technical advice:
Use nothing but his tonguetip
to flick the light switch in his room
on and off a hundred times a day
until he grew fluent at the nuances
of force and latitude.
Imagine him at practice every evening,
more inspired than he ever was at algebra,
beads of sweat sprouting on his brow,
thinking, thirty-seven, thirty eight,
seeing, in the tunnel vision of his mind's eye,
the quadratic equation of her climax
yield to the logic
of his simple math.
Maybe he unscrewed
the bulb from his apartment ceiling
so that passersby would not believe
a giant firefly was pulsing
its electric abdomen in 13 B.
Maybe, as he stood
two inches from the wall,
in darkness, fogging the old plaster
with his breath, he visualized the future
as a mansion standing on the shore
that he was rowing to
with his tongue's exhausted oar.
Of course, the girlfriend dumped him:
met someone, après-ski, who,
using nothing but his nose
could identify the vintage of a Cabernet.
Sometimes we are asked
to get good at something we have
no talent for,
or we excel at something we will never
have the opportunity to prove.
Often we ask ourselves
to make absolute sense
out of what just happens,
and in this way, what we are practicing
which everybody practices,
but strangely few of us
grow graceful in.
The climaxes of suffering are complex,
costly, beautiful, but secret.
Bruce never played the light switch again.
So the avenues we walk down,
full of bodies wearing faces,
are full of hidden talent:
enough to make pianos moan,
streetlights deliriously flicker.
Hoagland's first book, Sweet Ruin, won
the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and the
Zacharis Award from Ploughshares at Emerson
College. Donkey Gospel is the recipient of the
1997 James Laughlin Award of The Academy of
American Poets. Hoagland currently teaches
at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
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