by Alan Shapiro
From the station wagon on the shoulder of the road
before the junkyard, Brother Paul, the radio preacher,
is pouring out “the sincere milk of the Word” as I pull in.
The voice is a mustering hosanna, roiling onward and upward
through the noon air thick with heat about the blessings
of the ever offered hand of the saviour, and what it is
that keeps our sad hearts clenched like a fist against it . . .
They must have come straight from church, for the man there
rummaging through a dumpster is dressed up in a brown suit
and burgundy tie, and the little girl behind him
holding her own hands is staring down helpless and unhappy
at her bright black shoes already dulling in the dust haze
her father kicks up as he heaves aside bald tires, cartons, bags.
Neither of them turns as I drag the dented basin from the car.
Nor does the man notice, nor care, that sweat streams crookedly
down his face and neck, into the tight white collar,
darkening his tie, his mind fixed only on the plastic sack
he wrestles up from the heap with one hand while the other
jimmies the brass rod poking through it back and forth
till it slides free, and a wet mulch of rinds, meat scraps
and cans falls away across his arm, flecking the coat and cuff.
But the rod’s bent, one half dangling from the other.
He gestures as if to hurl it down, but stops himself
at the last moment, and lets it drop. He sags back, eyes closed,
lips trying to keep pace with the preacher’s quivering twang,
“Eye on the sparrow, eye on me,” but it’s too hot, the air
too littered with flies, and he is only Adam’s son now
drawing a soiled sleeve across his brow to mop the sweat away.
Now the preacher’s voice seems to rise on the white wings
of its own rejoicing beyond the dumpsters, through the scraggly pines,
and out across the bright widening swath of the unconstructed highway
“to that place the unredeemed call heaven, but the saints call home.”
When I reach the car the girl is tugging lightly on his sleeve,
and like a child wakened too suddenly, dazed, he follows her
to the basin tilted upside down high on a mound of trash.
He eases it off, then waits, holding the handle at one end
while the girl grips the other with a single hand, so her free hand
can press the pink frills of her dress against herself
away from the rusted blessing, as if these were the last new things
on earth, and what she can do to protect them is to pause,
readjust her grip, and as she lifts it let her thin arm tremble,
her eyes clenched with the might of so much prayer.
Alan Shapiro has written eight books of poetry, including The Dead, Alive and Busy, winner of the 2001 Kingsley Tufts Award from Claremont Graduate University, and three books of prose, including Vigil, winner of the New England Booksellers Association’s Discovery Designation. Poetry editor of the Phoenix Poets Series at the University of Chicago Press from 1994 to 2000 and co-editor of the Greek Tragedy in New Translation series at Oxford University Press, Shapiro has just completed a translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, to be published next year. He now teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. (2002)