Studying Great Writers

What does it mean, 
this old, frail guy in child's stocking cap,
torn jacket, gloveless,
15 degrees,
picking up small tree branches, twigs,
dropping them onto an old sled,
the sides, front, back, built high
with chicken wire.

What does it mean, 
so many university students 
studying Dostoyevsky, Villon, Charles Dickens,
Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Merton, Saint Augustine,
who do not see the old man,
though they walk by him.

What does it mean
when she walks out on you,
and you get drunk, miss class for two days,
including the one on great writers, 
find a whore, swearing silent revenge.

You stay drunk and miss another two days of classes,
desperately wanting to climb into
the bar's Budweiser sign,
where you can stay drunk and hidden forever. 

Too much puking forces you to sleep it off,
sober up, return to classes,
quickly falling back into your old routine
with a new co-ed, 
not learning anything about Dostoyevsky, Villon,
Dickens, Solzhenitsyn, Merton, Augustine,
or from your own mistakes.

What does it mean 
when he walks out on you,
and you keep it all inside:
the loss, the betrayal, the guilt, the anger,
pretending calmness,
continuing to study, go to classes,
including the one on great writers,
your friends admiring your strength, your control.

Nine or ten later, in the cafeteria,
you bite a small bone,
in your tuna sandwich, and want
with all of your broken-hearted being,
but don't because you're in a public place;
people might think you're crazy.

Silently, you take the bone from the sandwich, 
lay it on the side of the plate
and take a bite of salad,
as though nothing had ever bothered you 
in your entire life.

What does it mean,
when a male student studying great writers,
is asked by an old derelict for a quarter
or a buck,
and doesn't try understand
that no one grows up intending to be a beggar;
laughs snidely, says, “Beat it, Creep!”

and hurriedly moves away,
as though poverty is a catchable disease.

What does it mean,
when a female student studying great writers
is asked directions by an old, ugly woman,
who repeatedly needs to have them explained. 
Exasperated, the student rushes off,
thinking her stupid,

not realizing it wasn't the slowness 
that caused anger,
but being old, being ugly.
Not ready yet to admit that her face,
her body, will lose its attractiveness,
its tightness,
will go soft, will wrinkle.

You're fools!,
You're going to make it worse
than it is
wanting only what's safe, immediate,
accepting role of inferior,
ignoring the importance of risk,
sacrifice, loss, endurance, truth.

Great writers have left us.

from After I'm Dead, Will My Life Begin? Copyright © James Humphrey Trust


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