Poetry / June 2012 (Issue 17)

Two Poems

by Ken Turner

Sleeping with the Enemy                                      

                        Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda, Burma

They spook the country, lurk in shadowed corners,
            haunt the market stalls,                              
even peek from the trunks of ancient trees,
            almost as common
as soldiers, police, and spies. Broad-shouldered
            in Bagan,                               
thinner in the north, they wait and watch and everywhere
            they pose                  
uniform gestures. Seated solid as a tank,
            left hand in lap,
right fingers reaching, claiming the earth:
            Observe my power.
Arms raised to chest as if to hold a rifle:
            Listen to me.
Upturned hands on scissored legs:
            Pay attention. Awaken.             
Beside a pagoda soldiers slouch in the shade,                      
            guns slung and boots
laced tight despite the heat. One has removed his helmet
            just now,
and as I pass he swivels toward me: widening eyes,
            an unlined face                                            
and hair like the crest of a small startled bird.
            In the gilt-edged temple                                      
reclines a buddha in massive sparkling indolence
            with skin like milk-
washed pearl and eyes of agate glass. His lips
            shine scarlet.
Propped on an elbow he rests his head on his hand:
and with just a hint of caress drapes the other
            along his opulent hip           
as if to say hey big guy, soldier, why don't you come in
            and see me some time?

When I see the soldier's face, just a boy,
            my off-guard cheeks relax                          
—despite all I know about what happens here—
            into a smile   
and I wish I could say I surprised him in turn
            into a grin,
even fleeting, a quick one, reflexive.
            I wish I could.
What does it mean to be mindful?
            I'd like to say                                                         
I saw him later on his knees, head bowed,
            palms sealed                         
before the gleaming figure. I want to think
            it's that simple.
I want to believe that he or I, any of us,
            could be
shamed by a smile, snapped by surprise
            into paying attention,
commanded or teased, even seduced,
            into waking up.
Watching the Parade, I Think of Feng Shui

If you find yourself in a Chinese city, look up—
towers, split and slotted, seize the breeze,           
            funnel it through,                                                  
and if you should place a cactus on your sill,
            since spines
shred air and splinter light, expect
            an empty wallet
and sluggish blood—oh, and never block a door.
            To course                                                                
with perfect freedom is the way of water and wind,     
            of blood                                                                  
the way as well, to drift and surge, undo the body's       
What do you think those needles are for? Once
            on an Asian island
a dive dislocated me, sealed a clogged channel:
            dead zone
on the right, hearing only half as if stroke-smacked,
of sound, just hum and purr, voice short-circuited                   
            in the skull.
Slammed shut. Next day I watched a local
origins mostly legendary (deliver us from disease,                      
our town and help us be pure, the standard themes but               
            knitted new),
a vegetarian bloodletting, abstinence yoked to rich abundant
for fifteen days no meat, no sex, nothing to wear
            but white
and at the end a percussive parade, firecrackers and drums,
            the enthralled
in file, their cheeks and tongues, folds of muscle and skin
by needles and knives—embroidered brows and                                  
backs, a pageant of aching jowls skewered with             
but no chains, no frenzy, no dripping whips, just
            a calm
deliberate opening of the skin, unplugging,                                 
carving fresh lips for the gods to kiss,
            a carnival
of wounds wreathed in smoke and the heady musk                   
            of sacrifice.                                                                          
That night I spooned warm oil into my ear. The intricate chamber      
            I probed                                                                                          
for days, hesitant, then bolder, rougher with my cottoned                     
deep and insistent, skirting rupture and lasting damage, learning
            to trust                                                                                  
pain and crave danger, until one morning round and clear       
            I woke
whole again—a talon had slipped to my pillow, a needle of stiffened wax
as a spine, as relief: the cast-off plug of a channel reopened                             
            to wind and water.
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