On the bus to Northampton from Amherst
I was sitting across from an old man
with the wrecked blue eyes of a sunken mariner.
Eyes so wet and blue and seen-through
as any screen-door of the deep-south ever was,
that to be caught looking into them
was to be trapped in history itself.
He caught me looking into them all right,
and I was stunned and stuck for a good
ten minutes, rolling down route one sixteen:
his grizzled and gaunt gaze of gauzy azure
working me like the existential welterweight I was,
keeping me against the ropes, wriggling yet resigned,
as I froze and melted in turns.
We stayed this way until we stopped
at the Hadley Mall, whereat a husky tangle
of collegiate jocks flopped down on either side of me
and directly across from the still-staring old man.
After a few minutes of requisite testicular banter,
punctuated by punch-lines from the movie they’d just seen
(evidently an end-of-the-world blockbuster,
or what darker critics call “disaster porn”),
the alpha male of the group in a muscle-T,
buzz-cut and ball-cap, took notice
of the sobering fog-eyed figure
studying his buddies and him.
“Whassup old timer, how are things hanging?”
A few thick seconds for the air to shake off
the chuckles of the brusque inquisitor’s cohorts,
and then came the reply, delivered in a bellow
lower than any reptile’s and more ringing
and hulking than an entire epoch’s death-knell:
“CIRCLING THE DRAIN, SON,
JUST CIRCLING THE DRAIN.”
If I could somehow bottle that blast
of dilating awkward quietude
in which the dumbstruck young men
stewed for the remainder of the ride…
Better yet, I would first have to capture
the Odysseus-tinctures of the old man’s eyes,
and the appalling depth of his speaking voice,
and then blow them into a glass
from which I would then mold the bottle
to hold that perfect elixir of silence,
humility, futility and fumes.
Yes, if I could only place that bus-ride into a bottle,
I would be immortal; alas, this poem will have to do.