Tuesday Poem: “The Stowaway” by Zireaux

"...embalmed, mustached and eerily /  made young like Lenin kept in glass."

“…’Old Man of the Sea’ / embalmed, mustached and eerily /
made young like Lenin kept in glass.”

He shaved his beard (with oyster’s edge
he’d pared into a blade) but spared
his thick mustache. He washed and aired
out all his clothes, and in a wedge
between two rocks he’d crouch and shiver
in the nude, and maybe I’d deliver
an extra shirt, or coat; and maybe not.
Once shaved and cleaned, he’d clamber toward
my still unsettled camp and squat
beside me – a position I abhorred
and fast dissuaded, only (as I’ll
explain) to later face the trial
of his infernal banter! What terrible
effort was needed to make him bearable!

At first my muteness helped install
a sneered frontier, a bilious boundary,
a set of rules on how the ground we
partitioned was shaped. No stretch of wall
or wired fence or moat or lake
or sea twelve miles dense could make
a stronger barricade or cause
a greater gulf than those unseen,
unspoken Plexiglas of Laws
that rent the island world between
my mustached stowaway and me.
Ah, happy mute disharmony –
what maps you draw! No pride castrated.
No populations relocated.

What nations you cut – for reader, I’m certain,
when, from afar, Sayeed would raise
his water mug (a toast in praise
of me) and warmly smile, the curtain
betwixt us thickened all the more.

Or when, those first few days, he swore
devotion to me —

                                                ‘You, who saved
me from an awful death, unburned
yet urned,* by God!’

                                                — and I behaved
as if he didn’t exist and turned
to stone when he would kiss my feet;
or how I would refuse to eat
whenever he would dine too near,
I couldn’t have made myself more clear.

Precisely this, my stiff and stern
and mute rebuking, my neutered
non-reaction, my silence tutored
my island mate, who seemed to learn
his lesson. His instinct for loquacity
was tempered at first. A weak capacity
for quiet was fostered in him. Those first
few weeks, those first uneasy, queasy
weeks, a curse or howl reversed
his will to speak. The growing freeze we
endured helped sooth those searing hours.
I found relief, at first, in sour,
offending scowls. I’d often reap
some sweetness by pretending sleep.

I’d often hear him when he wailed.
Some fifty meters north from me
he’d lay his rug and on his knees
would pray and then – it never failed –
he’d howl and weep. No stretch of sand
was native to ‘Sayeedistan’
(as I would dub the acreage I
begrudgingly relinquished to him),
and I suppose one reason why
he so much mourned his state of ruin,
were those tormenting rocks. Most often,
however, the surf’s long sighs ‘out-soughed’ him
so to speak. Yet even then I’d see
his figure shake convulsively.

I shared some food, of course. And blankets.
One water tank had tumbled near
the border ’twixt our camps. He’d steer
quite close to fill his cup, but drank it
always at a distance.

                                                Then once,
in biting cold (about two months
had passed and winter’s wand had cued
percussive hail amidst a sweeping
gale with thunderous interludes),
my fellow castaway came peeping
through the door-flap of my tent.
His clothes gave off a pungent scent,
like goat’s milk, burnt, and on a sponge
kept damp for thirty days. He plunged

straight in beside me, hair a mass
of rockweed, ‘Old Man of the Sea’
embalmed, mustached and eerily
made young like Lenin kept in glass.
For eighteen hours he slept, a heap
of snoring, mulching man in deep,
untroubled trance. And when at last
he woke, he leapt outside and staggered
back across the rocks as fast
as their sharp crests allowed. Less haggard
now, all mirth beneath his mess
of hair, he turned and shouted:

                                                             ‘God bless
you, Arcady, my friend!’

                                                             More hail. The ice
collected round – like wedding rice.

Never again he shared my bed.
Nor bothered me for favors. And yet
thenceforth, my snarled distemper met
a man less mouse, more newlywed.
What raged in me, to him now purred.
And this, this throbbing hate, assured
somehow my island mate of my
domesticated, mild, defeated
nature. No murderer was I
(not yet). However cold I treated
my unwanted neighbor, I’d never threaten
to harm him. He knew it. Rather, I’d let him
reside with me, and talk to me,
while I stood unresponsively.

*A reference to the oil drum in which the stowaway had stowed himself in Book One.

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Filed under Poetry by Zireaux