the fisherman and his wife
An old joke: three Natives sitting on a riverbank
discover – washed up – a brass lamp. When they rub
its tarnished sides, poof!
pops a genie with three wishes to give away.
One man pines for home, the Dakotas,
and vanishes instantly; the second the Carolinas,
his tribe – and he’s gone – kaboom!
The last, none too bright – a Navajo –
this is a joke about Navajos –
asks, ’Geez, I sure miss those guys, innit?
I wish they were back here.’
That water should yield vain magic we accept
because, perhaps, like searchers in fairy tales,
we have already what light we long for
shut up within us. The fisherman’s wife, held close
in her father’s house, deems
poverty a curse, dreams
watering flowers with a garden hose,
then a tower and blue-jacketed courtiers
toting her jewels on a cushioned platter.
This wife’s lackey spouse, ordered about by everyone,
we side with him, share his embarrassment
having to ask a fish for a penis
for his wife, although she takes him to bed, after.
She must be King, Emperor, Pope, God –
while with each turn of fortune
she grows more dissatisfied. We understand
she in penury is like God to begin with.
And we wonder, as with the genie, how it is
an enchanted fish (for certainly it, too, is like God),
can help others, but not itself,
or why the wife sends the fisherman with her questions.
It’s not like she doesn’t have the balls.
When I was a child I felt bad for God.
I pictured him alone in watery depths, like Jonah,
scribbling the Law. In my father’s library
gray-green tides rose and grew black with prayer;
I didn’t have it, what you need to piss on a wall.
Shut-mouthed, I copied out rules for myself.
When I grew up, I built my house by the ravine
between electrical towers
and the McDonough penitentiary.
The fisherman’s wife turns on a wish toward her poor hut.
I barely knew my mother.
What does wind represent? I ask the class.
They are reading Jean Toomer.
‘Freedom,’ one says, and as I write it on the board,
my puerile self awakens
leaping in a backyard clearing,
nearly swept away, but not quite,
in the heavy winds before that tornado, so long ago.
An aborted bath,
a child naked and dripping –
pajamas tossed down stairs, blanket, candles –
she’s tucked up clean and safe in the surrounding alarm,
The morning’s palm fronds fan under a crucifix.
Then why not say so? I ask the students –
‘Change is coming!’ A rallying cry.
‘It’s poetry,’ they let me know. ‘And code.’
Language and politics,
they’ve got that right,
and are right without knowing
the lies I told at school next day,
and the next year in another classroom
half a continent away, Providential lies,
lies that change nothing in the straitened
confounded landscape, lies
that make me the center of the story,
important for five minutes.