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Published: Sun Oct 15 1995
Salman Toor, Fag Puddle with Candle, Shoe, and Flag (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, N.Y. Photo: Farzad Owrang.
After the Operation

He cannot name the specifics of his pain.
Hurt, he says, I hurt. He is a child
growing younger every moment
his eyes meet mine. This is language
before language; this is sound the infant knows,
muffled, ordinary, the merge of pure sensation.
All the senses make one great noise, a storm
settled in his head. A monster stitch
snakes its way up from the base of his neck.
It stings, it aches. They’ve taken away
part of the bone, a circle
carved in the back of his skull.
It makes him tilt his head, walk sideways,
makes him vomit the milk and bread.
A lump rises along the scar,
resembling the swell of wind
against a sail, the fluid give and take
of an interior sea
pushing against containment. Sobbing and sobbing,
the infant rush and heave in a body
that is no longer self but matter.
After forty years, he is again all possibility.
What is that life inside,
what’s growing? The tide force
heaves towards birth, the incoherent
speech falling useless on the sand.


Months pass. Hair begins to cover the scar,
fine strands, like a kind of weed we’ve seen
washed up on broken land after the sea’s
weather. Little by little,
the tide turns; he forgets
exactly what it meant—that invasion
of heat and light in the privacy of his mind.
Only the ghost word, pain
with its abstract terror,
remains. He vacations at the sea,
and how he loves this, the restored
cold on the beach, the water
escaping the form imposed
by white, the snow and ice
sculpting the fifty or so feet of
sand and even the churning waves.
The waves themselves are less
visible in the water’s mass, and full of white.
They are the color of retribution
or the spirit which does not inhabit,
no, not one particle of the stony, fragile shore.

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Cleopatra Mathis has published six books of poetry, recently including White Sea (Sarabande Books, 2005) and What to Tip the Boatman? (Sheep Meadow Press, 2001), which won the Jane Kenyon Award. She is a professor of English at Dartmouth University, where she directs the creative writing department. (updated 6/2010)

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