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Stephen Cramer



The doors labor open to the heaped
                              clamor of commute-conductor's
                 drawl & static, the PA leaking

crackled locales &, below that, more urgently,

                 a metallic rasp & chafe-kneeling there,
                              a man on a make-shift contraption
                 (ply-wood base, shopping cart wheels) pulls off
the painstaking work of carting himself

across the gapped threshold. Swaddled
                              in a blanket-someone's beat-up
                  woolen blue-he wheels his bulk

on fisted knuckles to the pole's brief

                  mooring. That's when the blanket
                              falls & what's left of his legs
                  pokes through like stout elbows.
By then there's no need

for pageantry, but when he reaches
                              the car's middle (there's no one,
                   now, who isn't watching) he begins,
gently as his weather-worn voice will allow,

                   to sing. Nothing intricate or too
                              creative, this unadorned loop
                   of a song's just enough to contain
the four recurring lyrics-I got

no legs. He lifts his eyebrows
                              like a choirboy, distinctly
                   proud, before repeating

the simple fact of it-I got no

                   legs. & as he sings, he rows himself
                               forward like the song's scant exhalation,
                   & not his blackened fingers,
propelled him. Imagine the intricate

travelogue of those wheels-
                               stippled asphalt, cobble, curb
                   & impossible staircase-the endless

caterwaul of friction a sort of kindred

                   music to him. Slick linoleum rumble
                               as he threads through the aisle,
                   clutches the handle, hazards
the gap to the car in front.

We don't even need to watch
                               to see how the blanket drops,
                   the exertion of retrieval, the routine

culminating in four unreeled syllables

                   that let you forget any touch
                               of affectation. Because, showbiz
                   aside, he's answered fate not
with complaint or lamentation,

but with song (& let's not pretend-oh yes,
                               it's coming: there's something out there
                   with our names on it): & we all

need a song that says mercy. Song

                   that says O veiled & fathomless
                                city, strangely bejeweled by such
                   sundered & dazzling creatures,
hear our simple pleas

there's a legless man in the next
                                car & I can't stop feeling
                    how our bodies speed

through the space his just held,

                    how he's the part of us
                                 that's gotten there first.


Gleaned from gutter-mouths, we knew their muscle
before meanings, the monosyllables raised to hallowed
refrains on our tongues. We glorified it, the older world
of vice & impiety. So just as we both wanted to be
the fugitive in cops & robbers, my best friend & I
hid downstairs & scrawled out a barrage of vulgarities-
the heavy-hitters, of course, but then the half-dozen
declensions of ass,
the lumped phrases
of defecation, the whole
shameful lexicon of
anatomy. Then, those white
sheets defiled (microcosm
of our own soiled tabula rasa), we crumpled them
&-like shoving a bottled note to the sea's blind tug-
threw them to the ditch at wood's edge. It was the same
fertile gully where I'd picked, years before, palmfuls
of fruit &-the words monk's hood, nightshade
still a decade off-swallowed them. I hardly even
remember being sped to the ER to have my stomach
pumped. Of course
our ink-spangled pages
never went anywhere,
though I wish I could
hold one now, dim
record of childhood's
vast testing ground-
the necessary absurdity
& litter of it all.
Instead, those lost notes
were draped with stray
leaves, coiled with briars
which could never quite
keep from reach
those sweet-looking
berries we were told
not to touch,
but had to. & did.

                 -from Tongue & Groove