The cement truck, shielded like the tortoise
Rummaging through the hole it dug itself
The better to blend in, and curious,
Is suffocating in Times Square like us—
We, the same ones commuting into work
As yesterday, rolling out of the dark
Into traffic like the gristmill shark
Ramming water up against gullible gills.
Veering my way on Sixth, crunching the curb,
The truck drum sheers like a barbershop pole
Shorn of its elusion or Gogol’s nose
To the grindstone or the virgin world globe
Spun in slow-motion to show how far one
End of the earth is from another—
Smooth as a Roman statue’s eyes, Homer’s,
Reciting violations. It’s move or smother.
The tortoise in Prospect Park turns to mud
Under a rock, its eyes two tiny nostrils
It has trouble finding the sleeves of, still
As the small dark snails that barnacle its shell.
Very little’s holding us together
But umbrellas jammed in an irregular
Honeycomb of output and income
And I left mine at home, and in this weather—
Rush hour in a mushroom rain—delicacy
Squelches (men in armor, Pharaoh’s heart)
And can’t hear what, or where, the Sirens warn—
Look up! The clouds won’t let the sun crawl through.
With traffic stalled, the side streets meet, turn mean.
Cabs cram, horns clash, cogs grind down backlogged roads
Slowing the truck’s load—stuck behind the brain
Blocked from mind by the Manhattan deadline.
Hard-hatted roots bucking the concrete saddle,
The tortoise pulls out from its muddy chore
Treading the weight of its carousel—
Old chewing gum strung to a runner’s sole.
Briefly the light changes, then changes back
Before we can shake these stingy umbrellas.
Dashing harebrained to cross the ticker tape
The news keeps breaking but the cars don’t brake.
The poem’s impulse came from its two central images—I saw the tortoise while running in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and the cement mixer as I emerged from the subway in Times Square, on my way to work in the rain. A mushroom rain, in Russian, refers to a light rain that falls while the sun is shining, a rain favorable to mushroom growth; at the same time, the word ‘mushroom’ captures for me the feeling of walking in wet shoes, in a rush; and from rain to cloud is a short step. As I revised ‘Gray Matter,’ I looked for ways to make these elements coincide: the literal, the sonic, and the political overtone. On the spinning globe, New York is as far from Iraq as the rhetoric of apocalypse from a tally of deaths, the end of financial gain from that of political or creative effort, and cultural blindness from Homer’s. Or as close.
Rebecca Starks lives in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Stanford University.
“Gray Matter” appeared in the Spring & Summer 2008 issue (v3.n1) of Poetry Northwest. Subscribe today