Poem

MANGO, ONLY MANGO

(for Jacob Epstein)

 

The Vietnamese waiter

served a mixture of luxurious

if queasy cuisines,

French and Chinese,

while you, my son,

played among the trunks of

rubber trees and bus boys’ legs

on the jungle floor

refusing your dinner

and pleading for “dessert,

just dessert.”

 

The place was Mandarin,

in the elevated sense.

I asked for fortune cookies

but that was beneath them,

so I ordered green tea ice cream.

 

“Our dessert tonight is mango ice cream,”

said the tight-lipped tuxedoed waiter

who wore a cummerbund over a

cobalt blue shirt with crinoline sleeves,

“Mango, only mango.”

We had to eat with chop sticks,

whether we could handle them or not.

Even my ancient uncle

who had lost his right arm

in the Peloponnesian war

was refused a fork.

 

“You are not strict enough with him,”

my uncle said,

“You would do better to think of him

as a little less miraculous.”

 

You were gazing through

the darkening window

as the cosmos slowly rose outside,

streaked with our local sunset,

watching the polar bears and the penguins

moving quietly in the dim arctic wastes.

 

For months now

you have been in love with tusks,

 

of elephants and walruses,

and the saber toothed tiger,

and the horn of the bellicose rhinoceros

standing tank-like and protective

beside his blubbery wife

the hippopotamus,

guarding her all night in the fantastic

habitat of your dreams.

 

“Don’t play with your food,”

my uncle said.

 

You casually raised yourself

from the jungle floor

and placed your plate upon the radiator

lining up your peas along the vents

and stood cooking them

on that peculiar grill,

looking out through the hushed

double-paned window,

who knew where.

 

Outside the night unfurled like a pirate’s sail

unmarked, directionless,

and magnificent.

Seagulls blew like grey rags

through the indigo sky,

and threads of smaller birds floated

in the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge

strung across the big shouldered shadows

of the dissolving hills.

Above the bridge you spotted

the two ethereal spoons of your books,

the “little bitter” and the “big bitter.”

 

Alone among us you knew what all the

astronomers know,

that when you are looking up

into the night sky

you are really looking down into

the universe,

that only a blind man looks up into the

darkness.

 

It did not matter whether

you were looking up

or looking down,

all was light inside your soul.

Near the bottom of the universe

you found a tiny star set apart

from all the others,

filling up your being with light,

or filling up with yours.

There it was, your joy,

in which you knew yourself.

 

Fearful as I was that you would burn

your fingers in the vents

I was more afraid to tear you from the stars.

How I envied your infinite trespass,

your absolution from this gerrymandered

world.

 

“He’s spilling his rice all over the floor,”

my uncle said,

but your rice was strewn among the

constellations.

 

He picked you up and brought you

to the table under his only arm,

leaving your peas warm

and uneaten in the vents.

In front of you the waiter set a porcelain dish

of mango ice cream

with a kumquat in the center.

“He sees that cold pleasure

is just as good as hot,”

he said, and handed you a spoon.

 

You asked “what comes after the stars?”

“Stars,” I said.

And after that?

“More stars.”

 

What could I say

that would not impair your joy?

That the stars kept on going

or that they thinned out until they were

depleted,

that there was no end to them,

or that they ended?

© 2012 Henry Epstein