• On the Waterfront

    B. H. Fairchild

    Winter 2009

    -Know thyself

    Flashlight in hand, I stand just inside the door
    in my starched white shirt, red jacket nailed shut
    by six gold buttons, and a plastic black bow tie,
    a sort of smaller movie screen reflecting back
    the larger one. Is that really you? says Mrs. Pierce,
    my Latin teacher, as I lead her to her seat
    between the Neiderlands, our neighbors, and Mickey Breen,
    who owns the liquor store. Walking back, I see
    their faces bright and childlike in the mirrored glare
    of a hard winter New York sky. I know them all,
    these small-town worried faces, these natives of the known,
    the real, a highway and brown fields; and New York
    is a foreign land-the waterfront, unions, priests,
    the tugboat’s moan–exotic as Siam or Casablanca.
    I have seen this movie seven times, memorized the lines:
    Edie, raised by nuns, pleading-praying really­
    Isn’t everyone a part of everybody else?
    and Terry, angry, stunned with guilt, Quit worrying 
    about the truth. Worry about yourself, while I,
    in this one-movie Kansas town where everyone
    is a part of everybody else, am waiting darkly
    for a self to worry over, a name, a place,
    New York, on 52nd Street between the Five Spot
    and Jimmy Ryan’s where bebop and blue neon lights
    would fill my room, and I would wear a porkpie hat and
    play tenor saxophone like Lester Young, but now, however,
    I am lost, and Edie, too, and Charlie,
    Father Barry, Pop, even Terry because he worried more
    about the truth than he did about himself,
    and I scan the little mounds of bodies now lost even to
    themselves as the movie rushes to its end,
    car lights winging down an alley, quick shadows
    fluttering across this East River of familiar faces
    like storm clouds cluttering a wheat field or geese
    in autumn plowing through the sun, that honking,
    that moan of a boat in fog. I walk outside
    to cop a smoke, could have been a contender,
    I could have been somebody instead of who I am, and
    look across the street at the Army-Navy store where
    we would try on gas masks, and Elmer Fox would let
    us hold the Purple Hearts, but it’s over now, and they
    are leaving, Goodnight, Mr. Neiderland,
    Goodnight, Mrs. Neiderland, Goodnight, Mick, Goodnight, 
    Mrs. Pierce, as she, a woman who has lived alone
    for forty years and for two of those has suffered through
    my botched translations from the Latin tongue, smiles,
    Nosce te ipsum, and I have no idea what she means.

    B. H. Fairchild is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2005, Fairchild received the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry from the Sewanee Review.

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