Poem of the Week | March 04, 2008

This week’s poem is “The Mohawks” by Joshua Rivkin. Rivkin is a Wallace Stegner fellow in poetry at Stanford University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, American Letters & Commentary, Beloit Poetry Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Saint Ann’s Review, and Verse Daily. He lives in San Francisco.

“Last year I taught 9th and 10th grade English. This poem is one of several about my students who in the contradictions and complexities of that age continually surprised me. Towards the end of the year several of the 10th grade boys came to school with mohawks. Their haircuts, serious and playful, meaningful and absurd, became a way for me to think about the shifting boundaries between our inner and outer lives.”

The Mohawks

When the blue dress secretaries on their lunch break
smoke thin menthols, show off their skim milk flesh
almost blue from winter life, I think of my own skin
lonely as a window.  Five stories above
invisible hands raise visible blinds as if hunger could be
filled by the turquoise dress of the midday midweek sky.
A man at the far end of the square scatters bread
for pigeons jostling with wing and throat.
Consider of the special rights of 10th grade boys
who tilted their chairs against the back wall of my class
as if to be far from notice as possible.
And yet they shaved their heads, except for a flame
of hair that wisps like a house fire through the roof,
strands of rage and proof: we, say the fire,
are on fire.  Our youth made plain as the hem
of a dress or a brown bag lunch.  Our inner life opening
the way hotel doors let cold air move from inside out
when you pass, at the right time, in summer.
To be this honest feels impossible for me- there’s
a true apology I never manage to get right,
though I practice more every year.   I can’t wear
fire on the landscape of my body.  I can’t lean
my body that far away from the world.  I know
too much about what I don’t know.
The women return to work.  Boys in the back,
look with me for company in quiet longing,
salvation in glimpses of legs and office buildings.
Let’s give each other permission to imagine
the shifting afternoon light to be a copier’s white
strobe flashing as the women stack papers
into neat order, pressing Start again and again.