Two Poems by Nathaniel Calhoun

N'gor, Fallen

the incentives must not be misaligned
since precarity is uninsurable by design.

the man who fell and cracked his skull
building the house next door
bled deep onto concrete of his own pouring—
fear in his eyes, yes, a little, but also
knowing and fresh intimation of loss.

my watchman rushed for me to join
the workers gathered round, assuming,
perhaps, that I had medical skill.

paralysis could result from moving him
but we were beyond that concern. I knew
something about pressure on a wound—
his was poorly wrapped with an undershirt—
but that didn’t come to me or I didn’t say
or I didn’t want to look closer or
I wasn’t certain of the vocabulary in French
or I didn’t want to get any nearer
to this man’s death.

I urged the men to organize a boat and get him
from our island to a hospital quickly.
then I went back to my day, telling myself
that the chain of men linked by faith and locality
should be enough to hasten this man’s
flickering life towards healers.

but I knew my watchman was also asking
with his heart and all of theirs
for my pocketbook, skin tone and forcefulness
to take responsibility and demand
that each link turn bystander to rescuer at pace.
instead I broke the first link and set
the other pattern loose.
so that man’s poverty laced
his neck round with a noose.
and my privilege (I was busy)
nudged the stool as my neighbors watched—
diligent handwashers all.

how long the boat took to arrive,
I cannot be sure but I know it circled
in the sun for long minutes round the drain
as the man bled. taxi drivers, one at a time
declined the prospect of blood and passed
the task to an ambulance that began
some distance off and arrived dutiful
to ferry the man across a darker river.

the two families launching pirogues for the living
had deeper pockets than I had, and could have
compelled with cash or social pressure
some earthly chauffeur to help the man along.
and I don’t know what connection
the man lacked to them
if he came as used up laborers may
from a different language or lore or land
as he did for me.

they may also have thought:
to step out once as insurance
against the death of others
is to exist thereafter as a lifeguard
in the minds of thousands
or tens of thousands
on their makeshift crafts
in choppy waters.

it should have fallen to the property owner
to sort the widow out and the child
but I’m not sure he did.
and his level of sorting
likely fell somewhere short of dignity.

it was some days before construction resumed.

pangolin and the pit viper

the armor of creatures means so little to us now—
a trophy, an artifact, a carapace, a shell,
centimeters of abrasive hide,
redundant scales, quills or lances—
all yield to our skeleton key like turned fruit.
a small shatter may testify to their unmattering.
venom though, tops the mind—a salamander
sends us leaping, a chaff of benedictions
wafting in our wake.

down a washboard roadside through an old forest,
departing the copse of a quiet village,
we spy a youth dangling protein by the tail,
waving us to slow before we vanish.
a weary wounded pangolin, her hind leg
earlier jawed by the trapper’s wit,
coagulates, drags. she spins a slow
oval of failed escape, heaving each rugged muster,
staying in our midst with audible breath.
somewhere tonight she will be eaten.
our pockets say our table—she coils
into the plastic weave of a rice sack
snug in the juddering trunk between
petrol cans and camping chairs.
we tackle roads after nightfall in a bid
to reach Lekoni, edged against
the no-mans-land of almost Congo.

I negotiate the final moments of the pangolin
with a cook and his subordinate.
for 90 minutes we drink sorghum ale
amidst mosquito coils in the cinderblock courtyard,
speculating about the merits of our meal.
we aren’t impressed. is yours all tail as well?
they’ve only given us the tail. we demand
an explanation. the tail is nicest, says the subordinate.
we guess the cooks made merry in the back,
snacking on the succulent bits, dissing us
with the leavings—as if we know nothing.

a decade later, after learning that
pangolin are trafficked beyond all creatures,
their scales prized medicine, I resent those cooks
for another way they’ve cost me
in my encounter with the pangolin,
whom I neither thanked nor enjoyed,
to whom I showed no kindness
as I took my blessings by force.

*

on a narrow path between a gully
and a high stone wall, my wife springs forward,
calls attention underfoot. miniature
bright green scales, triangle head red tail,
two thirds of a small snake raised from the ground,
slowly swaying, already within
striking distance of my shin. me
between him and a large crab,
claws aloft. for a long moment still
I watch him consider whether to
inflict himself upon me or not.
I broadcast peace on every frequency I know,
and step back slowly up the stairs.
a one two four count he lowers down.
turns and dives into the spillway on my left,
a gentle rustle of leaves, soon quiet.
at dinner we guess this was a near miss.

hours later on the same path in deeper dark,
I overlook his nestling place a second time.
my wife, again, the one who spies him.
I stride over him and he chooses to whisper off—
twice. the curse withheld.

I seek his traits after and find them easily—
green pit viper, accused of aggression,
a venom to necrose a fist of flesh—
my calf, mutilated at best…if transport
…if anti-venom…if an allied body.
he could have struck me without shifting
his lower third. a soft tap on the temple
from a passing sage—

and I continue to take my blessings by force.

About the author

Nathaniel Calhoun lives, works and writes from the sub-tropical Far North of Aotearoa (New Zealand). His projects help communities around the world identify and…

Read the full bio

Issue 24 · September 2021

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