Bath

By Stuart Dybek b. 1942 Stuart Dybek
She mops a washcloth down his spine and scrubs
until his bones glow with the inner light of porcelain
and when his Haloed hair bursts forth into foam
he holds his nose and dunks beneath the soapy gloom
ears flooding with signals
the pipes transmit like microphones.

The boy can hear another city, the one below
where wind coils when it isn’t howling,
one can hear Purgatory boil
up through the manholes, a river flushing souls
into the underworld, tomorrow’s news
bawled at the crossroad of subway and sewer.

If he were accidentally to swallow here
the water would taste like silver
off a dead man’s eyes. Upstairs,
the mute émigré waitress he secretly
adores sings naked in the shower,
the newlyweds from Mexico

rage about dinero, next door
a newborn wails like a Black Maria,
while in a hidden room, a crazy old man
won’t stop repeating “the goddamn, the goddman!”
And the boy comes up for air,
eyes burning, rinsed hair silky, his hands
wrinkled, Busha says, as prunes.

Overhead, the bare bulb fogs with steam.
She jerks the plug, the drain
gulps a vortex of gray bathwater.
It’s time to rinse before it sucks him down,
to stand calf-deep, lacquered with Ivory,
smoldering before a faucet that trickles

a cool stream at which Busha washes him
first gently in front and then behind
in a way that no one else will ever wash him.
The moon, too, must be fogged above
misted lamps that bleed into reflections
on the marbled pane.

He swipes abstractions in the sweat,
finger painting night
while Busha towels his hair
as if reviving a drowned sailor
the sea has graciously returned.
Don’t worry, Busha, your grandson is clean

for Saturday night:
ears, navel, nails, inspected,
teeth unstained, cleansed as baptism
leaves the soul, pure enough to sleep—
as you instruct him—with the angels,
cleaner than he’ll ever be again.

“Bath” from Streets in Their Own Ink by Stuart Dybek. Copyright 2004 by Stuart Dybek. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com

Source: Streets in Their Own Ink (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2006)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Stuart Dybek b. 1942

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Relationships, Living, Youth

 Stuart  Dybek

Biography

Poet and fiction writer Stuart Dybek was born in 1942 and raised on the South Side of Chicago. He attended Loyola University in Chicago and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His collections of poetry include Brass Knuckles (1979) and Streets in Their Own Ink (2004). His works of fiction, including the short story collections Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1980) and The Coast of Chicago (1990), and the novel-in-stories I Sailed . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Relationships, Living, Youth

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.