Painted Eyes

Dusty and treeless, the street sloped beneath us.
Somewhere a hammer made thunderclaps,
forging the night-sky.
                                       Then the children,
seeing us, dashed from the Moorish houses,
vigorously shouting, vying for position,
while the bravest,
in worn underpants and plastic sandals,
climbed a high crater-like wall
and plunged, with murderous cries,
into the Roman pool
where blue-lipped fish waited.
Ah, those glorious soaked heads, spiked like palm fronds!
Seeing one in our group clutch her purse—
repelled by the wet black princes
who shivered in circles of yellow mud
and begged from us—
I felt ashamed.
In the brief African twilight,
a canary chirped something
shrewdly about avarice.
Far off, in the little neighborhood
where I grew—with neat cement walkways
and crab-apple blossoms—
money ran through the fingers
of our house, with nothing much
to record its loss but unhappiness:
one of us ironing servilely,
one of us sobbing in a bedroom,
one of us sleeping on a rifle,
one of us seizing another by the hair,
demanding the animal-like submission
we thought was love.
                                       Sunday evening.
Mother is wearing a big cotton shift
and tweezing her eyebrows.
Her head is a thicket of hairpins.
In the round hand-mirror
that parodies her face,
the world looks greater than it is.
I am next to bathe in the water
of the poor earth, reused by each of us
in order of birth. Gray with sodium and grit,
it covers me like a black robe,
and yet I feel exalted.
                                       Soon the violent rain,
like wet Sahara sand, would fall,
scrubbing the hot labyrinthine
corridors of shuttered houses and aimless dogs,
where the sparse life is
purgative and inexhaustible,
where little pilfering hands
moved freely in and out
of my trouser pockets,
though there were no diamonds
except those the eyes mined.

Henri Cole, “Painted Eyes” from The Visible Man (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).  Copyright © 1998 by Henri Cole. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Visible Man (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)
More Poems by Henri Cole