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first time

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we went into a market—they call it a grocery—and you can’t imagine. fruit brilliant as magazine photos. all kinds of different oranges, grapefruits, mandarins, some tiny clementines with a blue sticker—Morocco—they’ve come so far...the eggs are painted with colors corresponding to the days of the week you’re supposed to eat them: a different color for each opportunity. i felt dizzy, the gulf between myself and this place seemed insuperable. tears welled up in my eyes, i wanted desperately to flee, to get outside so i could breathe. i wanted to explain to Phillis, the North American who had invited me, what was happening to me. i tried, but she couldn’t understand: you have to have felt it yourself: the first time. for the first time my mind had crossed over five hundred years of development at jet speed and arrived in the future, a cold future, its display cases filled with artificial snow and artificial heat. there were a thousand things i never knew existed, a panoply of brand names and gadgets for every purpose. i felt like someone from the stone age, and realized most people on the planet never know the era they’re living in, any more than they could know the quantity of living matter in this galaxy that surrounds us, or the milky complexity of the molecules in their own brains, and what’s more they don’t know that they’ll die without ever knowing. i felt terror of that gloss, of the waxed fruit, of propaganda so refined it could dilute the existence of the strange things before my eyes, other sensations: everything wanting to be used up, immediately, licked, tasted, eaten, packaged, mastered. i knew i couldn’t stand this avalanche, this brilliant swarm, for long, these rows on rows of distant faces staring out at me from cardboard boxes. i’d seen nothing singular in the place, no unique thing i could separate out from the amorphous mass of texture and sensation. i began to move closer, imagining i walked with those who have never eaten meat or tasted cow’s milk, who have never nursed except from the teat of a goat. those who have had only wildflowers to chew when the winter hunger comes. i approached closer still, imagining i walked with the salty ones, who collect their water from the public pipe. my nose began to bleed and Phillis said it was the cold; i knew that wasn’t the problem. we were near the seafood display, i moved closer. fish have always aroused in me both horror and desire. i moved closer, like a lost child feeling her way through space toward something of hers that’s hidden. i brushed the shells with my fingertips, they were smooth and delicate, but obviously artificial, made to be used once and thrown away. at first touch they might seem real, pearly, perfect, but they’re actually plastic, and they’ve never even seen any sea.

Source: Poetry (June 2011)
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first time

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