An Ass that Sees Pants…

"Any man of sense would remember that the eyes are doubly confused from two different causes, both in passing from light to darkness and from darkness to light; and believing that the same things happen with regard to the soul also, whenever he sees a soul confused and unable to discern anything he would not just laugh carelessly; he would examine whether it had come out of a more brilliant life, and if it were darkened by the strangeness; or whether it had come out of greater ignorance into more brilliant light, and if it were dazzled with the greater illumination." – Plato’s Republic, Book VII, allegory of the cave

1. 1968

Mom said, "Show your father
what you won in school today."
I was fourteen, too young to learn
these would be the first and last
trophies I’d ever win
but too old to talk about them.
"Lemme see," Dad said, his saying
always settling things,
ending them there and then, so I showed him:
"This one’s for running and this one’s for jumping."

Slowly fluttering his heavy eyelids
as if deicing them from the all-day meat market,
where he sliced the sides and ground the gizzards
of steers, he said, "In Maltese we say, ‘an ass
that sees pants for the first time shits in them.’"

What the hell? Was I standing there or not?
Once I got over his syntax-in-translation—
whose ass can see, anyway?—I wondered,
was he talking to me? About me? He laughed vaguely
and lowered his head into the pages of l-Orizzont,
the Maltese newspaper that kept him
from The Bronx he’d brought us to.

2. 1996

Just before my fourteen-year-old daughter
won her first medal, I lifted my head
from Plato’s Republic to remind Dad
his Maltese proverb was no congratulation.
I was too young to know Dad had one more year
but too old to think I had so many more than he.
He laughed again: "’An ass that sees pants.’
I haven’t heard or said that one in a long time."

It needed no explaining. God forbid the son of a butcher
should taste success too fast
just to let it slip through his fingers,
as if good fortune was nothing more than
the crap running down an incontinent’s legs.
Yet it had become my credo:

I could never lift my arms and legs high enough,
never work hard enough, never earn enough,
never lower my head before the Man enough,
never judge the accomplishment less enough—
all things conjoined with a never this or never that—
Dad and I, our legs, our arms, or heads, our souls,
lifting and lowering, lowering and lifting,
darkness to light, light to darkness.

Then from the stands my father shoved me:
"Watch your daughter run, watch her run,"

but she had already crossed the finish line.

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