American Life in Poetry: Column 271

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Barnyard chickens, which are little more than reptiles with feathers, can be counted on to kill those among them who are malformed or diseased, but we humans, advanced animals that we think we are, are far more likely to just turn away from people who bear the scars of misfortune. Here’s a poem by Ned Balbo, who lives and teaches in Maryland.

Fire Victim

Once, boarding the train to New York City,
The aisle crowded and all seats filled, I glimpsed
An open space—more pushing, stuck in place—
And then saw why: a man, face peeled away,
Sewn back in haste, skin grafts that smeared like wax
Spattered and frozen, one eye flesh-filled, smooth,
One cold eye toward the window. Cramped, shoved hard,
I, too, passed up the seat, the place, and fought on
Through to the next car, and the next, but now
I wonder why the fire that could have killed him
Spared him, burns scarred over; if a life
Is what he calls this space through which he moves,
Dark space we dared not enter, and what fire
Burns in him when he sees us move away.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2005 by Ned Balbo, whose most recent book of poetry is Something Must Happen, Finishing Line Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from Lives of the Sleepers, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, by permission of Ned Balbo and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.