Some kind of good meal,
I recall, our insult to injury there,
in the absolute city, Calcutta: callus
of endless pavement, my unrequited.
After, we trot along, un-
backpacked; and in the midst, the river,
its sure progress: come cross, come die.
He lies in our path, matted instance
of a general sliding rule, and the opened
body is eloquent: the clavicles,
their drained cups mouth the Psalmist’s
drouth: I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me; they make
their mouths at me, they shake their heads.
Ecce the pelvis, mounding under.
Ecce. O my goodness; my god.
O we pass by, yes, and there is an
end of it, wayward in the way we mouth
ruefulness, say, or appropriate concern,
so that, having passed, we labour with
the air, with balance—any progress this way
is hard-fought, self-won, wrath
as a mounding under: incurvatus in se.
And isn’t this where we find ourselves,
some few steps past and the impulse to stray,
not turn to the body who addresses
us with wasted abnegation?
Here, beloved (o come alongside us!)
in two minds, perhaps, now turn.
He is, I guess, my age; wasted
and guttingly light; this much I carry
still: the sit bones set in distressed
relief under his shorts, the bleary
taxi driver and his concern
over upholstery as he ferries
us to Kalighat. What do we earn
by such? The doorman’s bald rebuke
at the door—‘you need to phone
to let us know you’re coming’; the lock
tumbles, and in we go, arms full
of life at the end of the tether, and back
out to the car, raging and pitiful.
Ecco fatto. And nothing earned.
Things are, in fact, otherwise,
so that brought close to the agony
of the final taxi ride, we find
those small tally sticks amount
to so much kindling. We warm ourselves
and talk quietly, breakfasting on the beach
at the crossing, and dare not ask who it is
tends the fire, who will lift us, arm
under shoulder, under hip—nirmal hriday.
John Dennison was born in Sydney in 1978, and grew up in Tawa. His poems have appeared in magazines in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, and were anthologised in Carcanet’s New Poetries V (2011). A collection of poems, Otherwise, was published in 2015 by Carcanet and Auckland University Press. John Dennison is also the author of Seamus Heaney and the Adequacy of Poetry(Oxford, 2015). He lives with his family in Wellington, where he is a university chaplain.
John comments: 'In 2004 I travelled to Nepal, Bangladesh and India with Jannah, my wife. We found ourselves in Calcutta. It was a brief stay—just a few days—but I left overwhelmed and lastingly marked by the experience. One key encounter was with a young man on the street whom we passed by. He was barely clothed, emaciated and unconscious. After some fraught soul-searching we took him to Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Kalighat. This poem is an attempt to remember and reckon with that encounter.'
Otherwise at Auckland University Press
Carcanet author page
Interview with Jennifer Williams on the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast
Interview with Paula Green at NZ Poetry Shelf
John Dennison at the New Zealand Poet Laureate blog