Three Poems
    Stephen Ajay

Finding Ourselves in Banaras

It is a hot walk from the Ram Nagar bridge. Before heading up toward the
palace past the vegetable market, we go directly left along the far shore of
the Ganga. We walk slowly in the noontime heat; there is no other way. We
walk slowly along the stretch of light-colored sand alive with dhobi wallahs
who make their hard slapping music on the slanted stone slabs; they make a
whistling sound one second before a wet sheet or shirt strikes the slab. The
most precise ones develop a rhythm where the cloth is swung quickly around
four times: "Whop!. . . . Whop!. . . Whop! . . . Whop!” and again
“Whop! . . . Whop! . . . Whop! . . . Whop! . . .” We continue over thin
streams of water that flow like veins across the body, the shore covered
with fully beaten pants, all the leg spread out to the same angle reflect-
ing the brightest sunlight of the day. The hands of one old man are dyed
violet from a new piece of cloth, the color flows into the river. Up ahead
we see the first bleached shape facing away from us: the jaw, the teeth,
the sutures running over the crown. At the end of the village of dhobi wal-
lahs we stop before a long expanse of ground, stunned in the sunlight.
As we turn back I see it there again spread out at the foamy edge of the
water; now the curve of vertebrae, the pelvis, the leg with only the femur
and for a moment my head clears, fills with the freedom to slip a body into the
river, to let it turn over, gleam, to let it ride onto the shore like any other
empty thing.

Daybreak at Asi Ghat

Half awake and half way down the wide, high
steps I meet the boatman’s eye bargaining
and climbing out of sleep as the sun climbs out of the
river where tiny, tireless birds stitch through clouds.
Sitting face to face with water licking our feet on the
bottom of the boat, our tongues are tied in separate
worlds. While he rows us past the ribbon of
early risers praying and dunking in a quiet fury that
purifies what little night is left, I spy a small man who,
squatting on his heels, scrubs his teeth with a piece
of wood, his mouth red with betel. And on the opposite
shore a modest flock of vultures walk like very old
humans, in circles. My head then turns with the noise
of several young men swimming ten panicky yards into
the water they call their mother, a gold light reflecting
off their flesh as they begin to soap calf, thigh and midriff
and back the other way not flinching when our oar
slices by their knees; their gaze inviting me to
think what I please as they drink: one, two, three
handfuls of the Ganges.


Any moving object must reach halfway on a course
before reaching the end, therefore will never reach
a goal in a finite time.

It is coming. It is seated
quietly on the train by the window
on the other side of the border or below deck in
a large sailboat that has become unmoored. Or held
in the beak of some sea bird obeying magnetic north —
it is coming by some means. It is sawing in half
the distance we once luxuriated in — weightless
its wheels and bones
slice through the stale air; it cuts more
and more swiftly as it rolls or floats
or flies through these last nights on its
way here where it seems
all logic will be

Stephen Ajay has published two books of poetry, ABRACADABRA and The Whales Are Burning from New Rivers Press. His work is included in The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry, The Talking Of Hands: Unpublished Writings by New Rivers Press Authors, and many journals. Also a past writer in residence at the Yaddo and MacDowell Colonies and the Djerassi Foundation, he has received the Major Hopwood Award for Poetry, the P.E.N. American Center Grant for poetry and the Rinehart Foundation award for creative writing. He currently directs the undergraduate Creative Writing program at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, California.

"Finding Ourselves in Banaras" first appeared in Chelsea; "Daybreak at Asi Ghat" in Hollins Critic; and "Praying to Zen” in Against Certainty (the Chapiteau Press 2003 Bay Area Poets for Peace anthology).

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