University of Southern Indiana

After Lecturing on Modern American Poetry in Delhi, John Berryman Visits the Cuttack Leprosarium

Amy Newman 

After lecturing on modern American poetry in Delhi,
John Berryman Visits the Cuttack Leprosarium,
chastened by a hangover so distinct
he could title it. The quarantine seems peaceful,
a time-lapse of bruises rising on skin,
the micro bacteria’s spheres and rods and spirals
scavenging each leper’s body with textures, paisleys
in stubborn gray florals and slow, aggressive stars. 

India is an exotic of blood and ash
undulant with birds, profound with suffering
and acceptance so lake-sleek, so glassily still,
grace might float down as a heron
to gaze into the placid human crush.
But the songs in their terrors are systemic.
They undress him inside the flesh, hem to his haw.
Sadness strips to its parasites,
shivers in worms, smokes his Tareytons. 

The lepers salaam in their purgatory.
With their warning chimes, they are like monks,
tithing through red gills and smoke oh grace & they ignore
how god awful the body feels, they divest,
they translate to something without bones, or weight,
something rose-like, crisp, what’s the phrase,
what in Christ’s name are you getting at,
Berryman? He is unhinging,
his older-than-it-should-be heart
ba-booms a turbulence like a deep-sea fish,
rolling, wide-mouthed, out of place,
all systems rinsed in pain, in terrible oxygen.

Amy Newman Amy Newman is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Dear Editor (Persea Books). Recent work appears in The Missouri Review, Narrative Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Newman is a Presidential Research Professor at Northern Illinois University.

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