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Karroo Pofadder

pofadder: puff adder, a venomous African viper
dorp: an isolated village
riempied: constructed with interlaced leather thongs (usually chair seats)

He motorcycled daily, the incongruous American poet,
from his thatched dwelling to the dorp;
five straight miles over scorched scrubland
(he spurned the graded but wandering gravel road),
his knapsack on the tank between his thighs.

He stopped atop the railway embankment to remember
passing this way as a boy, to admire the steel
parallel lines converging at the smudged horizon;
to the left, far beyond the haze, the remains
of the Mother City; to the right, the tomb at Matopos.

Ahead, hazy today, he saw the dorp,
it’s dusty street, the dun café whose obsequious
Portuguese would send his girl for cold beer,
while he wrote, and a hot pie. The poet’s sweat
seemed the only moisture for a hundred miles.

Contentment … joy…
till suddenly, a frightening hiss,
a heavy thump on his ankle. He’d been struck.
In senseless panic, with the deceit of fear, he felt
the twin hypodermic punctures; if he dared look
he’d see the killer’s head fastened to his flesh.

He looked and saw: a pofadder, coiled at his foot,
intricately scaled, camouflaged to blend with dirt;
then the swell of self-congratulatory relief:
he wore those heavy boots, sensibly anticipating
(he was American after all) perils such as this.

A female. He could tell by her short tail. She writhed
even after he shot her (his pistol, indispensable
as his boots, was ever in his knapsack). Living here,
he’d learned the ways of free men, unsentimental
at the sight of vermin, vermin of any species.

*

Teofilo’s café: a high-backed riempied bench
carved in stinkwood, a stained yellowwood tabletop,
a glass of uriniferous Castle sweating in a puddle;
a lazy fan, a hanging garden of corpse-
encrusted flypaper for protection from heat and pests.

A fine and quiet place to barter, pen-in-hand,
with truth, to chip lyrically away at temple-building
Ptolemy, St. Mark, the Cleopatras (he loved his Alexandrians),
but today a lewd image of a writhing adder
harries the fantasy that guides a poet’s chisel,

imposing the unwanted recollection of an odious episode:
the American poet, by night, walks a city
renowned for solemn architecture received from antiquity
for mighty monuments to artists, heroes and emperors,
bound by a shady Ring of planes and maples;

but these, the poet knows, are unheeded survivors
of war, revolution, anarchy, treason, philosophies,
loss of faith, and invasions of rootless fanatics.
Escaping the floodlit grandeur, he seeks solitude
in a winding street gaudy with bars and businesses.

A sudden, frightening, importunate tug at his coat.
They said the streets were safe. He jerks away,
expecting, if he looked, a malefactor after his money.
Instinctively, he reaches for his knapsack, forgetting you can’t
carry a pistol in this enlightened land.

He turns, looks; a girl, almost invisible
against the bright but fitful lights, dressed
to blend with locals, smiling faintly, demurely,
invitingly. An Arab, Jewess, bronzed Teuton?
Here, proudly indiscriminate, they can’t distinguish;

recreant, ignorant of the ways of God and Man,
they can only run or succumb. If ever — God forefend —
he lived among them, would he too learn
their complacent ways? learn to signal virtue
at the sight of vermin, vermin of any species?

Miamisburg, Ohio, 2017

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