Two Poems

“With Affirmative Action and All”

There is not enough silence in all of Pittsburgh
to explain the quiet in that room

 

between the two of you, not the televised silence
of a Steelers’ riot on mute; not the stillness

 

of the Duquesne Incline failing to scale
Mt. Washington and rise above the grime

 

of steel mills. Not the muffled gasps of black boys
kicked and dunked by whites while lifeguards

 

look on at the Highland Park pool, summer ’31.
Not the dampened blast of the Lower Hill, razed

 

to pave a parking lot and build the Civic Arena,
with “no social loss” in bulldozing homes

 

of immigrants and blacks. Not the stifled sobs
of teen August Wilson fleeing Gladstone

 

when his teacher accuses him of plagiarism.
But Pittsburgh, why bully you, City of Bridges:

 

steely with pride, grappling with all your histories?
Why choose you, and this old horse I ride

 

repeatedly, haphazardly, backwards through time—
why choose you, when, in any given American

 

town, there is a room inside a room inside a room
where thought shapes word shapes action—shapes

 

memory, shapes history—where synaptic gaps
deepen, now, into fissures, into canyons.

View-Master Virtual Reality Starter Pack: Mortality Reel

1.
A canyon of memory floods
as the zip line slips: first bike,
first dance, first kiss. Broken bone.
And more: first love, wedding cake,
two kids. Soft spot pulsing
on each newborn’s crown. And you,
in the blur of greenery and river
and craggy rock, you release
every spring, pulley, or counterweight
that ever held you back.

 

2.
Slammed by a PAT bus. Mercy. Swift
and painless. Seven angels gasp
but you are unperturbed, descending
with a steaming non-fat chai tea latte
into the counterflow lane from the curb.

 

3.
One moment you leap and dance amid
a snow-topped mountain cap backdrop
and the next, without notice, you huddle
in bed, doting spouse dropping one perfect
tear upon your furrowed brow. Somewhere
afar, a sitar twangs and wails. A mysterious
virus. Rare injury. Lightning seizing
your whole and healthy spine
when you least expect it. No
choreography for grief: an entire troupe
of sequined mourners, it seems,
will fail to bring you back.

 

4.
Legs crossed upon a mat in the dusty outpost
you attain such enlightenment that time slows,
giving you full minutes to regard the smooth
cartridge hurtling toward your chest. It makes
of the air a gel. A web. A balloon stretched to snap.
Welcome to bullet time. You were never so much
in your life as you were around it: observing it,
remarking on it. Given this moment of dead time,
you can at last see from every given viewpoint.

 

5.
Overpriced vintage fountain pen
pokes through your bag, piercing
your backside. Infection follows
and you fall to sepsis, bringing credence
to claims that, daily, writing involves risk.

 

6.
Pitch darkness. Silence. Pure emptiness.
A familiar voice in the distance.

 

7.
The truth is, you don’t see it coming even there
in the wrinkled bed for the sixth—or is it seventh?—
visit that season. Your beloved covers a bowl
of canned peaches, the only taste, nowadays, that
appeals. You want to save it. You plan to eat it
later. You wait for your children to arrive
at the bedside as they always do, exhausted
and deeply happy to see you still there, still alive,
bright-eyed but—they know—shrinking. Your face
is fuller now with fluids your kidneys retain
which helps them forget that your legs, under
a stack of sheets and blankets, are nearly fleshless.
You know the doctors by name and they, you.
You know which nurses will glide in to usher
each dumbstruck family member from the room
hours after you’ve passed to the next world,
hours they’ve spent sobbing, wondering,
and pleading, your chest still rising and falling
in rhythm endlessly, it seems, as though
the only barrier between you and them
were the blissful sleep of recovery, a dream
of being lifted with love and carried home.

 

Dilruba Ahmed

www.dilrubaahmed.com/

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), won the Bakeless Prize. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Blackbird, New England Review, and Poetry. New work is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Copper Nickel, 32 Poems, and Ploughshares. Her poems have also been anthologized in Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016), Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas, 2010), and elsewhere. Ahmed is the recipient of The Florida Review’s Editors’ Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and the Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship in Poetry awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. She holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.

 

Photo by Mike Drzal.