Nothing the poet at the podium has read
is as achieved as his shirt, which is white,
so white a white its very shadows are Antarctic,
a pronouncement of magnificent power,
able to make immaculate
a few yards of cloth in this dirty world,
if only for a morning, before he sweats at the pits
and drags the cuffs through his lunch.
It took an army to keep the Virgin Queen’s satin clean,
and the man who invented the starch
that kept the court’s ruffs stiff and bright
got a knighthood and fortune:
we work to keep an area of the world
clear around our faces and necks,
so we can be seen in the right light, so we can breathe.
But The Road to Perdition shows
a man lured laughing and drunk
by whores through a red-lit door–
not even the main character, this poor jerk,
just some peripheral guy who doesn’t know
the only way to be free is not to need
what’s through that door.
No dirt can touch the few
who are clean that way, but for the rest of us,
as amply proved by luminous frogs
in a mural on my block,
over whose delicate spatulate toes
someone has spray-painted FUCK FUCK FUCK:
there is no way in the world to keep pure.
“White Shirt” is from The Charge (Ausable Press, 2003).