"The Sweet Undertaste"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
March 30 2010 6:58 AM

"The Sweet Undertaste"

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear  Philip Schultz read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.
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What accounts for the sweetness of human beings?
For the fragile, inexhaustible longing in the eyes
of the slowly dying, the sweet undertaste of
a tune sung in a moment of unutterable delight?
For the gentle, whimsical blue in Uncle Sigmund's eyes
after he kept falling on his one leg and was told
to stop drinking? For the strength to crawl bleeding
to the phone and open the door? For his bewildered,
bloodied hospital smile? Irony gets us only so far.
Bitterness exhausts the heart. Disappointment loves
only itself. What accounts for the ignorance and hate
that chased him from the German side of Poland
to the Russian side, from the honeycomb of innocence
to the boomeranging cold of a cattle car rushing through
the moonless Siberian night, from the wrong side of fate
to the unalterable fact that once a man has run for his life
never again can he sleep through the night, that once salvation
is torn out of us we continue to run, on one leg and two,
to crawl like a worm through the stony anonymous earth?
Yes, what in this tumultuous infinitely regenerative world
accounts for the sweetness of his pious smile though my wife,
two boys and I will soon leave and take our happiness with us,
and he'll remain here, in this childless hospital room, his liver
blackened with whisky, his left pant leg pinned at the knee,
surrounded by the ravenous dreams of the lost and misplaced,
and the ricocheting echoes of the world eight floors below?

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Philip Schultz's memoir, My Dyslexia, came out last fall. He founded and directs The Writers Studio, a private school for writing, now in its 25th year.

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