The red ink matches the gauges in the man’s ears,
Gauges the size of silver dollars
Dollars like the ones I just gave him.
I claim one of the few empty chairs in the room and sit with my back to the bar.
Facing the microphone,
Facing the crowd,
Eager to listen.
I want not just to listen, but to hear.
To hear the hearts behind the voices,
The souls behind the symbols,
The minds behind each metaphor.
I want not just to look but to see.
To see beyond shaved heads and shredded t-shirts,
Beyond and beneath sweaters and sport coats, leather and lace,
And hair in a rainbow of colors.
I want to take in both the lies and the truth,
To see and hear it all.
Poets take turns standing for three minutes in the spotlight behind the microphone,
Baring their souls to the crowd,
Naked and not ashamed.
Poets are not ashamed to shout out to a room full of strangers their fatal flaws and private pain.
They spread bare arms wide and show us their scars –
Marks left behind by needle or blade.
And we clap for them.
We clap for their battles with anorexia, bulimia, heroine, and cocaine.
We clap for the nooses that did not tighten enough and the EMT’s that arrived in time.
We clap for the soul-flames that flickered so perilously but now stand before us, weaving their words.
Souls hanging on by a thread.
We are all just here for the words.
The best poems bypass the mind altogether,
Evaporating into emotion the moment they strike the ear.
Syntax dissolves into meaning
Like a snowflake touching the tongue.
Nothing is left to analyze or study,
Just the tingling sensation of cold on the skin.
Or the reverberation of a fist to the gut.
The best poems stun us silent for a moment.
The poet steps back, uncertain, from the microphone.
Then we remember to clap.
We clap loud and hard
Not for the pain, but the alchemy.
The poet has bled out words, shimmering and glorious, and we are amazed.
For two or three days afterwards, I feel raw,
Haunted by what I have heard.
But too soon the word-painted images blur and fade
Like the ink of the stamp on my hand.
My own words that could have been poems
Get turned into lists instead.
My heart stops throbbing with the pain of others,
And life gets ordinary again.
I can look without seeing.
Listen without hearing.
And that is no way to live.
When the bodies I pass on the street become soulless to me,
It’s time to go back
To pay my three dollars
And have my hand stamped anew with the blood-red symbol of death.