Conjunctions:44 An Anatomy of Roads: The Quest Issue

Mission Thief
Picking up

                toward evening, bay breezes

                cool The Mission and

                fuchsia petals plop onto

                slabs of root-tilted sidewalk,

                local tectonics we maneuver,

                you and I fecund with our

                renewed vows en route

                to La Cumbre with its Aztec

                mural and gorditos—beside us

                at the curb, its windows opaque,

                a black seventy-five Cadillac

                rocks high up and drops

                back on pneumatic shocks, a whiff

                of carne asada, poles

                mummified with posters: Has Visto

                Este Niño/ Thrash Polka at Slims—


                                   five blocks away

the imminent lays its egg

in the eye of evening and what

begins as tenderness

will end in Calvary

whose devotion

can I claim

to aim wholly at you if holding

your hand even so my eyes

swivel to see the woman at her door

with dim desire or is it

nostalgia finally, mere registration,

an animal impulse

tightens the solar plexus

invisible to us three blocks away

a white-haired Asian man,

the collar of his jacket 

stained with sweat,

leans on his bicycle, all he owns,

against the pharmacy wall while

a panhandler puts down

his bagged bottle

by the lightpost and watches

you reach for

                my hand as we cross Dolores I spit

                sidewise into my shadow

                when you aren’t looking

                the monitor on a stool outside

                the Mission Revival plays a live feed

                of the sermon within 

                a bleak scene few men

                one child about twelve

                sweaty preacher’s sthenic rant

                dressed well

                a parishioner slips out

                through front doors but before

                they close, one another—one

                of us, the casual assembly of voyeurs—

                ushers herself in;

                so water evaporating

                from treetops tugs water through leaf

                which draws water through xylem

                up the trunk from roots maybe

                when one escaped

                the other was sucked inside like that

                who will rescue her

                not I and not a nervous drunk

                eyeing the seat bag and full-rack panniers

                of a bike against the wall

                                                             we do not see

the man the panhandler steal the bike

but other can

two sparrows titter in fescue

on the traffic island

where we continue

to stroll in urban intimacy

a tuned rhythm of synced steps

mark us a couple

a couplet on the page of scrawled noise

men sawing pavement at the corner

thick rap bass thumping

from open cars a Harley

growls around Guerrero

Mexican songs at the café we pass

a splash of Mandarin washes over 

the protected inlet of our taking-it-in

we’re quiet as urchins feeding on algae

fallen from stalks of kelp

only at the crossing only through horizons

with roses for sale, approaching the pair

eating at a curbside table,

an ink-haired Guatemalan girls in a red dress

her shyness sits at the edge of their plates like a fly

the bicycle thief wobbles our way

long strips of stratus make it

                a worthwhile sunset I stumble and

                catch the swing phase of your walk

                erotic your left foot pigeon-toed

                hips narrow as a boy’s

                what is that smell in the alley

                fennel urine and two starlings

                their wings scissored behind them

                like thoughtful rabbis walking

                I used to imagine strangers naked

                you say now I imagine them 

                in coffins the back of our hands touch

                you squeeze my wrist the body

                ambiguously subject and 

                object a dog tied to a fireplug sneezes

                the old man passing by says Bless you

                a little sordid and still warm leftover

                flan-yellow of day remains

                before what they once called civil-dark

                when it grew too dim to work and 

                the ice man with his iron-scorpion

                dragged to a kitchen his last block

                already the future is cued up and closing in

                the thief pedaling though we have not seen him

                                         when you turn

your face to ask me if 

Mexicans call hummingbirds colibrí

or chupaflor flower-sucker the vibrant fading

light reveals moth-egg bumps beneath your eye

we suppose we invent this privacy

the privilege to brim with each other

as though our rillet might be

deduced from the mainstream

as if we were stirred

together past mere propinquity

the warm familiar

rapture I assume you feel

with me and I rub my tongue

to prickles in my throat

foretell a cold and step back

to the brink

of thee, smudged

                newspaper print where 

                fingers brushed your nose

                at once we sense a commotion ahead

                faces by one like cards

                when a bet is called 

                flip their open expression

                toward us

                what is happening

                hurtles our way in shouts shouts

                bottleneck to the lip of where we stand

                alert as though a knife had tapped a glass

                I see the man on bicycle

                under a neon taquería sign only at 

                the crossing only through horizons between

                someone yells something inarticulate

                almost to us

                                                   he is racing

recklessly up the sidewalk startled

pedestrians jump aside

already plummeting

from prospective to present

his counterpoint

divorcing you from me

from the rhythm of our tangency

I lurch and cannot feel yet and fail to rise

into the revision

of circumstance as though

I tumbled from stairs

to a spotlit stage where you were

cut off from me by the light

a sidewalk of strangers

severed from concerns that seconds prior

perfectly contained them

waylaid and yielding their leads

for the role of audience 

the drama hurrying on its way

the head of event expanding

the dark head of event crowning before us

its intensity

                full bore and as the thief nears

                our end of the block it isn’t yet

                clear what is happening someone yells

                an indecipherable whinny of alarm

                the immediate stamping in its stall

                I strain for clues in the turned

                expectant faces the many

                misconstrued bodies off balance on pause

                to isolate the bicyclist in his singular

                tumult he who supplants 

                you who makes

                his claim greater on me

                he himself

                custodian now of this present in which

                against inertia I strain to act


                                how quickly he penetrates

the blister of my regard

from which you’ve been

extracted as the world goes quiet

handlebar and rear-rack panniers

swinging side to side half

standing on pedals whose

wild joggling wide-wet eyes urge

No no don’t stop me

I grab for his arm as your hand

stays in mine and 

from an infinite

distance I recall you

your presence

blows in, a red petal,

three of us

pooling our volitions

you tug my shirt

my hand slaps his neck half-

assed scuffle my

knuckles scrape the stucco wall

as he flails

                at me I can hear

                but whom do I hear?

                my failure

                all along to recognize

                your full weight and solidity

                you say No

                the word rings and through the ring

                a thin scarf of disapproval

                draws across my still vague intent

                awkward in the struggle

                to hold him to judge what

                effort to make with whom

                am I thrashing 

                a question mark for a backbone

                my hand touches his shoulder

                so tentative and slowly

                the gesture might be taken

                by those watching

                for an act of deputation

                he stiff-arms and brushes me off

                and I turn on my heel

                                           like the other

spectators, a pure stare

now a singularity uncoupled once again

that readily from you like the dissolving glow

of a clicked-off light

the floater behind a closed eye

and so combined elements

on the stalk of an instant

unpetal their parts in wind

a hand bleeding a man on bicycle

a murky sense of restraint which is you here

next to me but across the caesura

the rent stanza in our accord

what I am cracks into two acts

one replays the scene

revising it toward

some salvific end and 

                the other gauges

                the thief’s increasing

                distance from me

                instinctively as when flying

                I measure the gap

                from jet to ground

                with an image of my body falling

                he veers to the street

                and a hard pant

                spins me to see

                a white-haired man

                in a slow-motion run

                slather of mucus under

                pigeon-hole nostrils, his gaze

                nailed ahead at the crossing

                my eyes put on his face

                his mouth a gasping rictus

                as he plods past

                never to catch


                                           lulled on routine and self

and casual neglect I let slip

rooted in place around me

a block of storefronts and trees

a man on foot falling farther behind

and one on bike and 

the rest of us unrescued

stopped in time transfixed

to this stark spectacle of our separateness

making it stand

hammering its horizons home

behind which each of us says I don’t know

who you are

you never broke through me

the key makes no sound

when you go to play

the world shifts

along a hairline crack

you can’t tell 

what is happening 

until it moves on and is gone as

someone and someone’s grief careen

around a corner

Forrest Gander is a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow and the author of many books of poetry, essays, fiction, and translation, including Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems (Copper Canyon) and Alice Iris Red Horse: Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo (New Directions), a book in and on translation. He won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection Be With (New Directions). His collection Twice Alive will be published by New Directions in April 2021.