Dark Space We Dared Not Enter: A Poem by Ned Balbo

By now, most of us have seen the photo of Pope Francis embracing the man whose body is covered with tumors.  The photo fills me with awe each time I see it.   It also makes me think of this haunting poem, by my friend Ned Balbo, which addresses the opposite of that loving gesture--the all-too-human impulse to avert our eyes, to speed up our pace, to shrink from the afflicted:

Fire Victim

Once, boarding the train to New York City,
The aisle crowded and all seats filled, I glimpsed
An open space--more pushing, stuck in place--
and then saw why: a man, face peeled away,
Sewn back in haste, skin grafts that smeared like wax
spattered and frozen, one eye flesh-filled, smooth,
One cold eye toward the window.  Cramped, shoved hard,
I, too, passed up the seat, the place, and fought on
Through to the next car, and the next, but now
I wonder why the fire that could have killed him
Spared him, burns scarred over; if a life
is what he calls this space through which he moves,
Dark space we dared not enter, and what fire
Burns in him when he sees us move away.

The phrase "One cold eye toward the window," really knocks me out; the poem's subject concertedly looks away from those who ostracize him, that coldness juxtaposed with the fire in those final two lines--the searing pain of being avoided and feared.  

I also admire how unflinching this poem is, how its narrator stops to really see the fire victim--a human being the world treats as a symbol of something we'd much rather not think about: the disaster that could strike any of us at any time.

Watch the Gap


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