On a pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Nepal, a group of American women trek into the Himalayas, beginning and ending in Kathmandu. They ascend, turn back just short of reaching their destination because of impassable snow, and descend. "Say what you see," smoke rising on a distant mountain seems to command, and Ava Leavell Haymon responds with language that strives to reconcile the extremes of this exotic place—danger and awesome beauty, community and abandonment, death and life, flame's heat and altitude's cold, an alien landscape and the poet's own deep memories. Fires—of cooking, festivals, cremation, deforestation, and starvation—rage through the poems; like the name of the Hindu goddess Kali, fire is "destruction and creation / in one word." An exacting yet exhilarating poetry collection, The Strict Economy of Fire asks what we can know and what we can never know "on this far side of the earth."
God of Luck
Kathmandu: a squat open-air shrine
in the clattering marketplace. I bring rice to Ganesh,
feeling so pale-eyed and suspicious in Adidas
I hang back and don't present it. Women and children
come and go, chatter-chatter, rub bougainvillea color
on his broad beast's forehead. A dab on their own
to remind them. God of Journeys, Ganesh,
who assigns and removes obstacles.
When Shiva—careless father—sliced off
his firstborn's head, the mother Annapurna
demanded the head of her favorite elephant
and stitched it snug to baby shoulders. A goddess
can't be squeamish. In my pocket, dry rice grains
tick between my fingertips. His tusk is broken,
as always. This is a holy luck
beyond the pair of opposites, failure/success.
It mocks my Western petition for safety. I'm not sure
I can ask for it. Our eyes lock, mine fearful/his bronze.
The marketplace swirls around us—
strange vegetables, thangkas, the smell of nutmeg,
hemp, fat dripping in braziers. Barber clips hair
of customer, both sit cross-legged on a thick banyan root
that crowds the shrine. Air jiggles with bees and gnats.
Right on the ground, a goat carcass is hacked
into pieces—a six-year-old rubs the raw hunks
on all sides with turmeric; childpalms and the meat
take on a deep curry stain. I decide
I cannot make my offering. I decide
to make the journey anyway, to take my chances.
“God of Luck” published in The Strict Economy of Fire: Poems by Ava Leavell Haymon. Copyright © 2004 by Ava Leavell Haymon. All rights reserved.
Ava Leavell Haymon is the author of the poetry collections Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread, Kitchen Heat, and The Strict Economy of Fire. She teaches poetry writing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and directs a writers’ retreat center in the mountains of New Mexico.
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