POETRY

The Panhandler's Tale

By

I could decide to credit the old stories—
Greek myths, saints' legends—that he's a god in mufti.
That the warm fragrance of alcohol on his breath
is there to test my charity, as is the knowledge
that Midway Liquor is two blocks down the way.
The sodium vapor lamp above this bus shelter
makes, if I squint hard through the glint of snowdust,
something close to a nimbus around his head.
That's all the sign I'll get, I think. I'm listening.

And Lord, the stories. Plot lines I can't keep straight.
His car that died, his check that never came.
Strands of invention straight from the Decameron,
the troubadours, the Grimms. He'd have beguiled
a whole great hall of listeners three days running
with these linked episodes: an ill-starred love,
a family's curse, Fortuna, evil rulers,
and stolen bus fare. And now his hand, extended.

I've got my stories, too. I'll bet he knows them.
This nice trench coat? The parish rummage sale.
Really. This leather briefcase here—a gift.
Or from Salvation Army. You decide.
I too am something other than what I seem.…

But there will not be space in the story line
to tell it all, because the pacing dictates
that now I move to take my wallet out,
recalling something out of a Coleridge essay
about the willing suspension of disbelief,
which lets us yield ourselves to the tale of wonder.
Why do I think of that, as two more god-men
sidle toward me, out of the lightless alley?

Maryann Corbett lives in St. Paul and works for the Minnesota Legislature. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared widely online and in print in many journals and assorted anthologies and have won the Lyric Memorial Award, the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and the Richard Wilbur Award. New work appears inBarrow StreetandSouthwest Reviewand is forthcoming inThe Raintown Review, Measure, Mezzo Cammin, andAngle. Her books areBreath Control(David Robert Books),Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter(Able Muse), andMid Evil, forthcoming from The Evansville Press.

I could decide to credit the old stories—
Greek myths, saints' legends—that he's a god in mufti.
That the warm fragrance of alcohol on his breath
is there to test my charity