The People Who Really Impress Me

Join The Dillydoun Review in celebrating National Poetry Month with

A Poem by Matthew James Babcock

The people who really impress me

are those transcendents who burn
themselves alive for a cause.
Which locks your lungs? Elfin daredevil
tightroping with Jesus across
the incandescent bowl of a volcano
on prime time, or mild monk
who torches himself on the marble porch
of the emperor’s palace, sealing history
with the melted red wax of his soul?
Tally all test pilots who land
book deals. Count the black-and-white
busloads of social activists
who didn’t end austere careers
couch surfing. Heavyweight champs,
sopranos with golden throats,
laureates with proletarian codes
tattooed in coal dust down both forearms,
the tycoon grinning philanthropy
at the chattering clash of cameras,
Brazilian bull riders, the jailed saint,
princess vowing poverty, hunger strikers—
guys like Gandhi—none compares
in absolute purity of purpose
to the fed-up Tunisian fruit vendor,
obscure Canadian novelist decrying
the wanton destruction of beauty,
the female Iranian soccer buff,
bankrupt Greeks, sad Japanese Esperantists,
the Amherst substitute teacher abhorring
The Gulf War, estranged Czechs
combusting in the city square
to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary
of other Czechs who roasted there,
Rajput concubines under siege,
tyrannized Tibetans blazing
like hundreds of fiery middle fingers
flipped at China, lithe Lithuanian teens
not keen on Soviets, Hindus not cool
with speaking Tamil, grieving Russian
Old Believers, entrenched French Jesuits,
the young Australian heiress
opposed to her family fortune,
Quaker dad on a day trip from Baltimore
with the kids, barbecued below
Bob McNamara’s Pentagon suite,
all ascending in hot apotheosis
with Thich Quang Duc and Kathy Change
in an uproar of kerosene dreams,
the crackling columns of fire and smoke
swabbing the heavens, the frantic mobs
swarming to warm wilting hands
and sing the songs of astonishment
around the human bonfires
in silence and screams. I burned
at sixteen, shirtless in skimpy
orange track shorts, clocking dogged
country miles of bloody dusk
and charred ditchbank weeds,
my body a smoldering sun rising
to singe through the horizons
of clouded mountains in my drowsy
northwestern town of two thousand,
my young revolutions cooling
soon to resolutions of ash.
Now: What icy injustice could make me
touch the final spark to the fuse
of my heart? What wrong
would stake me, the raging candle,
on my deathday cake? Will the sorrows
of tomorrow find me on market day,
smoking a hand-rolled cigarette
in lotus position atop a sawdust pile
soaked in soybean oil, seconds
before the doleful oxcart rumble
and bored hellos erupt in shrieks of horror?
If I charbroiled myself, it would be
to end martyrdom. At the Founder’s Day
summer fundraiser and cookout
in Memorial Park, I would mount
the gazebo—cutting off the mayor’s welcome,
squelching the brass band of veterans
raising a rumpus with “Bill Bailey”—
and, to the rush of relieved sighs,
toss aside my empty gas can
and soggy matchbook, offering not
the terror of my black skeleton
like a scorched scarecrow flailing away
in a jumping-jack inferno,
but a new vision of the world:
our planet covered, as it is, with billions
of troubled pagodas, each housing
a small blue flame that refuses to go out.

Idahoan. Writer. Failed breakdancer.

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