Karl Shapiro (1913-2000)

Girls Working in Banks

Girls working in banks wear bouffant hair and shed
In their passage over the rather magnificent floors
Tiny shreds of perforated paper, like body flakes.
They walk through rows of youngish vice-presidents
With faraway looks, who dandle pencils and tend to ignore
The little tigerish lights flashing on their telephones.
When the girls return to their stations behind a friendly grid
They give out money neatly or graciously take it,
For not far from them the great interior glow of a vault
Built out of beaten dimes, stands open, shines,
Beaming security without ostentation.
If you glance inside it there’s nothing to be seen
But burnished drawers and polished steel elbows
Of the great machine of the door. It’s a speckless world
With nobody inside it, like the best room in the gallery
Awaiting the picture which is still in a crate.
The girls change places frequently, moving their own addresses
From Open to Closed, Next Counter, or they walk away
With surprising freedom behind a wall or rise up on escalators
Past aging and well-groomed guards whose pistols seem
Almost apologetic as they watch people
Bending over Formica stand-up desks writing
With ballpoint pens attached to rosary chains,
After which the people select a queue in which they stand
Pious, abashed at the papery transactions,
And eventually walk with the subtlest sense of relief
Out of revolving doors into the glorious anonymous streets.


The Leg

Among the iodoform, in twilight sleep,
What have I lost? he first inquires,
Peers in the middle distance where a pain,
Ghost of a nurse, hastily moves, and day,
Her blinding presence pressing in his eyes
And now his ears. They are handling him
With rubber hands. He wants to get up.

One day beside some flowers near his nose
He will be thinking, When will I look at it?
And pain, still in the middle distance, will reply,
At what? and he will know it’s gone,
O where! and begin to tremble and cry.
He will begin to cry as a child cries
Whose puppy is mangled under a screaming wheel.

Later, as if deliberately, his fingers
Begin to explore the stump. He learns a shape
That is comfortable and tucked in like a sock.
This has a sense of humor, this can despise
The finest surgical limb, the dignity of limping,
The nonsense of wheel-chairs. Now he smiles to the wall:
The amputation becomes an acquisition.

For the leg is wondering where he is (all is not lost)
And surely he has a duty to the leg;
He is its injury, the leg is his orphan,
He must cultivate the mind of the leg,
Pray for the part that is missing, pray for peace
In the image of man, pray, pray for its safety,
And after a little it will die quietly.

The body, what is it, Father, but a sign
To love the force that grows us, to give back
What in Thy palm is senselessness and mud?
Knead, knead the substance of our understanding
Which must be beautiful in flesh to walk,
That if Thou take me angrily in hand
And hurl me to the shark, I shall not die.