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A poem by David Rakoff

10.02.2010

I just heard this on This American Life and loved it so much that I have to share. This poem is by David Rakoff, and you can hear it here, on This American Life’s “Frenemies” episode (#389, originally aired on 9.11.2009). It’s even better listening to David reciting it.

Nathan, at one of the outlying tables,
His feet tangled up in the disc jockey’s cables,
Surveyed the room, as unseen as a ghost,
While he mulled over what he might say for his toast.
Though the couple had asked him for this benediction,
It seemed at odds with parking him here by the kitchen.
That he’d shown up at all was still a surprise.
And not just to him; it was there in the eyes
Of the guests who’d seen a mirage and drew near
And then covered their shock with a “Nathan! You’re here!”
And then silence. They’d nothing to say beyond that.
A few of the braver souls lingered to chat.
They all knew. It was neither a secret nor mystery
That he and the couple had quite an odd history.
Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex.
Josh, his best pal once. And Patty, his ex.
For a while he could barely go out in the city
Without a being a punchline or object of pity.
‘Poor Nathan’ had virtually become his new name,
And so he showed up just to show he was game
Though his invite was late, a forgotten addendum.
For Nathan there could be no more clear referendum
That he need but endure through this evening and then
He would likely not see Josh and Patty again.
Josh’s sister was speaking. A princess in peach.
Nathan dug in his pocket to study his speech.
He’d poured over Bartlett’s for couplets to filch.
He’d stayed up until three, still came up with zilch.
Except for instructions he’d underscored twice.
Just two words in length, and those words were ‘be nice’.
Too often, he thought, our emotions betray us
And reason departs once we’re up on the dais.
He’d witnessed uncomfortable moments where others had lost their way quickly,
Where sisters and brothers had gotten too prickly
And peppered their babbling with stories of benders,
Or lesbian dabbling or spot-on impressions of mothers-in-law.
Which true, Nathan thought, always garnered guffaws
But the price seemed too high with the laugh seldom cloaking
Hostility masquerading as joking
No, he’d swallow his rage and he’d bank all his fire.
He knew that in his case the bar was set higher.
Folks were just waiting for him to erupt.
They’d be hungry for blood even though they had supped.
They’d want tears or some other unsightly reaction.
And Nathan would not give them that satisfaction.
Though Patty a harlot and Josh was a lout,
At least Nathan knew what he’d not talk about.
I won’t wish them divorce, that they wither and sicken
Or tonight that they choke on their salmon or chicken.
I won’t mention that time when the cottage lost power
In that storm on the Cape and they left for an hour
And they thought it was just the cleverest ruse
To pretend it took that long to switch out the fuse.
Or that time Josh advised me with so much insistence
That I should grant Patty a little more distance,
That the worst I could do was hamper and crowd her,
That if Patty felt stifled she’d just take a powder,
That a plant needs its space just as much as its water,
And I shouldn’t give Patty that ring that I’d bought her,
Which in retrospect only elicits a “Gosh,
I hardly deserved a friend like you, Josh.”
No I won’t spill those beans or make myself foolish
To satisfy appetites venal and ghoulish.
I will not be the blot on this hellish affair.
And with that, Nathan pushed out and rose from his chair.
And just by the tapping of knife against crystal,
All eyes turned his way, like he’d fired off a pistol.
“Ah hem, Joshua, Patricia, dear family and friends,
A few words, if you will, before everything ends.
You’ve promised to honor, to love and obey,
We’ve quaffed our champagne and been cleansed by sorbet,
All in endorsement of your hers-and-his-dom.
So now let me add my two cents’ worth of wisdom.
I was wracking my brain sitting here at this table
Until I remembered this suitable fable
That gets at a truth, though it may well distort us
So here with the tale of the scorpion and tortoise.
The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all aquiver.
Just how would he manage to get ‘cross the river?
‘The water’s so deep,’ he observed with a sigh,
Which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby.
‘Well, why don’t you swim?’ asked the slow-moving fellow.
‘Unless you’re afraid. I mean, what are you, yellow?’
‘It isn’t a matter of fear or of whim,’
Said the scorpion. ‘But that I don’t know how to swim.’
‘Ah, forgive me. I didn’t mean to be glib
When I said that I figured you were an amphib-
ian.’ ‘No offense taken,’ the scorpion replied.
‘But how ’bout you help me to reach the far side?
You swim like a dream and you have what I lack.
What say you take me across on your back?’
‘I’m really not sure that’s the best thing to do,’
Said the tortoise. ‘Now that I see that it’s you.
You’ve a less than ideal reputation preceding.
There’s talk of your victims all poisoned and bleeding.
You’re the scorpion. And, how can I say this but, well,
I just don’t feel safe with you riding my shell.’
The scorpion replied, ‘What would killing you prove?
We’d both drown. So tell me how would that behoove
Me to basically die at my very own hand,
When all I desire is to be on dry land?’
The tortoise considered the scorpion’s defense.
When he gave it some thought it made perfect sense.
The niggling voice in his mind he ignored
And he swam to the bank and called out, ‘Climb aboard.’
But just a few moments from when they set sail,
The scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail.
The tortoise too late understood that he’d blundered
When he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered.
As he fought for his life he said, ‘Tell me why
You have done this? For we now will surely both die.’
‘I don’t know!’ cried the scorpion. ‘You never should trust
A creature like me because poison I must.
I’d claim some remorse or at least some compunction
But I just can’t help it. My form is my function.
You thought I’d behave like my cousin the crab,
But unlike him, it is my nature to stab.’
The tortoise expired with one final quiver,
And then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river.
The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts
Because in the end, friends, our natures will out.”
Nathan paused, cleared his throat, took a sip of his drink.
He needed these extra few seconds to think.
The room had gone frosty; the tension was growing.
Folks wondered precisely where Nathan was going.
The prospects of skirting fiasco seemed dim,
But what he said next surprised even him.
“So what can we learn from their watery ends?
Is there some lesson on how to be friends?
I think what it means is that central to living
A life that is good, is a life that’s forgiving.
We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether
We kiss or we wound, still, we must come together.
Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more
Since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.
So we make ourselves open while knowing full well
It’s essentially saying, ‘Please, come pierce my shell.'”
Silence doesn’t paint the depth of quiet in that room.
There was no clinking stemware toasting to the bride or groom.
You could’ve heard a petal as it landed on the floor.
And in that stillness Nathan turned and walked right out the door.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. barbara fritz permalink
    10.02.2010 2:12 pm

    i just heard this poem on the same program and started to look for it (read by david) on the net. i downloaded the poem- do you know where it is reproduced with david reading it– I am a psychotherapist and i would love to recommend to at least 5 people. it is truly beautiful– thank you for making it available.

  2. 10.03.2010 6:43 pm

    hello!This was a really exceptional website!
    I come from roma, I was fortunate to search your website in baidu
    Also I learn much in your topic really thanks very much i will come daily

  3. 10.24.2010 6:55 pm

    This poem is awesome. I heard it for the 1st time last week on This American Life and have been thinking about it since until I heard it again on NPR….This is great, especially coming a self proclaimed pessimist. David Rakoff was interviewed earlier on Bob Edwards Weekend today.
    Thanks for transcribing. The audio is worth downloading from the T.Am. Life website.
    Peace.

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