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Garlic


is wafting from your pores tonight as you sleep,
a déjà vu of this evening's supper
of pesto Genovese.
                                 I inhale its reek,
its pungent, loamy contradictions, recall
how the ur oyster-eater is always
granted pride of place for gastronomic
bravery—the decision to crack open
that calcified prison so as to slurp
the stunned, saline bivalve into one's gullet
seen as epicurean hubris.
                                              But I give
kudos to the plucky soul who first peeled back
the purplish, papery skin of garlic,
plunged teeth-first into that lurid, reeking flesh
to discover its lusty ambiguities
(halitosis be damned), its malodorous,
dusky allure.
                        Tonight its peasant cologne
surrounds you like a second skin, and I breathe
the luxurious scent of the "stinking rose,"
inhale its thousands of years of history,
the way it's followed humankind like a dog
in heat, always lusting after us, trailing
us from barrio to palazzo, from
mud-daubed huts to five-star restaurants,
indispensable as sex or bread or oil,
a stench we cannot wash from our lineage,
a way of being.
                                 Devoured by the bushel
in China, gorged upon by ancient Greek soldiers,
eulogized by Galen as a rustic cure-all,
it's been a palliative for everything
from impotence to the heat of the noonday sun,
from smallpox to stomach cancer.
                                                         There is
no ill for which it hasn't been adjudged a cure,
no misfortune for which it hasn't been deemed
the primum mobile—high cholesterol,
priapism, hypertension.
                                           Remedies
are efficacious in strict proportion
to their repulsiveness: Think cod liver oil
and all the little, bitter pills we're forced
to swallow over time; and consider, too,
the syringe's need to hurt, to penetrate,
in order to effect a cure.
                                           What doesn't
kill you, nourishes you
, the old saying goes,
and garlic—more than its allium confreres,
the leek, the ramp, the shallot, scallion, chive—
reminds us we're composed of shit and starlight,
incarnate nodes of carbon fetid with the whiff of loss
and loneliness, smelling of mortality
and mud.
                        Tonight you exude the humid stink
of us, the messy, mossy stench of our tense
compatibility, the "pong" (as Brits say)
of our separateness.
                                     Tonight you are garlic
made flesh, a wondrous transubstantiation
enacted each day in the kitchen of life
where we refine our way to a blessedness
indifferent to sweeter fragrances, attentive
only to the sweaty murk of what's earthbound
and ethereal.
                          Tonight I inhale you
slowly, fall asleep with you inside my lungs,
taste the fetid, fusty sting of our common
heritage in soil and sorrow, the gorgeous
mutability (the reek, the stink, the musk) of garlic.


Robert J. Levy

River Styx

Number 97 / 2016


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