For Richard Turner by Peter Sacks


You wrote on the back page
of my last essay ("Political
Education in The Republic")
"Good ideas, but style
too literary. Use of images
evades the final point."

When I left,
you thought me still evasive,
trying to pass off
my own fear of suffering
as a form of wisdom.
I'd said, "There's nothing left
for us, not even martyrdom."
You smiled:
"At least stick to political
philosophy. Remember,
literature's too easy.'

You'd smile again to see me
seven years later,
wintering in Florida
between a set of eighteenth-
century novels and the sea.
A morning swim,
a day of marginalia,
lazy ambles on the shore
in the late afternoon;
eight thousand miles
from where, last night
a little after twelve,
a gunman called you to the door.

This morning, when I came in
from the beach, a neighbor asked,
"You're from South Africa,
did you catch the news
about a doctor killed there,
Richard Tanner; the name
mean anything to you?"

So rapid the flood of it
not medical doctor, Turner,
Richard, you. And the voice
from somewhere in the sudden
darkness, "Yes, Turner.
Did I upset you?"-
the premonition
must have gathered here for years.

You sat among us on the floor
translating Althusser,
always barefoot,
jeans, a pale blue shirt,
your black-rimmed lenses doubling
the light, the red shock of your hair.
At some slight turn of argument
your freckled hands followed
the actual phrasing in the air.
"I know it's difficult in this country,
but we've got to think more clearly
than the State allows."

Three years later, you were banned;
neither to be published
nor quoted in any form.
Forbidden to teach.

Long after midnight,
walking through the pines
into a thin sea wind,
startled as each line of water
shatters in the dark,
I half-prepare to meet you
further up the shore;
as though your dying meant
they'd only driven you out
to lead a half-life
here in the wind, this walk
between the water and pines
of another country.

 

Richard, if I keep to words,
believing nothing in our history
will make this right,
will what I say at last
be difficult enough
for you?

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