by George Bilgere
It’s Saturday, and the farmer’s market
is in full swing, all of us drifting
heavy-bodied and happy,
like figures out of Brueghel,
among the fragrant stalls of strawberries
and apples and red peppers, honey
in amber jars, Amish cheese,
great brown loaves of bread,
the world proffering its bounty.
And then he comes gliding among us
on his tiny electric wheelchair, barely more
than a rolling pedestal since there’s not much
to move, just a head and torso, the little of him
Iraq gave back. He’s wearing a Grateful
Dead t-shirt which the girl walking with him
must have pulled over his head
and fitted tenderly over his stumps
before the two of them went out
to the market on this fall morning,
the rest of us suddenly staring hard
at the radishes and green sheaves of corn,
for we have never seen such vibrant carrots,
nor radishes quite so brazenly red,
nor come so close to understanding
the potatoes, wakened from their deep dream,
drowning in the world’s light.
George Bilgere, from Alaska Quarterly Review
As George Bilgere shows us here, farmer’s markets, unlike supermarkets or big box stores, bring people together, into community, as larger bazaars and village markets must have in the past. The speaker of this poem, as he moves with sharpened senses “among the fragrant stalls of strawberries/ and apples and red peppers,” cannot help but notice the Iraq vet “gliding . . . / on his tiny wheelchair,” and the girl walking beside him. This moment of sudden attention opens a window into this couple’s lives as the speaker goes on to imagine the girl “tenderly” pulling on the man’s Grateful Dead T-shirt “over his stumps/ before the two of them went out” that morning.
We have all had at least one of these encounters at some point in our lives and felt the sudden mix of emotions that often comes with them—a bit of pity, grief for the wounded on both sides of the war, and our own shameless gratitude for our healthy, “heavy-bodied” happiness even in the face of such suffering. Most of us then turn quickly away, as the speaker does here, not wanting to seem rude and focusing instead on “radishes and green sheaves of corn” and “such vibrant carrots.” What can any of us do when confronted with the world’s pain but try and turn our attention back to the “bounty” always at hand, perhaps grateful now to have been “wakened from the deep dream” of our separateness and brought into the light of a wider understanding.