Fourth Street Plaza, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
The child kicks off her sandals,
breathing in the wild summer.
Hot cobblestones beneath her smarting feet,
she races into the empty plaza
toward fountain and glass, throwing off cotton dress.
In her underwear, water flecks her four-year old belly.
Body merging with the pale pink marble façade,
she laughs the world away.
Eyes ripped with fury, the guard rages,
“Put on her clothes or I’ll call Family Services.
He points east, “It is there, just there.”
Her father slips the dress back on the glistening child,
a fawn confused by this water hole,
curious that these teeth of glass are skylights
lighting a concourse beneath her feet.
on the roof of civilization.
Courthouse, Washington DC
there is body.
The break out scream of life – a child born –
the body demands food, seeks comfort, likes to be clean.
Before words, there is laughter..
East of the Roman city, a man is standing trial
for repeatedly putting his naked baby
under scalding water to clean him.
Skin separates from skin with second-degree burns;
the fluid filled blisters changing the surface of this city.
His frustration runs like the coils of the freeway that
divides this city – East and West –
walls of concrete set up barriers like
the silt in the river, barely deep enough for bloated catfish
to swim, as the cancer spreads under fins, inside brain.
The man breathes, a filament of space –
a moment’s refuge from the courthouse, the closing in of cops, lawyer, judge –
his mind travels to the last sight of home
as he was taken away at dusk:
the locked, rusted gate that leads to wide span of riverbank,
and there, just out of reach, but visible,
abandoned grass at the water’s edge with
white flames of egrets nesting in a tree on the other bank;
a commuter train shoots past and headlights from the freeway come on
while the power plant that once moaned and clattered
looms silent in the twilight, waiting to be torn down.
The old life over, the city clearing, cleaning, preening, for new green.
Someone in the courtroom is talking about childhood:
the sound of children playing outdoors, of evening safety,
of milk and kindness before sleep, that babies laugh the most at bed time.
When has this man’s body ever been a sacred thing?
It remembers everything but laughter –
swallows disappearing into the evening sky.
Leeya Mehta’s work explores the intimate space of the family and how it relates to the physical geography of cities and nature. She grew up in Mumbai and now lives in Washington DC. She is the author of a chapbook, The Towers of Silence and winner of the 2016 Readers’ Choice Award from DistrictLit. She is guest poetry editor at Origins Journal. Her poems have appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Fulcrum, Poetry London, and other publications. She is currently working on a novel, Extinction. You can find links to her readings and published writing at http://leeyamehta.blogspot.com/.