Innocent Pursuits by John Asfour

Sometimes he saw nothing in Aitaneet
but a blackbird preening its wings
on a utility pole

and what’s this love of a town
that sleeps and wakes to the pecking of birds?
He’d no time to be timid or moral
yet the plum tree before his house never
forgot to blossom on time.

He followed the girls from one end of Aitaneet
to the next–
generally, they ran away.

Girls his own age changed overnight,
began to wear dresses and be mindful of their hair.
And what use to play with those
respecters of fences? He, and a few boys, reigned
in the alleys,
chasing mating cats and looking
in windows for bathing women,
watching the older girls hang clothes out
on the line
while water trickled down
their blouses.

They raided barns and stole eggs
to exchange the next day for ice-cream,
chuckling about a farmer
so close-fisted that he pocketed
the blessing in church
so as not to pass it on;
and about his wife, who sent marauding
roosters from her kitchen
with tailfeathers through their combs.

Nights, they’d slip out of bed
for a rendezvous
under old Mansour’s open windows
to interrupt his snoring
with imitations, or the application of cold water:
later, creep back
to see if his ardour
had also been awakened

In their hilarious courts they passed
judgment on every adult in town:

On the schoolmaster
in his one presentable jacket,
who thoughtfully picked his nose
and entered the classroom by the window.

On the black-browed priest
who stood them against the wall
one-legged, the whole afternoon
for slips in catechism,
but was a pushover
in the confessional.

And on beautiful Miriam, huge-breasted
Miriam
alone in her house at the edge of town
entertaining a few men–
not all at once–in the evening.
They’d offer to help her pick olives
but remained on the ground
while she tugged at her skirts
in the treetops.

During the week they rested their consciences
up for Sunday
when they’d have to file a report on their sins.
But what meant a mea culpa to them
if lambs and kids
were on parade
and the plum trees staged a spectacular
show each spring?

The girls kept him busy.

They skimmed over the snow in winter
and laughed with their friends behind trees
in summer
playing their own incomprehensible games,
tossing their useless hair.
And he wrote verses,
offering them to the snow.

John Asfour is a Lebanese-Canadian poet, writer, and teacher. He is the author of 5 volumes of poetry in English, and two in Arabic, he has selected, edited and translated into English the landmark anthology: When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry and co-authored with Alison Burch a volume of selected poems by Muhammad al-Maghut entitled Joy is not my Profession. His new volume of poetry: Blindfold, has been nominated for a Governor General’s award, and a new anthology he edited was launched on June 12 at Visual Arts Centre in Montreal. John’s new translation of Arabic poetry will be published next winter.

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