Empathy, by Stephen Dunn

Once in a small rented room, awaiting
a night call from a distant time zone,
I understood you could feel so futureless
you’d want to get a mermaid

tattooed on your biceps. Company
forever. Flex and she’d dance.
The phone never rang, except for those
phantom rings, which I almost always answered.

I was in D.C., on leave from the army.
It was a woman, of course, who didn’t call.
Or, as we said back then, a girl.
It’s anybody’s story.

But I think for me it was the beginning
of empathy, not large empathy
like the deeply selfless might have,
more like a leaning, like being able

to imagine a life for a spider, a maker’s
life, or just some aliveness
in its wide abdomen and delicate spinnerets
so you take it outside in two paper cups
instead of stepping on it.
The next day she called, and it was final.
I remember going to the zoo
and staring a long time

at the hippopotamus, its enormous weight
and mass, its strange appearance
of tranquility.
And then the sleek, indignant cats.

Then I went back to Fort Jackson.
I had a calendar taped inside my locker,
and I’d circle days for which I
had no plans, not even hopes —

big circles, so someone might ask.
It was between wars. Only the sergeants
and a few rawboned farm boys
took learning how to kill seriously.

We had to traverse the horizontal ladder,
rung after rung, to pass
into mess hall. Always the weak-handed,
the weak-armed, couldn’t make it.

I looked for those who didn’t laugh
at those of us who fell.
In the barracks, after drills,
the quiet fellowship of the fallen.

*to me, the first two stanzas are brilliant. What a wonderful surprise to read this morning. The hang and then explain of the mermaid. Awesome.

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