“Passage” by Matthew James Babcock

Matthew James Babcock


When I hear that over the last three months
in the patchwork jungles of the Orient
a Secoya shaman named Cesario
has staged an elaborate ritual celebrating

his young son’s foray into manhood, all I can
think is that nothing
like that
ever happened for me.

Now it seems the quintessential tragedy–
that I have no remembered rite
to mull over, no anklet
string of hermit crab shells or quincunx

of pulsing torches that signified the moment,
my teenage palate baptized
by the dregs of a bitter hallucinogenic tea
made from pureed bamboo or black mangrove,

the thunderhead tiers and red skyline
west of Quito an erotic dream.
Perhaps in my case there was nothing more
to mark the event than a shifting

of body cells, like the collapse
of an old staircase in an abandoned
house, a slumped coil of DNA
the hundredth time I walked past

the Reverend Tommy Carlson’s blue house
with my incomplete social studies homework,
or a mute fanfare of nothing hallooed
from a small conch shell in my ear

as I sat staring out my bedroom window
at the calligraphy of the wind
on the alfalfa fields,
an empty green Mead notebook in my hands

for a diary. Perhaps my Ecuadorian bar mitzvah
came while I was mowing the lawn
on a Saturday, mourning the loss
of Sam, the family cat,

or something not so epic–I yawned
while pumping gas into
my mom’s convertible Volkswagen Rabbit
at a Texaco outside American Falls

and made the change, from chrysalis
to the whisper of a red admiral,
streaking thumb smudges of vermilion paint
over my eyebrows as I replaced the nozzle,

catching a whiff of woodsmoke incense off
Seagull Bay and a few stray phonemes
from the chanted mantra of a passing semi truck.
Maybe that’s how it happened.

That day, the Galapagos Fur Seal still launched
acrobatic loop-de-loops beneath
the symphonic crash of the waves, perfectly
in sync with the streamlined centuries

of endemic breeding cycles.
And the Waved Albatross didn’t regard
my monumental shift in the slightest
but instead succumbed to another bizarre series

of rapturous fits, gooney bird fencing matches
spurred on by paroxysms of love and hope.
All around the planet things
rolled on as if it were 1835 all over again

and Darwin, scribbling nothing of my evolution
in the margins of his notes, packed up shop
and headed back to The Beagle,
giddy but exhausted,

feeling like a kid again, in his
head a purple menagerie of fourteen new finches.

from Rattle #19, Summer 2003

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