The Idiot in the Bath

With shoulders hunched, eyes screwed tightly shut,
bent over the nurse’s arm, unsightly and uncouth,
almost at a run, feet tangling in the mat,
week after week, the idiot takes his bath.

The clouds of vapour rising from the trough
of water calm him down: he’s soothed by steam..
and with every stitch of clothing that comes off
he’s drawn still deeper into an old, familiar dream.

He folds his skinny arms across his chest
as nurse eases him in until the water grips,
he sighs as if he was slaking his earliest thirst
and slowly a great joy dawns around his lips.

His worried face grows handsome, blank, at ease,
his slender feet stand up like palest flowers,
his long and pallid legs, where aging lowers,
rise out of the green water like the trunks of trees.

In all this green he is as one unborn,
he does not yet know that some fruits are but rind,
he has not lost the wisdom of the body
and does not need the wisdom of the mind.

And every time he’s hauled out of his doze
and rubbed down with a brisk towel till he’s dry,
then forced back into stiff, unyielding clothes,
he fights against it and will, for a moment, cry.

And every week it is his fate to be
reborn, wrenched from the water’s womb, impaired,
and every week it is his destiny
to have remained once more an idiot, and scared.

From Parkland and Deserts (Parken en woestijnen, 1940)
By M. Vasalis
Translated by James Brockway

First published in The Low Countries, 1995