A Little Mumba
Jennifer Michael Hecht
In two billion years
the expanding sun dries the oceans,
meanwhile, life has been around for more
than two billion years. Thus,
life on earth is at least half over.
There is not a lot of time
to get this figured.
Three geographers hike
an unknown South Sea Island,
raising little mountains on their
Suddenly they’re pounced
on by a hidden tribe, grimacing
and wild. Brought before the tribal
council, a chief expounds
their choices: death or Mumba.
The first says, I don’t know Mumba,
but death is bad.
The crowd, elated,
yells Mumba!, throws the geographer
into a pit and goes in after. Hours later,
out staggers the stranger, naked
and deeply rearranged. Does not
respond to any name.
asks the second: Death or Mumba?
Again, the answer comes Mumba; again
the crowd hip-checks
the outsider, plunders-in after,
voracious and obscene. Again, after
many hours, out crawls the map-maker,
bedraggled, strained, and chewed.
asks a last time, Death or Mumba?
Geographer looks into the pit,
up at the stars, and says I want
to live, but I am not as strong as they.
I must choose death. The crowd
is silent. A wise decision,
says the chieftain, Death by Mumba.
It is hard to get through
without deciding against human
interaction. What stings we feel
are ferocious, inadmissible,
unseemly. They linger and steam.
Thus the right-thinking runt
shuts them down, apes the machine.
But in the end, friends,
it’s either Mumba or death by Mumba,
so Mumba’s better.
But oh my life, the Mumba of it all.
The unyielding Mumbasity of life, of life
with others, in particular, oh my time.
What are you so frightened of?
Of what are you so frightened?
The universe, for instance, has
clusters of galaxies, we are not jealous
of their cliques: and these galaxies are
so big that they make the difference in size
between us and a fly, well, negligible.
The chatter has so little to do with anything
that is the matter.
You’ve got to figure: they planned this trip
together, the three geographers, Hinty, Luce,
and Spoon, since June, and now it’s April
and they’re on this island measuring
and counting, mapping and sleeping in a little
canvas tent and out comes this thoroughly
other from the bushes. Then it’s the bum’s rush
to the tribal council, wide eyed and terrified.
You hear yourself say, Mumba doesn’t sound
so bad, and then you are lost to it,
drawn in, engaged in battle, though you hate
to wrangle, there you are.
A long time later, the onslaught abating,
your resistance subsides as they do, and once
alone, you crawl in the powdery dirt
toward the lip of the pit. One of those
against whom you struggled
grips your elbow, lifts you over.
You hug the earth as vertigo hugs her
after a stint in the tower. From this supine state
you watch Spooner and Luciotta as one makes
the same choice you made,
and the other goes in for the other.
A fly goes by, in its minor role of fly.
There is a great deal of action, but you
are out of it now, not yet certain whether
you will live through this or die. You do not
know when anyone at home will notice
that your trip has gone awry. You think
of your front yard, all the effort of youth,
the apologies. Perhaps you will die now,
and all that work come to nothing,
come to Mumba on a mild night, alone.
You’ve got dirt in your mouth and on a whim,
instead of spitting, you stick out your tongue
and taste the soft, cool earth beneath you.
You roll yourself over;
stare up at the ten-thousand stars.
Crushed between the galactic world
and all these atomic particles
is so much emotion: anger, pity, relief
and this emotion, though emanating
from such an inconsequential thing
as you, is as large a total
as is the universe, and as elemental
as a subatomic charge.
Neither black holes nor spider nets
await us. Other webs do, but we are not
the size of solitude either, so must
accept them. It is good to remember
that our troubles only obtain
on this median scale of play; elsewhere is
unaware of them. All, then, we’ve
ever needed is a minute change in scale.
One of the wild ones is a poet, whispers in your
supine ear to confess and to remind: My love
has me lolling around a crater
on the moon, sucking wheat stalks.
Your bruised heart overtakes your senses.
I don’t know whether you want
to hear it or not, but the next night
everyone is dancing,
the babies and the crazies and the flies,
under the spangled, leaf-framed sky,
and you can’t help it, you join in.
That’s how good dancing is.
Jennifer Michael Hecht
Author Discusses Poems