THE FIRST TIME
~ by Karl Shapiro
Behind shut doors, in shadowy quarantine,
There shines the lamp of iodine and rose
That stains all love with its medicinal bloom.
This boy, who is no more than seventeen,
Not knowing what to do, takes off his clothes
As one might in a doctor’s anteroom.
Then in a cross-draft of fear and shame
Feels love hysterically burn away,
A candle swimming down to nothingness
Put out by its own wetter gusts of flame,
And he stands smooth as uncarved ivory
Heavily curved for some expert caress.
And finally sees the always open door
That is invisible till the time has come,
And half falls through as through a rotten wall
To where chairs twist with dragons from the floor
And the great bed drugged with its own perfume
Spreads its carnivorous flower-mouth for all.
The girl is sitting with her back to him.
She wears a black thing and she rakes her hair,
Hauling her round face upward like moonrise.
She is younger than he, her angled arms are slim
And like a country girl her feet are bare.
She watches him behind her with old eyes,
Transfixing him in space like some grotesque,
Far, far from her where he is still alone
And being here is more and more untrue.
Then she turns around, as one turns at a desk,
And looks at him, too naked and too soon,
And almost gently asks, Are you a Jew?
An underage prostitute of about sixteen, turns to look at her naked red-light district client, also a teenager. And, seeing he’s circumcised, she asks if he’s a Jew. Shapiro seems particularly aware of what it was like to be a Jew and a stranger in the South. He grew up in mostly Catholic Baltimore, went to school in Norfolk, trained at a Southern army base in the WWII years, prior to deployment to the Pacific in the medical corps. He also saw severe race-hatred aimed at blacks who served in the military.
When Shapiro refers to “a lamp of iodine and rose” he is alluding to the violet hue of iodine vapors.