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Caryl Pagel

For Hilary Plum

Maybe orange was
born when a few twigs of tinder
were rubbed together
(at first with pleasure—a tender touch—
then later harder)
as the friction changed a soft blue
spark into white
heat—springing bright—a flame both warm
warning wave and
the name of the blaze's most observable
part                    You predict such
primitive process probably wasn't human improvement but
something clarified—made
conceivable by the sight of lightening knifing
land—man inspired
to ignite by the night's ragged light—
the smoky odor
of meat steaming after a summer storm
or a vision
of paradise burning                    Orange was initially
referred to as
"yellow-red" then "naranga" in Sanskrit (though "saffron"
came first) in
the early 16th century                    It's said that
in ancient Egypt
the mineral orpiment—an orange arsenic—was
ground into pigment
and used to embellish the exteriors of
royal tombs                    Orpiment
was included—along with statues pendants masks
and perfumes—in
a small paint set among the possessions
that King Tut
had stuck next to his mummified remains
for the long
and boring slog that is the voyage
to the afterlife
The powder stuck around and orpiment could
still be found
on the chiseled tips of arrows as
well as in
pest control                    It seems even the cheeriest
natural ingredients contain
toxins—our dead less often processed as
pure compost than
imprisoned in decorative poison                    Orange has always
been a warning:
think of life jackets hunter's vests highway
cones and even
the so-called safety tip of a toy
gun—a lump
of neon plastic supposed to distinguish what's
"fun" from the
real thing but (fuck) the real thing's
tragic deal is
that it can't be undone                    Some love
orange for its
proximity to gold                    Some adore it for
the color's nearness
to heat: peach campfire sun and poppy—
clementine carrot parrot
and lion—we even conceive of hell
in this hue:
Dante did too                    Hypocrites were destined to
trudge grudgingly through
the wicked ditches of the eighth circle
of the underworld
under the eternal burden of orange cloaks
hooded and heavy
with lead lining—ordinary on the outside
but punishing within—
which makes you think of the region
where you live
Record has it that the "rust belt"
was named thus
by Walter Mondale who in the early
80s disapproved of
Reagan's breezy refusal to accept the ruin
distressing workers residing
in central states facing desperation and downsizing
after their industry
declined—rust referring to the slow corrosion
of steel—corruption
of metal when left wet and neglected—
a picture of
perversion when a population's essentials are ignored
too long—when
the labor that's kept some people going's
gone                    Rusty as
the russet flush of flowerless flower boxes—
sans beds—built
by O to bookend the draining grey
shades of your
porch—your yard—your entire town—always
down—a winter
ground                    You call the six-foot brick hollows
bordering your front
door "welcome coffins"—a joke working only
on folks who
don't plan to be buried here                    Orange
is the sign
of sudden detour—but also the sunny
silent pleasing tone
of robes worn by Buddhist monks—bright
like fresh egg
yolks or the sweater of your friend
who dons amber
to many a get-together—amusing smart and
cool (she is)—
the color a contrast to the charm
of her given
name                    Plum's ideal sartorial palette reminding you
of Flaming June
or better yet Frieda Khalo's Roots in
which the artist
reclines on her side in desert dirt—
one elbow propped
defiantly on a pillow—with lime-colored ivy
vines spiraling wild
through a transparent rectangular break in her
chest—a surrealist's
window—cut open from a long orange
dress creating a
shape with which to let living material
sprout forth and
nourish the thirsty earth her hidden heart
giving birth (or
blood?) to the sort of enduring beauty
that can't possibly
hurt anyone                    There's wisdom there                    Khalo's face
is calm but
come on: who would prefer a ginger
gown to royal
blue?                     (Not you)                     O'Hara wrote: "There should
be / so much
more, not of orange, of / words, of
how terrible orange
is / and life"                     (He's right)                     For most
of your life
you've observed bronze and tawny leaves precede
winter—the darkest
season—a vivid spectral banner of surrender
before the impending
white cloak of cold—landscape zero (now
disappearing)—but this
winter you walk instead across a windy
shore in Florida
one week before the new year—abiding
a heft in
your torso's window with each sandy step
You've been told
that the algae floating off the coast
is called "red
tide"—though it looks coral pink—blooming
pollutant—chemicals draining
into the ocean mostly lasting only a
few weeks until
this season when the airborne contagion continued
for six months
causing a cold's constant cough or constriction
in a breather's
lungs—your lungs already constricted by no
sickness but a
boy (forming) crowding organs hoarding internal real
estate                    It's strange
Steel waves roar to shore over half-moon
gaps made by
heals digging deep into weak sand                    What
effort it requires
to move forward with care                    What effort
it requires to
bear the images of Paradise burning                    See
horses fleeing flaming
fields in search of a river or
less smoky spot
to wait in the shade of some
nearby gas station
In one picture a donkey's secured to
a stake in
the street and deer carcasses punctuate parking
lots                    You've heard
that crabs here scamper away from wound-colored
water and sea
turtles wash up on the shore
This is not
a game                    Having a child will mean
death in your
name                    You'll be fated to forever carry
a cloak of
shame for initiating a poor unwitting soul
to the earth's
abysmal changes in an age that likely
contains its own
end                    But unlike
its friend red orange doesn't mean stop
but instead proceed
with caution and—to be honest—though
you claim you
can't imagine hell you don't have to—
there's proof: video
of a twelve-year-old boy being shot in
the park (it
took just two seconds—following zero questions)
by a so-called
authorized adult                    Watch now as the horizon's
line blooms honey
lavender turquoise gold peach amber salmon                    Will
this little kicking
kid someday want a gun?                     What will
you do to
prevent him from getting one?                     There's always
a decisive streak
of neon green after the sun's plunge

Caryl Pagel is the author of the forthcoming book of prose Out of Nowhere Into Nothing (FC2, fall 2020) and two collections of poetry, Twice Told (University of Akron) and Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death (Factory Hollow). Pagel is a co-founder of Rescue Press and the director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She teaches in the NEOMFA program.