Self-Improvement by Tony Hoagland
Just before she flew off like a swan
to her wealthy parents’ summer home,
Bruce’s college girlfriend asked him
to improve his expertise at oral sex,
and offered him some technical advice:
Use nothing but his tonguetip
to flick the light switch in his room
on and off a hundred times a day
until he grew fluent at the nuances
of force and latitude.
Imagine him at practice every evening,
more inspired than he ever was at algebra,
beads of sweat sprouting on his brow,
thinking, thirty-seven, thirty-eight,
seeing, in the tunnel vision of his mind’s eye,
the quadratic equation of her climax
yield to the logic
of his simple math.
Maybe he unscrewed
the bulb from his apartment ceiling
so that passersby would not believe
a giant firefly was pulsing
its electric abdomen in 13 B.
Maybe, as he stood
two inches from the wall,
in darkness, fogging the old plaster
with his breath, he visualized the future
as a mansion standing on the shore
that he was rowing to
with his tongue’s exhausted oar.
Of course, the girlfriend dumped him:
met someone, apres-ski, who,
using nothing but his nose
could identify the vintage of a Cabernet.
Sometimes we are asked
to get good at something we have
no talent for,
or we excel at something we will never
have the opportunity to prove.
Often we ask ourselves
to make absolute sense
out of what just happens,
and in this way, what we are practicing
which everybody practices,
but strangely few of us
grow graceful in.
The climaxes of suffering are complex,
costly, beautiful, but secret.
Bruce never played the light switch again.
So the avenues we walk down,
full of bodies wearing faces,
are full of hidden talent:
enough to make pianos moan,
streetlights deliriously flicker.