Benares is older than history, older than tradition,
older even than legend, and looks twice as old as
all of them put together.
I meet Dolly at the river of light and
water buffalo, sacred morning baths,
cobras in baskets, temples, pyres,
burning bodies. Piled up in high daytime
on Dasaswamedh Ghat, sandalwood-infused
heat unfurls now at sunset from the dust,
a reliable, smoky, ashy, jet lag tonic.
It is the incensed puja that raises her on a pillar
of light between two wooden boats
rickety with tourists setting flower bowls
afloat, adrift. Leis of wick lamps drop
from Dolly’s sleeves and trail like fringe.
Dry as talcum powder,
a wake of cleansed and purified
water silvering behind her,
she wades aground up the stone steps,
where bindi hawkers,
saffron-robed pandits, and holy
sadhus clear a path of stares.
At the platform, under clanging cymbals,
she regards me watching her from a sari
shop balcony, and this is what she says:
Stephen Roger Powers started writing poetry thirteen years ago to pass time in the middle of the night when he was too energized to sleep after coming off the stage in comedy clubs around the Midwest. He is the author of The Follower’s Tale and Hello, Stephen, both published by Salmon Poetry. He hasn’t done stand-up in a long time, but every once in a while he finds avenues for the performer he was born to be. He was an extra in Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, and he can be seen if you know just where to look.