Once, in the winter of nineteen sixty four
I met John Fahey at Mother Neptune’s,
The coffee house by Los Angeles City College.
I was eighteen, growing out my hair,
With a joint in my pack of Chesterfields,
As I counted on my burning fingers
All the trespasses that would raise the lamp
That would cauterize the needle,
To dip in ink from a broken ballpoint pen.
Blue stigmata carnations that someday
Would bloom as music inside my head,
Or later, now, as words on this page.
John came in wearing a blue work shirt,
Jeans, and a sport coat, which I thought
Was very cool in those days.
He was holding his hand on his head
“So it wouldn’t fall off,” someone joked.
It was only later that I came to recognize
The resolve of the posture,
Having been certain at times, that if my voice
Receded any farther into the corner of the room
It would turn itself inside out
And I would start talking in tongues and disappear
Like smoke from a signal fire,
Out the top of my head.
He was dangling a soda bottle by the neck
Jack Daniels mixed with Coca Cola.
He borrowed my Gibson with the faded, redish top
And played Christmas songs, in open tunings
One after another, until figures in white robes appeared
Up to their waists in a familiar river
In the smoked-up windows of the coffee house,
Singing “ Low How A Rose ‘Ere Blooming,”
And he smiled once or twice, like the Cheshire Cat.
“We three Kings,” transfigured
Under the Mixolydian colors of a modal star.
Sometimes he seemed to move through himself
Like the current in that river,
Talking easy to me, every once in a while,
As if we were friends, a slow, droll voice,
German philosophy that I didn’t understand.
Of rivers and religion, how he used to go fishing
For days at time with Bukka White
When the catfish were in bloom,
Bukka White, who told him,
Be careful what you ask for John,
The past is really in front of you, before your eyes,
The future is out behind.
Maybe you need to learn to walk backward
In your own footprints,
Like a Seminole Indian.
“Joy To The World,” finger-picked and syncopated
With a blues turn around and an old-timey riff.
A reverence for the mood, not the holiday,
Whatever brooded over that river
That we have given so many names.
He finished with “Silent Night,” which he played
Like a Hawaiian lullaby with the back of a kitchen knife,
Sliding it up and down the neck of the guitar
That he held tilted on his lap like a baby.
Nice little instrument with some decent sustain,
He drawled, You don’t see many red guitars.
You got a real sweet spot
Up around the tenth fret, on the B string.”
It doesn’t need much tremolo.
You can feel it can’t you,
In your hands and chest
Right through the sound box and fret board?
And I nodded my head,
Even though I didn’t feel a thing.
The Song of the Turtle
“Days Gone By,” when those cool fingers
Whispered over skin and flesh.
His Mother’s hands fluttered and cooed like birds,
Nesting, conjuring the murmurs,
A light in the palm of the heart, touching,
A rocking softness, before he had words to speak,
A face that he entered,
Bigger than the sun, painted and rouged.
The perfume, the smell of liquor, coffee and cigarettes,
Augured the moistness of lips that parted
And closed, on his neck and chest.
She would cool the kiss with a puff of breath,
Then touch the spot with her forefinger
As if to seal it like Solomon’s Pentagram,
Drawn on his body in invisible ink
That women seemed to notice
When he closed his eyes and curved his long neck
Back and to the side when he played,
As if listening for a voice, the cradled humming,
When the shades were drawn in the darkened living room.
His father worked for the government across the line,
A.J., who sang and played the upright piano,
Laid on those heavy ancestral hands at night,
Who drank and doled out the fruit when his mother left.
John, his hair slicked back with Brillcream.
“Just a little dab will do you,” John Aloysius Fahey.
He raised turtles in a concrete pit behind the house.
When he was little and the night noise had subsided
The turtles used to sing to him of days gone by,
When the Catfish were in bloom.
At The Ash Grove 1965
“Ever I get my new house done
Sail away, ladies, sail away.
I’ll give the old one to my son.
Sail away ladies, sail away.”
His hands shook, so he played the first piece fast,
Just to burn off the adrenalin,
Guitar low on his hip,
His head tilted back and to the side,
Long neck curved, eyes closed.
Transcendental Water Fall,
Requiem for the Last Steam Engine Train.
The Maiden Voyage of the Yellow Princess.
Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible Bladensburg Castle.
Imagine Bartok in syncopation, Stravinsky and Ravel
Finger-picked on a steel string guitar.
He slid a tarnished lipstick tube
On his little finger up and down the strings,
While his thumb played the alternating bass,
And his fingers picked melody and harmony,
Left hand hammering down, pulling off
The pleasures from the slack and sympathetic strings.
Open tunings gave him perfect chords
In odd and unfamiliar inversions,
The spaciousness of Open C for example,
The top two strings both tuned in unison
Without the third interval became a drone of bees.
The same note, played on different strings
Is not the same note, if every object
Posits its own universe.
The regress of overtones reassured us
Of some kind of order
To whatever it is we are crossing.
He followed the chromatic descent to the dark
Root of the tonic, the turnaround and hesitation.
Don’t look back John.
Whatever’s there might be gaining on you.
The anticipation of another twelve bars
As the steamboat comes around the bend,
The whistle piercing the mist
Before the smokestacks emerge above the willows.
The calliope pipes “The Tennessee Waltz.”
A Day of the Dead skeleton in the pilot house,
Grins and holds the wheel steady.
A deck hand that looks just like you, John
Checks the fathoms, and marks the twine.
Then a hymn, simple and four square
When the hour is fulfilled,
Jesus Is A Dying Bed Maker and all
Who navigate that river squeezed into a tune.
A Raga For Mississippi John Hurt.
The Camptown Races, A Bicycle Built For Two.
Variations on Saint Saens’ The Yellow Princess.
He stabilized the fantasies on the harmonic armature
Until it had a life of its own,
Decks of teak and mahogany,
A jade prow and an ivory hull.
Not much banter in between songs
Except for one quiet monologue
About seeing Jimmy Reed perform
Seated in a straight back chair.
His wife stood behind him,
Her hands on his shoulders,
Whispering lyrics in his ear:
“I got a bird that whistles
I got a bird that sings,
But without my Corina
Life isn’t worth a thing.”
John fiddled with the tuning pegs
Squinting out at the audience.
In the middle of the second set
He toppled backwards off the stool
Knocking over his doctored bottle of Coke,
Clutching his guitar to his chest.
Gravity may be one of God’s clearer manifestations,
Along with pressure and coincidence, he mumbled,
Slowly, deliberately, as he set himself up again.
People laughed nervously
But I suppose we encouraged his oddities,
In exchange for a peek around the bend in that river
That we have given so many names.
Marking on the twine is nine fathoms.
Sail away, Johnny, sail away.
John Doesn’t Play the Blues Anymore
“All those middle class white boys
Out to have their fun.”
Elvis took “Hound dog” from Big Momma Thorton
Koerner, Ray and Glover were hanging out
With Big Joe Williams and copying every grunt
And sigh off the old seventy eight’s, those days.
Tom Rush copped “The Panama Limited,”
Talking dialogue and all, off of Bukka White.
In the early years, John made himself as mysterious
As St Elmo’s fire and swamp gas, but in the end
We were all stealing other folks’ music,
Plain and simple, not out of disrespect,
But blind ignorance, admiring,
Coveting other people’s lived experience.
What else would you have people do,
Who wake up living in Boomtown in the fifties,
Like that man who fell to earth,
Trying to get his bearings
When the anesthesia wears off,
Struggling for air and trying to plug up the holes?
I don’t listen to my old stuff, John said,
Not long before he died,
Too much like a minstrel show,
And I haven’t played the blues in years.
Believe me, John, Bukka White told him,
After all these years, my hands
Still as hard as the soles of your shoes.
I was there—and there ain’t no romance
About road gang work, doing time on the County Farm,
Or cutting sugar cane along the Brazos
With some cracker in sun glasses sitting his horse,
With a pump shotgun over the saddle
Telling you whether you can get a drink of water—
Yes sir, boss,
Or take a pee,
No, sir boss.
No romance in a nine pound hammer—
No, sir boss.
Yes, sir boss.
No romance in dragging a hundred pound bale of cotton.
When Muddy Waters got some real money
He bought himself a new Buick and a house in the suburbs.
Yes siree Bob—Boss.
I want this poem to turn like a sunflower
Toward a face bigger than the sun,
To listen to talking bridges and singing turtles,
To bend its long swan neck and close its eyes,
To become that kiss and that sweet spot,
The cradled humming,
“In Christ There Is No East or West.”
To sing “Uncloudy Day”
In sacred harp voices, foursquare and loud,
To cool you with a puff of breath.
I want to lay these words in your lap
Like your slide guitar or a sleepy child.
There is a ring around the moon tonight,
John Aloysius Fahey,
Sometimes considered propitious
But not always the best of signs.
The night noise has subsided
And the singing turtles have commenced to dream.
The sun, embraced in the moon’s eclipse,
Has once again begun to move.
The wind is up and blowing through the unfurled sails
And rigging of The Yellow Princess.
She is out of the doldrums and headed for the open sea
Under the Southern Cross.
The constellations have renewed their drift.
What remains is what passes between us at this moment.
The past stretches out in front of us,
The future, and all that is gaining on us
Are beyond words, beyond our remonstrance.
The man in the moon can only reflect
The countenance of a distant love.
The people who worship by staring
Raw at the sun quickly go blind.
The last thing they see is the radiance
Of that solitary and distant love.
“Long John, is long gone.
Long gone with his long johns on.
he’s got a heel in front and a heel behind
And they never will tell which way he’s gone.”
The melody has faded from the grooves
Of those thick, old seventy eights.
They’ve been played over and over
Until they just wore out,
Like the valves and chambers of the heart.
Beyond the sun that you can’t stare at for long
Face to face, a fragrance you can’t name.
A cool finger touches your chest.
A kiss on the sweet spot with just a little tremolo.
A slide up to that high A on the tenth fret.
Our Breath on the Mirror
Under the Dodgers’ cap, and khaki work shirt
the woman selling flowers by the freeway
is short, broad and full as the Goddess
of earth and death, Coatlicue, and you hear
the rattles on her ankles, her necklace
of hands, and skulls shaking
to the heart of a distant smoking drum.
The two snake heads rattle in her hands
as Coatlicue begins to dance.
With a lift of her chin Juana raises her eyebrows
offering the flowers--Guelaguetza—
to faces behind the glass that look at her,
pretend not to look at her.
Windows hum open or slide closed.
Sometimes men rush and fumble for dollar bills
as they watch the light, then lay the rose
beside them on the passenger seat.
Juana is so far from Tlacolula.
She and her brother each paid the coyote
three thousand dollars American to guide them
through the labyrinths of arroyos and barrancas
past la Migra, in their blazers with their nightscopes,
across the jagged border, to the other side
She wires a hundred and fifty a month
to her mother who pays the bills,
who makes a payment on the land in Mitla,
who saves the rest for three years to send other children
to hide under the remote pitch of the moon
from the green and infrared lights that search
for silhouettes of caravans and the dreams of caravans,
the heat of human bodies, on a backlit horizon.
They will walk with care past the listening machines
that hear their pulses surge and their mouths go dry.
They remember Elalo, Macario, and Evodio from the village
who froze to death last year in these mountains
just three miles from the highway.
You would like to believe that the Virgin of Guadalupe
covered them with her shawl, that the Naguals
came to them in their sleep
and told them that the storm would pass,
brought them posole and steaming champurrado.
You would like to believe that their tears froze like pearls,
that they died in a fairy tale
like the ice princess or Grimm’s little match girl.
Perhaps freezing to death is like falling asleep.
Huddle together, M’ijos, six hands,
six arms and legs, entwined,
three hearts, thick, and slow, and beating.
What are you dreaming Juana, out there by the freeway?
Are you rocking in a hammock years from now
in your own jalapa in Mitla?
You braid flowers and colored ribbons
into your granddaughter’s hair for The Day of the Dead
The smell of the Cempasuchil, the Marigolds
and the smoking copal, remind you of roses and oranges,
the gray faces of the gavachos in their shiny cars
stony and silent as the hieroglyphs of the old ones
in Monte Alban and Tule.
The Camazotz call your name Juana,
from their dream gardens and the church bells ring in
the cold winds of the north that bring the spirits of the dead.
Your mother and father are coming across the River Chiconaupan
the day after tomorrow, El Dia de Los Muertos.
They will need gifts and traveler’s provisions.
Lay the path of orange marigolds from the door to the alter.
Scatter breadcrumbs and flower seeds for the birds
which are the souls of small children.
The alter is perfect-- gladiolas, chrysathemums.
Stalks of corn, bamboo and sugarcane arch across time
and the cycles of the souls’ resurrections.
Don’t forget-- Abuela liked Chapulines, fried grasshoppers,
and Abuelo Joselito liked his mescal.
Leave them a glass of water.
They have journeyed far and they are thirsty.
Candles, yes, lots of Candles to light their way.
Go to the Cemetery and clear the weeds.
See that the graves are swept clean.
Put the sugar skulls, with their maraschino eyes
and syrupy smiles next to the old pictures:
Gran Tio Chuy, fuerte y formal
as he stares into the camera.
The Angelitos, the dead little children lie posed
in their parents arms: Refugia, at two years old
on Tia Cecilia’s lap in a white dress
holds a cross to the camera in her cold, tiny hands.
Arrange their favorite foods, the seven moles,
home-made mescal and candied pumpkin,
fresh baked “bread of the dead.”
The alter is perfect.
Nothing must be touched by anyone.
The spirits of the children will return on November first,
the adults the day after.
They cannot eat but will kiss the food,
take in the aromas and moisture of the preparations.
When they are satisfied they will look for you
to leave behind their good will and their blessings.
And the gavachos will come as well,
two thousand miles from el otro lado, how strange
with all their gear and their money, rushing,
taking pictures, que raro.
When they smile they seem sad and hungry.
Remember when one-- sin verguenza, shameless,
even wanted to buy the shawl you were wrapped in,
and the blanket you were sitting on at the cemetery.
The tour buses and the shiny rented cars rumble
out of the dusty night into Tlacalula.
Gavachos with video cameras at the windows
film The Day Of The Dead.
When you look at them, the flesh melts off their bones.
Allegados, son iguales.
Having arrived, they are all equal,
like the figures in Posada’s drawings,
Skeletons in shorts, with cameras around their necks,
take pictures of each other.
Donde esta la bathroom?
Skeletons bargaining for rugs and black pottery.
Ask her if the dyes are natural or artificial.
skeleton children, loud and unmannered
maniosos y malcriados, grabby and badly behaved,
skeletons full of coming and going
taking with them little pieces of your village
to put on their walls and mantles.
Lights explode beside the people at the graves,
The red eyes of the cameras glow
like the eyes of the Camazotz in the night
who come to steal people’s dreams.
The skeletons covet it all, the sugar sweet holidays,
the rituals, they look south of the border,
to have maraschino cherries for eyes,
necklaces of marigolds and syrupy smiles,
to have their souls become bread of the dead
for the Gods to feast on.
But their pleasures last as long as the marzipan skull
that melts on the tongue and is gone.
Do not mind them Juana.
They desire what the dollars cannot buy,
not the charms or the pictures of the Virgen
to put on their walls or their refrigerators.
They also want to stop the rush of time.
We are all skeletons in a Posada drawing
all on our way, coming and going to Bone Town.
We all borrow hunt and gather,
and dance to faraway drums,
whiten our faces with rice powder as we try
to commemorate ourselves and those we love,
to see our breath on the mirror.
Guelagetza: a Zapotec offering, a gift to share or reciprocate.
La Migra: US Immigration Service.
Al otro lado: to the other side.
M’ijos: Mi hijos, i.e. my children
Naguals: Mythical Mexican Trickster animals
Champurrado: hot drink made of corn and chocolate.
Jalapa: open air palm roofed house.
Copal: incense made of resin.
Camazotz: Olmec diety associated with night , death, and sacrifice
See that their graves are kept clean: a blues line. From Blind Lemon Jefferson?
Posada: Mexican artist/cartoonist and satirist famous for popularizing the Calaveras, depictions of the skeletons of Day of the Dead
Sin Verguenza: shameless one
Breath on the mirror: Popol Vuh
People of the Air
“To be no one’s sleep under so many petals.”
The memories amble in, don’t they, Molly,
like the old muzzled bear the Pole
brought on a leash to your village in Zhitomir
to wrestle with the drunken Russian soldiers
then dance for rubles to the accordion and violin.
While the balalaika played, they poked him with sticks,
tossed coals from the fire, and cigarettes at him
that caught in his fur and smoked and glittered.
You imagined him dreaming his mother’s warm, feral milk,
the nuzzle of fur, as she pulled
the pine needles and leaves over both of them
like a second skin in the hollows of their cave
under the snow in the old growth forest.
Luckshenkup they called you,
the noodle headed dreamer.
In the Pale of Settlement
the Luftmenschen, lived off the air,
A soup made from small change,
throwaway bones, two onions, two potatoes,
shav and wild greens picked by the banks of the Teterev.
A soup thin enough to read a newspaper through.
After Csar Nicholas was assassinated
the Novoye Vremya headlined: “To Beat
Or Not To Beat Jews?” Is it really a question?
They were clutchers, pickers, sellers.
Buy it for a ruble, sell it for a ruble and a half,
pins, needles, paper, string.
Stand on your toes to reach God’s ear,
beyond the Pale of Settlement.
Even at eleven, Molly, I wasn’t too old
to lie across your lap as you scratched my back
and told me stories about Zhitomir and the pottery.
At eleven you are trimming on the kick wheel,
imitation gold edges on bone-white plates,
auguries that spin between your knees
that you stare at unblinking—
a ring around the man in the moon.
a face in a bone-colored mirror trimmed in gold,
Will you take her to the Goldineh Medina.
The Golden Promised Land, Mr. Man in the Moon?
Max, your brother, with a bandana over his nose.
has been mixing the clay since he was ten,
the iron oxides, feldspar, kaolin, lead, sand, grog,
powdering the flowers of his lungs.
Pull the bandana over your nose, tie it tighter, Max.
Who knew from dust and fumes in those days?
Max, the Ladies’ man. Max, the dancer,
the dresser. In his fancy vests, and slicked back hair,
Max who never saved his nickels and dimes
to bring anyone else over.
He’ll be dead before he’s thirty.
little Max, the ladies’ man
Mad as a hatter.
Six years from now, you will treadle
another kind of wheel in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory,
But now all the children dig clay at the river.
You make dolls that you’ll fire in the kiln.
Bible figures you name that come alive in your hand,
Esther, Sarai, Susana, Rose of Sharon.
Eins, tsvey, drei, fir…
You march a a clay golem across the wedging table.
On cold nights, you rub your back against the brick kiln
then sweep the shop floor waiting for the load to cool,
to chip the teats off the fired cups and plates.
You pull out the window brick, to peer inside:
whispers of orange and yellow winds,
a boat rocks on waves of fire. A shooting star.
the silhouette of a tiny figure— A golem? An angel?
dancing on the horizon between earth and heaven
shot through with prisms of red and gold.
always the lukshenkup,
the noodle headed dreamer.
If you had the second sight back then
you wouldn’t see golems and angels.
You would not be talking to the man in the moon.
You would see fire falling from the sky,
people of the air like shooting stars.
Your friends Gussie Rosenthal and May Caliandro Levanti.
on the ninth floor ledge of the Triangle Shirt waist factory.
Flames lick out from the window to catch Sara Brenman’s hair.
The firemen’s ladders only reach the seventh floor
The eighth floor—Wait Sara they are coming to get you.
She jumps toward the fireman, her hair on fire,
But the fireman on the ladder reaching, reaching,
can’t hold her, can’t catch her.
He nearly falls as she bounces off of him.
Her skirts and white underclothes blossom over her head,
a lead filled rag doll screaming.
The blankets and nets are useless, the falling bodies
rip them from the firemen’s hands.
When Sarah’s body strikes the ground
her heart explodes.
Izzy Gould is dropping those too afraid to jump,
holding them over the ledge by their wrists,
face to face--Yiz gdail y yiz gadash…
Mary Levanthal and Antonina Coletti embrace each other
The cones that tell the temperature and augur the final glaze
melt at two thousand degrees,
to signal the end of the firing.
We shouldn’t stare into the kiln too long, Molly.
We’ll hurt our eyes.
It’s like staring at the sun.
Luftmenschen: people of the air
Golem: In Jewish mythology, a creature fashioned from clay, animated with special prayers to do the bidding of the person who created it.
Gussie Rosenthal, May Caliandro Levanti, Mary Levanthal, Antonina Coletti, Sara Brenmen: five of the one hundred and fifty six men and women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Yiz gdail y yiz gadash…: Beginning of the Kadish, the prayer for the dead.
In the murmur of closed air, in steerage,
in the rocking lap of The SS Penland,
by the engines that labor and groan
in the trembling of shadow pools and pressed nights,
a concertina, a calloused fiddle, and a mouth organ, recall
“Rozhinkes Mit Mandlin,”
Raisens with almonds.
In patched carpet bags, in burlap sacks,
in hearts trussed with twine and old rope,
in valises stuffed with stale bread, hard, long-shots,
posed sepia memories in stiff borrowed clothes,
in hidden pockets of old great coats,
clutchers of lean bones,
clutchers of thin straws and last hopes,
reluctant lovers of leaving,
the Luftmenschen bear their remnants and last chances.
as they squeeze toward the portholes
to bath their faces in the North Sea air
in the second winds of morning.
Molly is on her toes --Ich vil zayen--
lift me to see. On thick corderoy shoulders,
she watches through a sunrise porthole
a pantomime of lumbering golems
billowed riders on twisted horses
knotted, puffed, like fresh-risen chala.
There! Carrying a candle,
a flying fish with the head of an angel
in folds of darkness and emerging light.
lnverted heads linger over translucent torsos,
shot through with prisms of rose and gold,
toys of remembering, over a green kimono sea.
In Japan the money runs out.
The rubles that Moma kept in her gotkas
are worth less than toilet paper.
Molly, Max, and her mother, walk the streets.
Dora sews and cleans for the Europeans.
They lived with the doll people,
butter skinned with the voices of birds.
They drink green bitter tea from tiny cups
No lumps of sugar to put between their teeth.
Small hands touch a freckled arm.
Keiko giggles and brushes out Molly’s auburn hair
To twist and pile it on her head.
Molly smiles the Rose of Sharon.
It takes thirty men running to get the big kite off the ground.
They are fishing in the speckled, blue waters of Heaven,
where the clouds are lotus blossoms, here
on the other side of the world.
They are letting the big golden one,
the king of the carp run, hoping
he won’t sound and get away.
they are taming bulls, and wild white horses.
They are chasing turtles, cranes and dragons.
The Buddhist priests augur the future,
if the baby will be a boy or girl
by reading the kite’s direction and the turtle’s smile.
Smaller fighting kites dart and chase each other.
The losers flutter, and tumble in a confusion
of splintered bamboo, torn, painted silk,
sparrow bones and colored paper,
a long, spiraling disarray.
When a child is born, we fly a kite, Keiko tells Molly.
to welcome the souls of children.
A bare-chested man pulls on one of the lines.
A mustached red-eyed dragon and a chrysanthemum
glisten red and blue, trembling on his back.
He beckons Molly with a toss of his head,
to hold the rope with him between the other men.
Follow the tattooed man’s gold-toothed smile
upward Molly, up the line, there---
A box kite bigger than the old synagogue in Zhitomir
floating in the sky in the shape of golden carp
that struggles against the line
He will swim against the currents upstream.
You can hear the great bamboo struts creak and strain.
I have a secret, I can tell you
now that we are alone here
and I am a grown man in my forties.
You are the woman in the painting
A Double Portrait With A Glass Of Wine,
wearing the grey dress, Molly
with the slit up the right front leg,
plum-colored stockings, a necklace of raisins and almonds
the bodice is undone, loose and laughing,
a crescent moon in the creamy clouds,
breasts of Susana and the Rose of Sharon,
You are dancing with me on your shoulders,
Hossana, Hossana ,Oh Susana, I sing
in my thick, greenhorn accent.
As we laugh.
I hold up a glass of ginger ale and cherry Kiafa.
Is that a jester’s cap I’m wearing,
or my love for you, dressed up in purple,
descending in an emerald cloud?
I sit astride your broad bare shoulders,
one hand over your right eye as you dance.
What are you holding in your hands,
Playing cards, tickets to Coney Island, a bouquet of feathers?
You smile, almost bursting
as the laughter lifts us off the ground.
Our heads turn upside down
Your eyes are open, my eyes are closed
as we curve into each other
in the folds of colors inside of colors,
fields of yellows, rough ochres and mustard.
we are high over Zhitomir
then back in the kitchen,
for the kiss.
They say the sense of hearing
is the first to come and the last to go.
Can you hear me Molly, I whisper in your ear.
Let me tell you a story, this time.
You are back on the streets of Zhitomir.
I have set right your father’s cart on the cobbled stones.
The Black Hundreds have disappeared.
I brush off your dress and buy you fresh baked chala.
Here, take this baked potato, this hard-boiled egg
to warm your hands, on your way to the pottery.
Tonight you will have all chicken you can eat,
not the neck or rear end once a month,
The Pope’s nose, your father calls it
under his breath, but a breast and a leg,
like the men in the family used to get.
Lie across my lap and I’ll scratch your back,
the way you scratched mine when I was little.
We’ll play the game where we trace letters and words
in Yiddish on each others’ back to guess them.
Hurray, Hurray, di Buba gelait ayn ey.
Fa vus fa vus, zi hut a langa nuz
I will blow air in the palm of your hand,
tickle it lightly, then the little mouse
will run up your arm and you will laugh.
Mizela maizela mizela maisela.
Sit at my feet and I’ll undo your braids
and take out the tortoise shell combs.
I’ll brush your hair down,
trace the pale veins on your neck and temple
under your porcelain skin
as the doll people loved to do.
I want you in the gray silk dress
slit up the side with the plum stockings
A necklace of raisins and almonds.
I’ll carry you on my shoulders to the sunset porthole
and then up onto the deck,
out of the closed air, and steerage
out of the rocking of shadow pools,
the pressed nights’ murmur.
I’ll fly you like a kite
into the second winds of morning
above a green kimono sea.
I want to feel the tug and pull on the line,
then release the string and float you into the billows.
“Hurray, Hurray …a langa nuz”: a children’s rhyme: Hurray,Hurray, the grandmother laid and egg.Why, why? Because she has a long nose.
Mizela Maisela: mousey, mousey, little mousey
Now Molly, one last Buba Meisa,
a story, like the ones you used to tell me.
The Great Bear is asleep,
hibernating tonight in the folds and hollows of space,
a black hole in some far off region
of his old growth forest.
In the thickness of his blackberry dreams such time passes,
ten thousand years with every long breath.
The belt of the hunter frays
and the constellations drift a little more apart
The great bear smells honey in the hollow tree,
like the one you and Max hid in from the Cossacks
that night coming home from the pottery
in the woods, outside of Zhitomir.
The bear dreams of his mother,
way behind the sun.
He is yawning, waking,
sliver flashes ripple down his back.
as he rubs his side against the rings of Saturn,
licks the mist off the Milky Way
and drinks from the river of shining milk.
He unravels and numbers our days,
moves the drifting planets back into their places.
He is light years beyond the hunters and watchers
with their useless snares and nooses
their night scopes and listening machines.
They will never again see him face to face.
He approaches through the firmament
in his slow and rolling gait,
yes, unmuzzled, and unchained,
claws longer than the Big Dipper,
stars, like night-blooming jasmine hanging in his fur.
He shakes off the blackberry dreams of night
and reaches for the honey covered sun.
He rises on his hind legs, lumbering,
no balalaikas, no concertinas,
no Pole and drunken Russian soldiers poke him with sticks.
Listen Molly, under the rose petals of your sleep.
press your face against the window.
The hokey pokey man is calling your name.
the hurdy gurdy is playing “Rozhinkes mit Mandlin,”
And the bear begins to dance.
the rivers of shining milk: Octavio Paz