Aunt Tzipporah hated her name,
detested it really, came closer to the truth.
“What the hell were my parents thinking?”
she said, “like being Jewish in West Virginia
isn’t going to be hard enough.
On a good day I got away with being Zippy,
but you try spending your Junior year in high school
hearing “Hey Zipper” or having some jerk
come up to you, cigarette dangling
from his lip and saying, “hey, Zippo,
got a light?” and you can guess
why getting out of state to college,
any college, was something I wanted so badly.”
I told my aunt I fully understood,
and she smiled, “I guess you do.
It couldn’t be a party going through
life with the name Shadrach Shamnansky.
It should be more of a surprise,
on this day that you turn ninety
but the mirror, as you see it,
has you looking as you did twenty
two years earlier, and twenty
before that, unchanging in any
meaningful way, yet those
around you laugh when you
tell them what you believe.
Not a day over sixty-eight
you say, and time to go off
and write for an hour, then
the three mile walk, a shower,
some physical therapy for . . .
well one of the joints which
has osteoarthritis, and a salad,
heavy on the greens for lunch.
Nothing much has changed
in your mind, and when
you awaken from the dream,
see your sixty-eight year old
face in the mirror, you only
wish you could see the younger
face that only dreams allow,
but time outside of dreams is
always, unfortunately, unforgiving.
It’s jazz, it’s a club,
but there what once was
is no more, there are
no ashtrays on the table,
overflowing early into
the second set, no cloud
of cigarette smoke descending
from the too dark ceiling.
There is no recognizable odor
of a freshly lit Gaulloise,
in the trembling fingers of
a young man trying to look cool,
trying not to cough on each
inhalation, in the calm fingers
of a young woman who
you know speaks the fluent
French of her homeland.
It is none of those things
but it is jazz, it is a club
and in this city, now, it must suffice.
The pelican hasn’t been around
for a couple of days, and we miss
his akimbo dives into the pond,
surfacing and throwing his head back
to show he’s swallowing his catch
even though we suspect some of the time
he caught nothing at all, but knowing
we’re as gullible an audience
as he is likely to find any time soon.
We hope he is off breeding somewhere,
making little pelicans that will
be able to entertain us next fall
when we return, birds of our own sort,
not snowy egrets but snow birds nonetheless.
We don’t want to know any more
about the mating ritual, some
things ought to be private.
We learned that painful a few years
ago, when my brother thought it
was important we see thoroughbreds bred.
We prefer our breedings like
good French films, suggestive
but ultimately leaving it
to our memory, like so much of our youth.
Consider them very carefully
for you will have only this chance
and you don’t want to add
those which ought not be included
or be forever burdened by those
you overlooked or misassumed
you wanted to retain.
When you are quite certain
you are finished, that your list
is exactly as you wish it,
that all your dislikes and regrets
are properly delineated, then
walk slowly to the river,
pen at the ready, and write them
with a precise hand upon the water.
It is difficult explaining to a child,
even one who has reached the age of 40,
that you once knew all there was to know.
They are certain they know more than you,
and they know all there is to know
so, a fortiori, you could not know
all that there is to know, period.
They will say this with a certain smugness
born, they believe, of the knowledge
that they know quite everything.
But there is still a perverse pleasure
in watching their smugness collapse
like a house of cards in a storm,
when you remind them that there was
so much less to know when you
knew everything, and so it will be
for their children when the reckoning comes.
Each morning I drag myself
from bed, slowly engage my legs,
and amble into the bathroom
where I peer into the mirror.
Each morning I am surprised
that I am the same as I was
they day before, and yet the mirror
by all appearances,
has grown another day older.
It is, I suppose, the nature
of mirrors to age, sadly for them,
and as I turn away each morning
I wish the mirror a good day,
certain that it cannot help
but mourn its ever increasing age.
I always imagined it would somehow
be romantic, not in the Hollywood sort of way,
but in an idyllic, picturesque manner,
even if that denied basic reality.
Reality, when it comes to origins discovered
is overrated, for the normal percolation time
is denied, and the impact is sudden
with no restraints to temper the blow.
Way back when, you learned by stories
told by the elders, who know, or led
you to believe they did without question,
who painted word pictures, drew out
fading photographs that barely seemed real.
You believed them because they knew,
knowledge directly proportional to their age.
For me it was the inside of my cheek,
a wait, and an email, and then news,
place names barren of detail, Lithuania.
Later, village names, and only then visions
of pogroms, of flight, of a desperate search
for freedom and West Virginia.
Details were added, but the picture
was monochrome, a barren, wordless
palette and no brush to be found.
He says he has always hated classical music,
and would rather listen to nails dragged across a chalkboard.
He has been out of school for many years so I
suspect he no longer realizes what nails
on a chalkboard really sounds like, how even
opera, which I can’t tolerate, would be preferable.
He rattles off a list of composers he despises,
Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and on
and on the list goes, and I have to conclude
his distaste for the music is sincere and deep.
Still I ask if there is nothing he will accept,
if not like, but which will fall short of detest.
He pauses a minute in thought, then smiles,
and says he does have two guilty pleasures.
He admits he will listen to classical music, but only
as Beethoven did after he went deaf in 1816,
or failing that, he’d welcome John Cage’s 4:33.
He divided time into neat,
well organized segments, each
precisely the equivalent of each other,
some the perfect sum of lessers.
This is how it should be and must be
he thought, and it made things
so much easier for him.
He knew when to arrive, and
always knew precisely what
time it was and would be.
He couldn’t understand why
others couldn’t seem to arrive
on his schedule, never mind
that they had divided time
into neat segments, each
precisely the equivalent of each other
and none the equivalent of
his tidy temporal order.