BECAUSE

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”-Shelley

I write
                                                                    because words must be said
words must be said
                                                                    because they eat at my tongue
they eat at my tongue
                                                                    because they recall the flames of the ovens
they recall the flames of the ovens
                                                                    because they were forced to shower
they were forced to shower
                                                                    because they were Jews
they were Jews
                                                                    because they embraced Torah
they embraced Torah
                                                                    because they walked through the desert
they walked through the desert
                                                                    because they followed the trail of manna
they followed the trail of manna
                                                                    because it led to freedom
it led to freedom
                                                                    because I saw it in a dream
I saw it in a dream
                                                                    because a voice whispered it to me
a voice whispered it to me
                                                                    because I write

BEGGAR’S TALE

I speak clearly, concisely
in an ancient, long forgotten
tongue that none understand.

I tell my tale, leaving out
nothing, a summoner
in a deaf world, whispering

of coins, pulled from
an empty pocket and cast
at your feet, soundless.

I point to signs, lettered
in my careful hand, without
meaning, cryptic to you

You urge me to trust
in your god even as
you deny me my own

who sits by the gate
wrapped in rags, waiting
to for rain to melt the pillar.

EVE OF ENLIGHTENMENT

Cats have more in common
with snakes that we care to recognize.
She said this with a straight face.
He wanted to laugh at her, but dared not.
She didn’t take laughter kindly
when she thought it was directed at her.
He calmly asked her to explain.
It’s simple, she said, with feigned
patience, both can slither around,
are expert at hiding when they wish,
and as you have now so clearly demonstrated,
much as Adam did, both of you the hard way,
both snakes and cats are smarter
by far than your average male human.

PAPAL EDICT

She said “now what they’ve taken away limbo”
sounding a bit depressed,
“not that you proceed express
to the ferry dock, but
that was a snap, all
you were carefully taught
is suddenly wrong or irrelevant.
“It would be like Isaac,”
I say, “climbing Mount Moriah
with Abraham finding a ram
tethered to a waiting altar.”
My mother wants to know
how I can claim to be once Jewish
as though the moyel
also took my freedom of religion.
“We have no hell” she reminds me
“at least after death.”
I silently respond
and try to tell her that
I still don’t have a hell,
at least not as she conceives it.
“But I read,” she says, “the Tibetan
Book of the Dead, and hell
is very, very real.”
I tell her my Buddhism is Chinese
through a fine Japanese filter
and it is the next life
in which I will pay for this one.
She says “I wouldn’t want
to come back again,” and
on that point we find
the beginnings of common ground.

TERMINAL

Birth, he said, is the first and only real terminal disease. You only realize that, of course, when it is far too late and there is nothing at all you can do about it. Cancer and all manner of diseases merely shift the timeline, but once you’re on the path, there is only one way off, and that is a step few are willing to take. For some, this is a source of terror, for others it is no more than a slow walk around the block, with the promise you’ll eventually arrive back at the place you began, although it is no longer the place you began but one from which you begin, not again but anew. Again. This is what the Buddha said 3000 years ago, more or less. He confirmed that the just the other day, outside the soup kitchen. “Hey,” Buddha said, “even the once or twice enlightened need to eat from time to time. Join me?”

A MONK IN MEDITATION 鐵笛倒吹 七十語

A man may own
may volumes of great knowledge
and never have time to read.
An illiterate may take such books
and fashion a stool
on which to sit in meditation.

Which of these is truly wise
which the greatest fool.
Wipe your mouth
with this page
at the conclusion
of the meal.


A reflection on Case 75 of the Iron Flute.

YIDDISH

My grandmother lapsed
into Yiddish only on special occasions
“where other words won’t fit”
she said, where there is
no English to describe
the indescribable, blessed
be He, but we knew
that it was merely
a convenient way to keep
us out of the conversation,
while they clucked.
Mah Johng is a game
that can only be played
in Yiddish, she said,
to hell with thousands
of years of Chinese history.

She remembers the Golem
she met him once
on Fourteenth Street
when she still had
the liquor store.
She thought it strange
that he wanted gin
and not Slivovitz
but Golem can be strange
under the right circumstances,
and he did speak Yiddish.