PICTURE THIS

Words failed him again. They did so ever more often it seemed, but it was possible it was merely that he was trying to express ever more complex ideas ideas in terms others would comprehend. A picture might not be worth a thousand words, but if you had that many, odds are some would be correct. And the listener could sort out which were and which were not. He had made up some words that fit perfectly, but they only drew stares, so he took to drawing pictures. Then he could attach his words and they would mean exactly what he was defining — picture dictionary that anyone could grasp. Well, not anyone perhaps, but most people if they would be the least bit patient. His friends had learned that patience, as he was patient with them in return. But his parents were another matter, never willing to slow down and really listen, always just searching for words that failed them.

LADDER

You have to stop and wonder,
the child said, why people
can take joy in killing, why
people can scheme each other,
why people can cheat if they can.

Birds, the child added, only
try and scheme people for food,
why they cheat for the sake
of cheating, kill for pleasure,
yet we say we are the higher species.

Perhaps, the child concludes,
it is we who are standing
on our heads, looking up
the species ladder, and we
are actually on the bottom.

BEARDED

It is growing more common for men
of a certain age, one I have attained,
to grow beards, and that was before
the pandemic made them ubiquitous
among those of the male gender.

I noted this aloud and a young child
smiled at me and said, “of course,
you have to have a beard because
the hair inside your head has to go
somewhere other than your bald head.”

BEFORE YOU LEAP

She always told him
that he should, no must,
“look before you leap.”

He said he understood
and would do so, almost
always, he was after all
a child and no promise
could be that absolute.

When he came out
of the anesthesia,
his arm and leg
in a cast, he saw her
scowling at him.

“I did,” he said, “I did,
I looked for quite a while
before I jumped 
off the garage roof,
just like you told 
me I had to do.”

LIGHTS

For eight days each December
they call out to me as the flame
of the candles flickers out,
“Remember me” they say in unison,
“remember me”, in the voice of the child,
an old woman, in Yiddish,
in Polish, German, Czech, Latt.
I want to remember but I cannot see
a face reduced to ash, blended
into the earth of a farm field outside Treblinka,
the winter wheat remembers.
I want to remember but I cannot stroke
the head of a young man whose bones
mingle with his brother’s, countless others
sharing a mass grave, his skull
and brains painting the trunks
of a nearby stand of trees.
I want to remember but cannot hear
the sweet tenor of the cantor
whose tongue was torn from his mouth
for refusing to speak of the tunnels
beneath his once beloved Warsaw.
I want to remember the lavender scent
of the young woman, fresh from the showers
but there is only the stench
of putrid flesh and Zyklon,
of bodies crammed into the converted boxcar.
I want to remember the taste
of a warm challah on Shabbat eve
that she lovingly shaped
into a braid and pulled from the oven,
but her arms were neatly removed
by the surgeon before she
was cast naked into the Polish winter.
I want to remember them all,
their names in a memorial
but they are only numbers
tattooed onto endless arms.
The candles die and their voices
fall silent for yet another year.

First Appeared in Rattle, Issue 7, Summer 1997. Reprinted in Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2005.

WHY NOT

Today in odd places,
at the most unexpected moments,
a child will smile without reason,
a young girl will laugh,
the young boy will stroke
the neck of a wandering cat,
and in that place
at that moment
there will be a simple peace.
Only the children will notice this,
though it gives lie to those
who deem peace impossible.
A child knows that it is
only preconceptions
and attachments
that blind adults
to the peace that
surrounds them.

FROM THERE

The middle, she said, is what
is all important, for everything
extends from that precise point.

It’s something we learned
as children, a lesson sitting
in every good playground.

Buddhists know it certainly,
it is the way we want to find,
the route to peace and compassion.

And let’s face it, when it comes
to everything, we all know
that’s the place you want to be.

LESSONS

The most important lessons he taught
were in those moments when he was
absolutely silent, the smile across
his face shouting across the background
din of everyday life, his eyes wide
with a sort of childish awe that I had
long since given up as adolescent.

The child sees everything for the first time
regardless how many times she has
gazed at what we adults are certain
is the same scene, a pure iteration,
hears each call of the cardinal as
a never-before-heard song, not
the now boring chorus of a too long
repeated lyric, its melody now painful.

His lessons too easily slipped away,
as he did a few years later, mourning
a poor substitute for memories that
eased into the damp ground with him,
but the smile of my granddaughter
at seemingly everything and nothing,
her laughter at the squirrel inverted
from the crook arm of the bird feeder
defying the shield below to stop
his constant thefts, the giggles
at the clouds filling the sky with
characters I could not hope to see,
brought him back, and with him
the joys of my childhood long suppressed.

A VISIT

I’ve always imagined that one of these nights
I’d see my mother’s ghost. I would welcome the sight
welcome she that bore me, not she that stepped in
in a way,absolving my birth mother of her sin,
while assuming adopting me would make her complete.

She hasn’t visited yet, neither has done so,
but I hold out hope, it is after all the last to go,
and I do hear her voice, faint and all too distant,
sounding very much like my own one instant
and then no more than a faint whisper in retreat.

I don’t need a long conversation, a few words would
more than suffice, but some at least, a child should
in advancing age hear the sound of a mother’s voice,
if only to find solace in the fact that her choice
to yield the child was made from love not defeat.

TREPIDATION

I approach it slowly, overcome
by fear and desire, warned to step
carefully over the uneven earth
that on this hillside haven set behind
the rusting wrought iron fence , its
master lock dangling askew, peers
out through the trees to the Kanawha river
flowing unknowingly through the valley.

The stone is set in line with the others,
neatly incised, a name, English
and Hebrew, two petunias, cornered,
in perpetual bloom, a beloved sister
and aunt, and unstated, unknown perhaps,
a mother whose son, gently touching
the stone, washes her with my tears,
and we speak of love in silence, and I,
a child of sixty-seven, embrace
my mother for the first time, and I
am finally and for the first time, complete