WHISPERED SONG

“Oh, Woman who walks in beauty like the night
I am a friend who is distant and silent.” — Dineh Wind Prayer

We always sat
on the back bench seat
of the Collins Avenue bus,
stared out the big window,
noses pressed
against the cool glass,
stared at the procession
of stucco hotels,
simple neon signs,
lines of cars and
bathing suits.
My mother working
late into the night and
Beck, eternal friend
who buried her children
only to become a surrogate
mother to an orphaned son.

Beck would stroke
my forehead. At night
when the room was lit
by lightning, she cradled me
shielding my eyes
with sagging breasts
that had nursed three
daughters into womanhood,
later into the grave.

Beck whispered to me
in a mother’s voice —
my mother spoke
in another voice. I
stroked her wattled arms
watching the pouch
of skin swing gently.
Looking at my mother now
it is often Beck’s lips I imagine
kissing my cheek, “Aunt”
Beck, and not my mother
who still casts
disapproving glances
at failed attempts
at machismo, Beck’s
sparse gray hair
that rests on my shoulder.

I was Beck’s last
surviving child
a fourth daughter.
I am the last
to say Kaddish
to remember her
at Yizkor.

In the early morning
mirror, my eyes slowly
ceding sleep, my lover’s
sweat still beaded on
my arm, her taste lingering,
I see my beard fall away,
my skin is smooth, childlike,
my chest hair fades
replaced by nascent breasts,
testicles recede, hair grows
long, auburn, Beck’s face
as it once had been,
as it appeared
in the faded photographs,
stares back at me.

I am mute, wanting
her to draw me against
her shoulder, to make me
again – for a moment –
the fourth daughter
and not the son
she never had.
Next week I will go
to the aging schul,
I will sit among
the women, away
from dovening men, head
covered by the tallit.
I will sing
Kaddish to her.


First Appeared in Vent, Issue 1, 2003.

RULER, PLEASE

You search without end for a way
to precisely measure life in all of its aspects.
You will not be dissuaded by the fact that you can no more
control its span than you could control your need to breathe.
You say you picked the sperm and egg,
that their union you carefully orchestrated.
You believe all things can be measured,
if you can only identify proper metrics for the task.
You know precisely how tall you are, how much
you have shrunken over the years,
how much your waistline has grown.
You can count your good deeds, have a rating scale
that says your next life will be karmic payback hell.
You are taken with measurements of all sorts,
so much so that you often forget to fully live.
You say that this loss doesn’t matter much,
for living boldly, thoroughly, gives you
far too much more to measure.

THE DAY AFTER*

Today we only speak silently
and know everyone hears.
Today we cry only dry tears,
and others gently wipe our eyes.
Today we mourn what we fear is lost
and together vow to retain it.
Today the sun shines less brightly
and we know the dark cloud
will eventually pass.
Today we hug, each
to all the others, though
we sit alone as a sangha.
This is but a single moment
and we sit with and within it,
breathing in and breathing out.


In this case, a Sangha meeting the day after the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, but as easily the day after any tragedy of which there are too many.

GONE

The salmon people
don’t live here anymore
you have moved them
up the river, then inland
so they no longer need to wander.

The salmon
do not swim here anymore
you have dammed the rivers
to draw out their power
and penned the mighty fish
where the river first licks the sea.

The eagle doesn’t
fly here anymore
the great pines
that sat for generations
below his aerie are now
cut into neat supports
on which we hang our walls.

Our children
do not run here anymore
they have moved
to the cities, have gone off
to wars for fighting
is the only job
which they are given.

We have no rivers
we have no salmon
we have no sons, save those
who sleep under neat white stones.
We look for the eagle
a mighty spirit
but he, too, has been claimed
by the others
to decorate their buildings.
We have only our spirit
to guide us and we know
that soon you will claim them too
and leave us as you arrived
to repeat the sad story.

MAGIC, ONCE

As a child he had a magical power.
He didn’t like to use it, didn’t want others
to know he had it, certainly couldn’t share it.
He wasn’t certain when it began to fade,
but he noticed the power diminished as he grew,
as he learned more about the world,
and there was absolutely nothing he could do
to stop or even slow its diminution.
He knew he would miss it, knew he
would always remember it even when
there was no longer a trace of it.
He stopped thinking about it as life
engulfed him in its ever-present moments.
Every once in a while he would pause
and remember it with fondness for
innocence is not something you lose willingly.

TRIPTYCH

A triptych hangs in the gallery of memory.  Admission is by invitation only.

The first panel is a time fogged mirror into which I stare.  The adopted image hides behind the tarnished silver.  My adopted mother’s voice is heard from a hidden speaker: “You were named after my father.”  I want to tape his picture to the glass, a face to share the empty space.  She has no pictures, she says, he never liked being photographed, said it would steal his soul.  She can barely remember him: “He died when I was five.”  I ask questions.  I need to know more about the giver of names.  She falls silent, drawing in, secreting memory.

In the second panel a woman sits, fidgeting.  She is a striking blond.  I cannot see her as being sixty-one, though she is.  I deny that I am fifty.  As the Rabbis climb the few steps to the Bimah, she leans over.  “You know,” Lois says, “just like you, I was named for your grandfather.  She talks freely of herbalism, life in New York, places she wants someday to see.  “It’s funny,” she whispers, “I’ve never seen a picture of him; like he had some kind of phobia of being photographed.”  Outside the Temple she stands with my mother and sister, arms interlocked, embracing both.  I snap the picture.  I am not captured on the film.  Lois and I drive back to my mother’s apartment, stopping at one of the unending lights on Wisconsin Avenue.  She touches my hand: “You know there was one more person named after him, your other sister.”  The light changes.

There is only a picture hook in the wall — not even the faint outline that marks the space from which a picture was removed, the wall beneath unbleached by the sun.  Lisa, my my sister, like me adopted  and as quickly withdrawn, left no outward marks.  She is a footnote in my father’s obituary.  She is cast off by family, an unmentionable.  She is my mother’s deeply hidden scar.

I am repeatedly drawn into this room.  It’s walls never change, the pictures periodically replaced.  I need to visit, to assure myself of — what?  Someday, too soon, this exhibit will close.