When she was getting close
to the end, we cached the hospice morphine
in the fridge behind the ricotta cheese,
We moved her bed into the living room,
where she could look out onto the Hollywood hills.
She slept and slept.
Waking, she said she’d dreamed
she was a delirious little bird,
and everything around her—
a fragrant field, a grey branch, a dusty road—understood her.
Later, she said she’d dreamt
of rope and wire, of Lvóv in the War,
of nameless relations hiding
with other Jews in the sewer,
shards of skin and glass
and skeins of hair washing away
in gutter water.
She said she knew she, too,
was washing away.
She laughed a little light laugh,
and I heard a chime at the edge of her laughter
that puzzled me, until I understood it
to be her feeling of having only laughter left.
I found a few letters in her closet from her father,
written in his Yiddish accent— “vel” scrawled for “well,”
history in its plainest, most intimate sense.
In the old country he’d been well-off,
which ended with the revolution—
something struck off, something stuck on,
the old secret tales, and blood in the mouth.
Like all children, one accepts
that animals that die do not come back to life.
After he came over, he found work as a bookkeeper.
In their day, people here got used to seeing them,
grandmother in her shawl.
There were many immigrants on the boulevard,
like now, easy to spot,
their hazy look, like charcoal sketches,
and their unfortunate choices of colors.
Poco moto the light scatters.
Outside, Los Angeles shimmers like a piano.
On the ceiling over her bed, the windowpanes
shape the lunar light into an arrangement of rectangles.
I ask her if she is afraid,
She says she sat once in front of the painting
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
for an hour.
Then it no longer troubled her,
her inconsequential life.
Acquittal is caused by crime,
tooth decay by Cupid.
Winter causes diligence which causes nuns,
and Popeye is caused by spinach and the ocean.
One leaf causes Fall,
which causes New England and sin.
Sunset Boulevard causes hitch-hikers
and Cadillac Eldorados, which cause men
to reach over, causing night sweats.
Insults are cause for accounting,
disasters are cause for Zen masters,
and heartache causes religion,
which causes heartbreak.
Divorces for cause are caused by marriage,
which causes parenthood,
which, in its turn, causes because I said so.
Drowning causes confessions,
and the mouth filled with vocabulary causes cowardice.
One whiff causes the buck
to snort and stomp the ground,
straining to locate you
without regard to beauty.
When she arrived, she did not say
too much about her journey
or the mint tea she drank en route.
We did not lament the destruction
of earth or bring up the vegan position
We watched an old movie
with women in hats as big
as braising pans.
and when we’d touched and told
enough, we cut each other’s hair
and burned each other’s baby pictures.
Table for Two
We dreamed of a life of pâté en croute,
always arriving with a fig mostarda,
a life in which a contralto-green cilantro pesto
could be counted on to refresh the gamey lamb.
Why should the search for perfect cheese puffs be less important
than the search for pure black or the sound of one hand?
Together, we would change the world
one warm French potato salad at a time.
Tonight, the truffles ebony, the marrow gleaming,
her glass eye gazes out across the dining room
from the sepia photo over the bar,
and all these years later, here am I, man
of a certain age, overcome
with nostalgia, near tears,
my carefully mussed hair
glistening in the incandescent light.
Sword of Glass
It was my father’s father
who at last came to dinner from far away,
gulped a whiskey, grinned, and said When I have a whiskey,
I feel like I’m a new man & then the new man wants one, too
my father pouring another & the new, new man
also wanting a whiskey
who tucked me in after dinner whispering,
You must go right to sleep, because if you don’t,
when sleep does come, night will expand
& become a great mass, mold will grow on you,
& in the morning, the sunlight will cut you
like a sword of glass, & you’ll never again
be able to jump up and down.
& he clicked off the light
who for my 13th birthday at his apartment
set out a platter of prunes smoked meats pickled herring
horseradish jam poppy seed rye from which I assembled
a smoked meat sandwich & as I bit growled,
If you don’t like pickled herring, you should tell me
& next time I won’t order it. You don’t know what it means
to be a Jew. You imagine a heaven, sky that shines like a fish,
& the sound of the surface rasp of the sea, but this
is a sorrowful world of fat-free cheese, & recumbent bicycles,
of Christian Science & lonely reflections, of old plow horses—
sullen, worn & indifferent to the whip. The meadows shun those horses!
Everything stings! Everyone cries! & he threw the platter onto the floor—
prunes, jam, meat, all of it
who dressed like a Turkish pimp for Marsh & Jennifer’s wedding,
silk tie painted with women’s faces & palm trees, shouting
when Marsh stomped the glass, Pop goes the hymen!
& washed down two shrimp cocktails with bourbon commanding,
Let us all feast on pie! Rhubarb. Mince. Spanakopita.
waving the menu, calling the waiter, Where is the King of Pie?
smacking a fist on the table, Bring us kingly pie!
Pie for the women in evening gowns, pie for the bride & groom
who, leaning over, took my hand, & speaking softly
& only to me, said, Your father told you I fled the East
to avoid conscription, but I fled because I killed a man
who called me Brudny Żyd—a Dirty Jew.
I was fifteen. You can trust the forest,
but people are chiselers & wolves. Fuck them.
who, when I entered his hospital room,
asked the rest of the family to leave, saying
Sit with me. I can do nothing else.
Skin rashen from whisky & sugar, he grasped my arm,
The River Pishon used to wind like a snake through the larch & pine.
You’ve never seen the boreal forests & soon they’ll be gone.
If I were young I’d disregard the speakable world
& only study the sinuosities of women
& he looked out the window, whispering
more to himself than me,
Life is sunlight held together by blood,
the words drafting like seagulls through motionless air.
And I walked out to the exhausting allure of another day,
to grass the height of the moon, to other, older family faces
appearing at random on petals, bridges, boulders.
In Pleiades, 2015
From Sword of Glass