THE LAST DIASPORA
For my father, in memoriam
Rabbi Hanokh said:
the real exile of Israel in Egypt
was that they had learned to endure
Time calls to time, as owls might converse
across the feathered winds of night,
each seeking solace in the kindred sound of each.
The heron ponds of Thebes have found
their metaphor. The pools of Hollywood hang,
blue and flat as laundered sheets, under a sun
propped up by pruned, fruitless palms.
Might he not think these lines I write, this sleeper
sunk hip and chin deep in flowered rubber foam
as if stretched on a raft drifting along
the molten afternoon, while the sun blazes
from his oiled skin back at itself, superfluous lines:
lines a child might write to mock
the public devils of his age.
But I imagine him, a moment between warmth
and warmth. The sun has disappeared behind gray
clouds, and the chill that rouses his greased skin
into a million hills, brings music
from behind the shuttered windows of the mind.
—Jerusalem, Jerusalem, be still.
Return my limp right arm
to its accustomed power,
and give my lame tongue
back its shrewdness.—
But voices from the coral tiles that reach around
the fluid of the pool like lips, voices that declaim
and sing in steady harmony with the day,
drown out this profound bass full of static.
—Jerusalem, Jerusalem, be still!—
An ageing breath deserves its rest. I’ve toiled
like a fisherman at his nets in the coiled threads
of the sewing machine, and like the farmer, pressuring
his plow through hardened soil, my arms
have pressed lapels and trousers under steam.
The hairless chest that stumbled over its own feet
down the steep, narrow steerage plank
two months and fifty years ago, has had its hair,
thin and black as basting thread, and lost it.
A few gray wisps remain to break pears of sweat
that roll down from the wrinkled neck.
I would have kissed that ground I teetered on
in those first moments, holding everything I owned
in one hand, ground familiar as my dream of it
in Berditchew, yet strange and hard, that ground
I walked on that became mine as I walked, and walked;
that ground on which machines to carry men from one
gong to the next became as common as nagaikas
in a Cossack’s bloody fist. I would have fallen to my knees
and kissed the spot on which I stood, but others,
like me, clutching canvas bags to their chests as if they
held babies, milled about, a murmuring Babel.
Each morning now my cheeks are shaved
by strange, sweet-smelling hands and the hair that frames
the ears is trimmed each month with prim shears,
and after all these years my fingernails are cut and clean.
An ageing breath deserves its rest.
—Jerusalem, Jerusalem, be still—
He sleeps. And all his life is in that sleep
as though a memory: yet more. Each breath that makes
his nostrils tremble, is a final breath. When old bones
sleep, each moment is the last. Breath summons breath
as the chanting of El Moleh Rachamim summons
the ever-present Mitzvah mourners. Will they come?
Oh, will they come? Or will, instead, a dark dream
come, of whispers-not the voices of my son’s young son
and daughter, lying near my feet thick with water,
drawing crayon birds with rainbow feathers
and tickling one another into mirthful screams.
My fathers sat in rooms where candles wept, until
their eyes burned out, until the universe and all its angels
danced in the hollows of their hands. They earned
the law by which they lived and died,
eating bloodless meat and air. How can I, be
their progeny? My law was property I bought on time.
Oh, will they come, the dancing breaths, not those
of the old whisperers, the voices of the bearded crows
that sang the Sabbath into darkness all those years
when my bones were still green and my eyes
fished in the deep book of laws for food to make a life.
—Jerusalem, Jerusalem, be still!—
Why must an old man die into the summers of his youth
before he’s nothing? Why must I hear old, known voices
full of lamentation and despair on mornings
when an ice-cake clogs the stone jar, before I chase
Reb Zusya’s hens with a fistful of pebbles and a branch?
Why must I see the afternoons the hunchback in a caftan
worn to gauze around his hump burned, with his own
red stare, the sleepless eyes of God into the furrows
of my growing ribs to remain there until eternity ends?
So many years have passed. So many eyes have searched
the corners of my lies for traces of a life left behind
in the shtetl with the dead who gave me life. I have heard
so many songs, and sung so many, some unwillingly, some
well: the song of hunger and the song of bread,
the song of fatherhood and the sad chant for the dead.
I have ignored them, faithful always to the one song
I learned, the one song of this land, the song each man
must sing. And I have sung so zestfully, that I could hear
each high note tumble onto the following note hollowly,
like money clinking in an open palm. Oh, I have prospered!
I saved and saved the smallest coins to help my son reach
a place at which I could become his valuable deduction.
Each day the girl from Haiti brings me Cream of Wheat,
thin as the fat-free milk I sip at half past six a.m.,
no salt to scar the skittish heart, no sugar that might
harden paper arteries. I am an old man, with a son
whom moving dreams have made as comfortable
as a thick quilt. I am an old man. I have seen nothing,
have done only that which would suffice each day.
Made a dollar more, perhaps; done nothing, or so
it seems, seeing my son raise out of canvas, slats and paint,
illusions bigger than his father’s wildest hopes.
Was this, the promised land? Was this the land that promised
me fulfillment of a life of limitless possibilities,
but at what price? Or was it I who chose to promise my life
to a land that demanded with each billboard, every myth
and each mailbox stuffer, deaf obedience to its god, Mammon?
I hear the voices of my youth, at last, faintly now.
Can I return, atone, embrace the past once more with these
weak arms, before the voices vanish and I become the past?
WILD CORNER, 1938
The ageing windows to the curled street cheer
with jubilation. Where one day earlier,
starched lace detained, piecemeal,
a weak evening sun on panes crossed by slats
of flaking paint, swastikas now hang firmly,
like a plague of flies swarming in the wind.
In the city, sidewalks and roadways vanish
under black and brown, pressed uniforms
whose burly upper arms bulge gaudy armbands.
Sputtering flatbeds carry sweaty, fiery faces
to assigned houses. At intersections,
polished boots gleam on our newly scrubbed streets.
My father, his Gold Cross of Valor with the silk triangle-
red, white, red-and two more silver medals for the Piave
and Isonzo slaughters bisecting the lapel of his blue,
synagogue suit, dresses me in my white sailor jumper
with knee pants and black patent leather shoes, then leads
me to the door, from where he reassures my mother
trembling near the Doric column at the entrance
to the dining room. -What have I to fear, my dear,— in his
calmest voice.-I am Viennese, and bled in Italy
for my fatherland.-We are gone, even too quickly to hear
mother crying. At the corner of Novaragasse and
Taborstrasse, where the tram runs, a squad of pimply
Hitler Youth block our way, and as I wet my pants from
fear and shame, they tear the medals from my father’s
chest, punch him until his face is raw, kick him
when he stumbles to the ground and scream at him
to take his little, bastard Jew and himself, back to
sewer he calls home. Our housemaster’s son’s the loudest.
All this, in the present tense, sixty-one years to the day,
the event lodged so centrally in my emerging mind,
I can’t remember it in peace, only relive the day.
It will not let me age. I am, each time
I return to the wild corner, the young boy for whom
his father’s helpless tears and bleeding head are more
than humiliation. Betrayal is the word puberty
scrawled on my soul, betrayal of my childish trust
that father could protect me, was just in punishments
for small sins, and as strong as God, shield
of the chosen, who hid in tales and songs on Holy days.
He’s memory now, old and shrunken, sitting near my sons,
secure and richly tanned, half-sleeping in the Miami sun,
the year we buried him under Cypresses. I forgave
him as I forgave myself at last, and know my sons
will forgive me. Love gives our common air its sanity,
heals and frees gradually. One day the face gazing at me
as I shave will no longer be Jehovah’s, only a poor, nicked
imitation, that hoards the gifts of a father it resembles.
Copyright © Oswald LeWinter 2003
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