The Mystery of Things
At night you keep me warm, the
Last thing I’ve left of you, Grandma.
Your thick yarn drawn,
Looped with silver needles’ hooks,
Knit strip by strip, joined black to white,
Zigzags running in a pattern that endures.
Your itchy warmth, wool round my legs,
Made with your small, skilled hands.
You learned as a girl,
Were a seamstress, already at twelve.
Earned your own way, supported
Your mother, sisters and brothers.
Slowly, you saved. Left
Family, friends and home.
Crossed an ocean, alone, to stay
With cousins in Detroit.
You got a job in the rag trade,
Became a sewing machine, yourself,
Twelve hours a day. One by
One, you brought your
Brothers and sisters over.
You married, had a family,
Then your children had families,
Themselves. But you kept on sewing,
Knitting, made and mended their clothes.
You crocheted colorful samplers
That were hung above the mantle.
Stitched more afghans like
The one now in my lap.
Then your hands grew stiff, fingers
Swollen, joints – knots of pain.
But with those small, strong hands you’d
Sewn your way across an ocean,
Knit our family together,
Wove yourself into our lives.
Your mother’s mother’s mother…
Your words reach me like
Light from a star that
Died before I was born.
War. Lithuania. 1914. Alone
With four small children,
Their sole breadwinner,
Everywhere you went by foot.
Bought butter, fresh eggs,
Traded meat, chicken, fish.
From earnings, came flour in
40 lb. sacks you shouldered,
Lugged them home on your back.
Everything, you did by hand.
No flour, your searched the fields,
Picked bits of wheat, leftovers.
You dried it, thrashed it,
Groundit. Made your children
Bread. No bread, you dug
Potatoes. Potatoes were your
Bread, eaten three times a day.
No salt, you found it, buried
In a burnt-out house. Sifted
Through sand, mixed with water.
Everything turned dark from the
Gritty, salt water. But better than
Eating without. No white, you
Bought yellow salt, used
To melt the ice. Everything tasted
Bitter, like poison. They gagged,
Couldn’t swallow. You ate
Without salt, but you kept them
Alive another winter. Anything they
Asked, you did, dug their gardens
Washed their clothes. Went from
Village to village, trekked forty
Miles a day, with bundles
Of rye on your back. Anywhere
You’d go. Anything you’d do.
Nothing was too much
For you, great grandmother.
The Forest of Pesk, 1917. Yet
Another battle fought that day.
Corpses in the snow. Woods
Scorched black. As you and your
Daughter – with 30 lb. sacks
On your backs – got lost as you
Entered the forest. Night came,
And rain. So dark, you barely saw
Her. You felt your way through
Scratching bush and branch.
Then she screamed, tripped,
Fell across a corpse.
The bags bore down,
Pressed you to the ground.
Fingers numbed, shoulders
Ached, knees gave way till
She couldn’t go any further.
You sat beneath a tree,
Felt her shivering in your arms,
And, as you waited for day,
She saw those lights approach.
‘Mother, do you see?
People coming with lanterns!’
But you knew those lights – the
Eyes of wolves!, packs
Gathered to feast on the dead.
Should you run? – They’d
Hunt you down –
Eyes coming closer, so you
Wedged yourselves in the
Hollow of a tree with
Sacks of rye as shields.
Eyes circled the tree,
Snagged snarls, horrid growls,
As you clutched her in your arms,
Face against your bosom,
Felt a single heart hammering
In your breast.
Eyes and the sounds of
Howling till they finally slept.
Then you rose and crept away.
A Hospital, Detroit. 1929.
All the bread you want,
But no teeth left to chew it.
All the salt you need,
But no stomach left to eat it.
This is your life in the
Promised Land, America.
Two weeks here, but you
Still can’t sleep from the pain,
So the dentists pull your teeth.
A false set’s made but your
Gums can’t stand them,
Then you fall down
The basement stairs.
You head swells up,
Doctors say ‘ an operation’.
All those years you worry for
Them. Now they worry for you.
One operation’s not enough.
Enough is not for you.
Years you suffer,
They watch you suffer,
Then another operation, the last.
Anywhere you’d go,
Anything you’d do,
Enough was never enough
My ear was drawn by
His rusty cart’s squeak:
Searching through trash,
He discovered cans;
Emptied one out,
Dropped it on the ground,
Smashed it dead with his foot.
Gathering them up,
He tossed them in his cart
Filled with bags,
Dirty clothes, old shoes.
From bin to bin he squeaked
On his daily quest:
I saw the pink and gray
Of his sunburnt skull,
Saw the gym shoes minus lace,
The unshaved, snarling face,
And remembered others of his race.
The man at the foot of the subway stairs,
On his ankles, open soars,
Nails rimmed black,
Shoes, sharded leather
Tied together with string.
The coffee shop scavenger
With eyes of a bird of prey;
Waiting for someone’s leavings,
A half-eaten sandwich or roll.
The lame man on the el
From car to car limping;
You never know, he said,
Someday you might need help.
I see them on the subway,
See them on the street;
Living in boxes,
Eating from bins,
Figures of defeat.
Bouncing in a
Tiger cage in
A lottery of
Lives and lies.
Body bags moving
On a TV tube
In an assembly
Line of grief.
Off a screaming child
As a Munch face
Fills the screen.
Pungi spike through the
Foot of a grunt like a
In his hand.
Spide hole in a
Fear-soaked dream like a
In his mind.
Set aflame with
Gas in a human
Torch that blinds.
Long black wall
On the cool green grass
Ina monument to
Armless, you lie in an empty white
Room with her hand resting
Gently on your forehead.
Black-robed Pieta, she stands
Above your bed, there, where
Your family should have been.
Over-arching your bed is a
Pained steel cage with a rough
Gray blanket draped over it.
Pulled back, draped above it.
Pulled back, it reveals your
Salved, burnt breast
And the white-bandaged
Stumps of your shoulders.
In his best suit your father had
Dressed on that day. ‘To look
‘American’, he had told you.
Then you’d all climbed in to
Drive to Karbala, where that
Leaflet said: ‘You will be safe.’
At the checkpoint you’d waved,
But the soldiers opened fire:
All but you and her, killed.
‘My girls’, your aunt had said:
‘I watched their heads ripped
From their bodies. Better
Never have then, never
Bring them into this world.’
Some see it from afar through
A sniper’s cross hairs;
Others, far above, feel the shock
Wave bursts of 500 lb. bombs;
But, for most, a fleeting image
On a TV screen:
Strangers killed –
‘Them’ by ‘Us’,
In a place we’d never heard of,
Like the far side of the moon.
You raze your way
Through village, field:
With concrete blocks and
Barbed-wire coils you
Carve a path of destruction.
You wrest away the
Little land we’ve left:
Wells choked with dust;
Green vines reduced
To burnt brown crusts.
With checkpoints blocked,
Beneath the barrels of tanks,
You breed our desperation.
You fence us off
From families, friends:
We’re ‘brought to heel’ in
In ghettos, camps you
Stoke our rage as you map
The road of retribution.
Abu Ghraib Album
Pertly she grins, cigarette dangling
From her lips, as she points at
The dick of a hooded man
Lying on the ground at her feet.
Another stretches naked on the
Cell block floor as she yanks
At the leash around his throat.
This one’s made to crawl – with
A leather belt, choked – as guards
Aim vicious kicks at his groin.
A group made to jerk off, in
A sprawling pyramid piled;
Taunted, cursed and spit at.
Their hands, feet – stomped;
Punched, slapped, pens
Jabbed up their nose.
Made to kiss, lick boots;
Fingers stuck up their ass;
These they’re forced to suck.
‘As long as you don’t kill ‘em’;
‘The gloves have come off’;
‘We want those bastards broken.’
Then – overnight – those photos
Hit the world’s front page!
A few scapegoats fingered;
Convicted in kangaroo courts;
Just the lowest link in a
Chain of command up to the
Oval and His word in your ear.
On that crate he stands,
Wired hands and a
Klansman’s black hood
Crucifixion Made in America.
My grandpa built a factory in
His own backyard. His family,
Firm – united in a single plot.
He built it in his head before
He poured the first foundation.
“Schmakulke!’ he called it, tapping
His great bald brow. ‘It’s all up
Here, and with these.’ he’d say,
As he showed me his callused hands.
Himself, he drew blueprints,
Laid the bricks, sawed the boards.
Raised roof and walls upon the
Steel beams he’d welded. As the
Concrete business grew, he
Bought the vacant lot next door,
Raised the walls of another,
Selling steel. At fifty he retired.
As his sons ran the business, he
Brought ‘schmakulke’ to bear on the
Market. He bought stocks and bonds,
Vacant lots, apartments. Meanwhile,
Business cotinued to boom. He had his
Portrait done, hung on the wall in the
Office. Beside it stretched a map
With brightly-colored pins – the symbols
Of his growing franchise fees. In
Cemetery plots throughout the state
Lay corpses in his patented vaults.
On yellow-striped, black-top parking
Lots, Fords and Chevy’s bruised
Their tires against his concrete
Blocks. He’d nearly starved in
The shtetl; came here with nothing;
Built it himself. Then everything
Began to change. Burglars broke into
Their home; held pillows over their
Faces; had forced him to empty his safe.
He’d moved into a high rise – with guards
Around the clock – but his peace of mind
Had been destroyed. Then his wife grew
Ill; forced to place her in a home.
Overnight, his little wife died. Now
Everywhere he looked there were reminders
Of her. The his iron constitution had
Cracked. Each weekend we’d dined at the
Neighborhood deli. Across the table he’d
Sat – sagging jaw on sunken chest – as
He lifted spoons of broth up to his lips.
A strained look appeared: the pan had
Grabbed his gut. He was later admitted
To Sinai Hospital…There he lay on the
Wrinkled white sheet, curled up in the foetal
Position. A cage of ribs; spine sticking
Out; bumps between the blades of his
Shoulders. Skin hung in folds from his
Toothless jaws. Long hairs grew from his
Ears. And back and forth the blips had
Beeped across the green matrix screen…Then
The service at Kaufman Chapel. Burial at
Beth El. A thick gray stone above the
Smooth green plot. His wife lay beside him;
Both, in vaults that he had built. They’d
Spend forever in a tomb of his design.
War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq*
With a black bar over your eyes, “This 20-year-old host nation male was riding his
Your photo appears on the cover donkey and got caught in a mortar barrage.” p. 119
Of the New York Times’ Science
Times. Multiple bandages cover
Shrapnel wounds on your arms and
Breast. Stapled stitches form a
Cross upon the center of your chest.
You’re a textbook illustration, one
Of the millions of your nation.
Dare we view your fellow victims?
There’s a gaping red hole where “This host nation male was injured by an improvised
Your mouth had once been that’s explosive device…He sustained extensive facial injuries.”
Filled with coagulated gore.
White bandages form a turban
That covers your head and rivulets
Of blood run down your chest.
With black slots for eyes, your
Nose is a hunk of ground beef.
The gashes in your face have been
Sewn up with sutures like stitches
In an aged brown leather glove.
Your legs have been shredded “This 28-year-old male sustained an injury to his right leg
Into bloody brown and red roots From a high-energy blast.” p. 286
With black tourniquets belted at
Your knees. Your feet have been
Reduced to a pile of gristly trash,
Rotting tubers and maggot-eaten
Meat. Blood stains the blue sheet
As the fingers of a surgeon points to
Your monstrous multiple wounds.
You’re described as a case of
“Traumatic below-knee amputation.”
From a bloody stump they’ve “This patient sustained…severe hand injuries…” p. 257
Reconstructed a sort of hand.
Minus one finger, it lies there –
Pale yellow with red and black
Sutures – like a lobster claw
Or a shriveled baseball glove.
In previous shots what was
Once your hand appears a
Bloody pulp wired together.
You’re described as a case
Of “polytrauma management”.
A blood-stained tube protrudes “…a 29-year-old male…sustained multiple blast injuries to
From what was once your dick. The penis and scrotum…” p. 196
Above, it’s pictured before the
Testicle had been removed, like
It’d been roasted on a spit in hell.
An “aggressive” attempt at
“Reconstruction” failed. Little
Or the blasted tissue survived.
You’re described as a case
Of “genital soft-tissue trauma”.
Your torso seems flayed in lurid “A 23-year-old male suffered severe burns during Pink, brown and yellow layers, Munitions Disposal activities…” p. 238
You were found on fire after
Pulling yourself out of your
Burning vehicle. Amputation
Was performed to remove
Your arms below the elbow
To remove your completey
Burned arms. You’re described
As a case of “80% body burn”.
Behold a naked little boy, tubes “This 5-year-old male…was wounded after triggering an
Stuck in your mouth and chest. Unexploded ordinance…” p. 369
Your thigh’s been gouged out by
A bomb. Our cluster bombs that
Pulverize limbs. Our white
Phosphorous bombs that burn
Off flesh. How many more of
Your brothers and sisters have
Been blown to smithereens by
Our “unexploded ordinance”?
Your torso’s like a map of your When asked whether containing Saddam Hussein Crucified land: white bandages justified sanctions that killed 500,000 Iraqi children,
Like bombed out cities; rows Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright,
Of stitches like canyons carved responded, “we think the price is worth it.”
Out by mines. We’ve disfigured,
Defaced, dismembered your
Nation. We’ve turned your
Country into Hell, and you
Into the personification, a
Medical illustration of what
America really stands for.
For Luciana Bohne
*The title of a recent volume published by the Office of the Surgeon General.
Lost in a maze of wires, machines
Flashing numbers and zizzags
On matrix screens she lies:
A plastic collar grips her neck.
A tube’s shoved down her throat,
And a necklace of tangled colored
Wires is affixed to her chest.
Her arms are swollen, bruised,
Restaints encase her wrists,
From which plastic tubes flow
Upward toward an armature
Of stainless steel in which
Hanging bags of fluid drip.
Her hair is plastered to her
Forehead, in which pain is
Writ in wrinkles, arching
Brows, and upturned eyes.
As we stand by her side –
Speak to her, stroke her hands,
Kiss her pale white brow –
Mute and still she lies,
Except for the occasional
Flicker of her hands,her
Eyelids’ flutter, or the frantic
Glances of her eyes with
Which she tries to reach us.
Listening to the hissing tubes,
The monitor’s beeps, and
The respirator’s timely puffs,
We go back and forth
To the ICU’s buzzing hive,
As I piece together the event.
At 85, my mother was gardening,
When she slipped and fell six feet
Onto a concrete slab, breaking
Nine ribs and puncturing her lungs.
She made a claw of her rib cage
Which tore her ribs to shreds, but
Somehow she managed to scream.
My mother screamed her lungs out,
A scream that saved her life, and
Her neighbors being there to hear.
It was doubly miraculous: that she
Screamed and that they heard her.
They’d saved my mother’s life:
A debt that could never be repaid.
An ambulance had been called,
Which conveyed her to the
Hospital’s emergency room,
Then surgery and intensive care.
My father’s phone call followed,
And my brother and I flew in.
After first seeing her, I wandered
Through the waiting room, thinking:
My mother’s led a good long life,
That she must die I understand,
But don’t let her go like this!...
The pain and terror she must’ve
Known was not to be imagined,
Pain worse that crucifixion my
Poor little mother had known.
Every time I even think of it
I shake my head and sigh.
And all I can do is stand by your
Bedside, hold your hand in mine,
Stroke your thumb with my thumb,
As you wage the battle of your life,
Fight for your life, but you’re a
Feisty little woman who will win.
My Mother’s Hand
As it lies there on the sheet
On the hospital bed I hold
My mother’s tiny hand.
On its back are blue veins,
And raised tendons like
Wires that run through
To the tips of her fingers.
It’s pale and wrinkled,
With dappled liver spots.
The joints of each finger
Are swollen, curl her hand
Into a small arthritic claw.
And her wrist is cuffed
With a blue and white
Restraint, against which
She sometimes waves her
Hand in anxious struggle.
Then there’s anguish in
Her eyes and in the lines
Of her perspiring forehead,
As she grasps at the huge
Plastic collar that encases
Her neck, and a gurgling
Emerges from the metal disk
Embedded in her throat.
At such times, mother, I
Fear to read your thoughts:
“Why must you keep me alive?
Release me from this misery.
Let it be over, already!”
I’ve lost all track of the
Date or day of the week,
Watching you suffer and
Unable to do anything
But hold your tiny hand.
From the lobby to the elevator
To the ICU, we thread our way
Through the hospital’s labyrinth.
Hanging above you, to your left,
Is the monitor’s matrix screen,
On which flashing numbers and
Zigzgs chart the breath of your
Lungs and the beat of your heart.
To your right is the respirator,
Whose beeps, puffs and hisses
Inflate those shattered lungs.
Yesterday they performed
A tracheotomy: cut a hole in
Your throat to assist you in breathing.
Today they removed the staples
From your scalp from where
It split open when you hit
Your head on a concrete slab.
I hold your hand and stroke your
Forehead, saying: “We love you.
You’re getting better.” But your
Head shakes in dire reproach,
Hands struggle against restraints,
As your anguished eyes say:
“Please have mercy!”
A tear forms slowly in the corner
Of your eye, as I remember
Your father at Mount Sinai
Lying on his side in the foetal
Position: see his skull, there,
Superimposed upon yours.
Recall your mother in restraints
In a home for the elderly, saying:
“You wouldn’t dare treat me like
This if my Blanchela was here.”
With plastic tubes and urine gathering
In a bag beneath your bed,
I wish you could just sleep
For a few weeks through
This interminable suffering.
If you live through this,
My mother, please don’t
Hate me for keeping you alive.
Dreadfully I enter your hospital
Room to find you lying there
Daze, eyes and lips half-open.
Seated by your bedside, I kiss
Your temple, stroke your hand.
Now your eyelids open as you
Wake form a drug-heavy sleep.
Suddenly, something grips your
Gut as your face is transformed
Into a Noh mask of pain: muscles
Bunched between your brow, frown
Lines etched into your forehead,
Teeth clenched, jaws locked,
Eyeballs bulging with fright.
“You’re getting better.” I say,
But you shake your head back
And forth in denial. Tears form
In the corners of your eyes
As you whimper, reaching
Out to be held in my arms.
“Try to rest.” I say, but you
Pierce me with a glance of
Reproach. You’re prevented
From speaking by the trach
Embedded in your throat,
But your face reveals your
Very mind’s construction.
Now the therapists enter to sit
You on the edge of your bed.
You flinch with pain as they
Move your injured left leg.
A shrunken, frail little woman –
Balance on the edge of the bed –
Stoop-shouldered, head bowed,
With a blue vein on your temple.
Now I wait in the hallway as
They place you in that chair.
In the corridor I gaze at blond
Wooden doors, white linoleum
And wretched art on the walls.
The monitor’s incessant beep
Drills a hole in my brain.
Finally, I enter your room,
Behold your pinched face,
Exhausted: in your cardiac
Chair enthroned like a
Tiny queen of sorrow.
I stand on the verge of the ledge
From which you fell: a six-foot
Plunge to the blood-stained
Concrete pavement where
Paradise and Hell once met.
Bunched in the corner
Is a blouse with which they
Mopped up your blood,
And a little old pair of
Slippers with which you’d
Stepped into your garden.
Obbligato and the song
Of birds, together with
Through the canopy
Of leaves and fronds.
Earlier that morning I’d
Visited your hospital bed.
There you lie in your
Snap-on hospital gown,
With plastic bracelets
Encircling your wrists.
I kiss your forehead,
Stroke your hand,
Run a comb through
Your fine gray hair.
As I gently massage
Your quadruple –A
Feet, a look of misery
Appears on your face.
Tears gather in the
Corners of your eyes,
Pain grips your jaw,
Grinds your teeth,
Graves your pale brow.
The anguish erupts
From your eyes, as you
Gasp for breath through
The blue-ribbed plastic tube.
I kiss your forehead,
Squeeze your hand,
Saying, ”Sweet mother,
Don’t cry, you’re
Slowly getting better.”
Finally your lips shape a
Smile that shines through
Your mask of sorrow.
My Mother’s Bed
Lying in your bed at night,
Watching a film on TV,
I see my distorted face in
The mirrors of your closet,
As you lie in a bed in the
Hospital in intensive care.
Framed by the pillow
Is your troubled face,
With wisps of fine gray
Hair upon your foeehead.
Upward you gaze,
Awash in medication,
Lost, confused, eyes
And mouth half-open.
Your wrists are in restraints,
Your neck in the vice of a
Collar, and puncturing your
Throat is a metal plate through
Which you barely breath.
Sometimes you thrash about,
Shake your head back and forth,
Flail the air with your arms
As if you’re drowning.
Then there’s a line in the film –
About a son being the best thing
A mother’s ever done – which is
Something you once said to me.
Tears stream down my cheeks,
As I finally break down and cry.
Like my father once told me:
“Men don’t cry, they
Grit their teeth and bear it.”
As I fall asleep to the patter
Of rain on your roof top, you
Lie alone in your hospital bed.
The following day I sit by your
Beside – stroke your hand,
Kiss your forehead – as I
Attempt to elicit a response.
Blink your eyes, squeeze
My hand – but you lie with
Eyes and moth half-open,
Gazing vacantly into the air.
I know that you’re aware:
But your mind’s trapped in
Your body; simply unable
To reach out to us.
I see the anguish in your
Eyes as you try to bridge
The gap, the frustration
Of being unable to speak.
After CAT scans of your
Skull, they’ve eliminated
But you’ve nine cracked
Ribs, spinal fractures and
Blood clots in your legs.
And there’s the possibility
Of a hairline fracture in
Your hips, so they tell me
You’ve a fifty-fifty chance.
It’s a matter of statistical
Probability – a throw of
The dice, the toss of a
Coin – on which my mother’s
Precious life now depends.
In the Middle of the Night
In the middle of the night
You tore the trach out
Of your throat and were
Taken to intensive care.
The following day I was
There as they inserted
Another: they removed
The plastic tube, as you
Coughed and choked,
And shoved the thing into
Your neck’s bloody hole.
A red bubble formed
On the end of the tube,
Blood leaked onto the
Bandage round your neck.
From the trach a blue-
Ribbed plastic tube hung
From the armature at
The side of your bed.
At the foot of the bed I sit,
Watch your upturned weary
Face: nostrils and mouth
Half-open, little shrunken
I listen to the hiss and rumble
Of the respiratory manchinery,
As you lie there, half-asleep,
In a drugged medicinal daze.
You lie there, in pain, while
We wait for the nurse to
Arrive with your medicine.
We have her paged, again
And again; then sen the
Supervisor to find her.
Meanwhile, you lie there:
Behold, my mother’s pain.
I tell you the nurse is on her
Way, as you plead, saying:
Stands still as your suffering
Fills your world and mine.
Finally, I approach the
Nurse’s desk and vie the
Supervisor a piece of my
Mind. I raise my voice,
Feel the rage in my chest
And gut. When the nurse
Arrives, I wait outside in
The hall as she takes her
God damn time. I seethem
Squeeze my fists, as you’re
Finally given your medication.
After she leaves, I feel all
Wrung out. But I’d do
It again to protect you.
Midway in Life
From the hell of the hospital
To the heaven of Cheetah’s
Detroit, I move back and
Forth on my daily journery.
Seated at the foot of the stage –
Whose three brass poles run
Clear to the black girdered
Ceiling – I survey the liquor
Bottles in a cabinet suspended
In the air, the cheetah spots
Arrayed on panels on the walls,
And the half-dozen color TV’s.
A waitress in knee-length,
Platform, black leather boots,
Approaches and I order
A cranberry juice cocktail.
As she comes and goes, I
Catch a whiff of her bold perfume.
The DJ seated near the ceiling
Announces each pair of dancers.
They perform their bumps and
Grinds, climb up and down,
Making love to the poles,
Costumed in an exotic array
Of glittering jewels and lingerie.
Finally, Sunlight is announced,
And out of darkness and
Blasting music you appear.
A shock of golden Afro hair,
High-cheeked Lady Disdain,
Toward me your glance is cast.
Your reel me on in.
Then up the spiral
Stairs you lead me to
A private Paradise.
Now I tell you about
My mother in the ICU.
My sister confessor,
You allow me to cry
Upon your shoulder.
You hug me, hold me,
Embrace me with your thighs.
As they nurse my mother
In intensive care,
So you perform
Your own healing art.
It’s been five long weeks
You’ve laid there entangled
In wires and plastic tubes.
Above you hangs a monitor,
Whose numbers and
Zigzags race up and down
Across the matrix screen.
With heartbeat green, oxygen
Blue and breath-per-minute
White, it charts your vital signs.
Hisses and beeps emerge
From the respirator through
Whose plastic tube you breath.
Your right arm is punctured by
A needle taped to your wrist.
Your upper arm is encircled
By a blue blood pressure cuff.
Upward you gaze anxiously,
Restlessly lifting your arms,
Bent at the elbow and wrist
Like fluttering broken wings.
A gurgling escapes your
Throat as you struggle for air,
As the nurse comes in
To suction your trach.
Then comes the days when
You lie there, unresponsive.
Eyes open and mouth half-open,
Your tongue lolls out of
The corner of your mouth.
We plead with you to
Blink or squeeze our hand,
But you fail to recognize us.
We fear you might’ve
Injured your brain from your
Dreadful fall’s concussion.
Sometimes I turn away,
Peer out the hospital window,
To avoid your eye’s accusation.
By your bedside is a consent
Form which we’ll have to sign.
It describes the techniques
The employ in the event of
Cardiac or respiratory failure.
Beneath it is a power of
Attorney regarding your
Right to a dignified death.
As advocate, the sheers have
Been forced into my hands.
Thunder, lightning shake the
Sky, wind and rain whiplash
The lake, pounding waves
Break on the shore through
The frame of my small window.
“The National Weather Service
Has issued thunderstorm warnings
For Cook and the surrounding
Counties.” Watching the muted
Screen, I listen through headphones
To the “Hammerclavier” Sonata.
And as the opening strains of
The Adagio are struck, I think
Of you – my mother – lying
In your hospital bed in Detroit.
Earlier I’d called, got your
Answering machine: listened
To your voice that I hadn’t
Heard for so many weeks.
Then came the call from my
Brother that you’d suffered a
Relapse: contracted pneumonia
From an infection in your trach.
Having trouble breathing, you
Were rushed to the hospital.
Your doctors always warned
Us complications might ensue.
As the raging Finale’s Fugue
Begins, I hear the storm outside,
Feel the one within you, recall
The fall that shattered your life.
As eighty-five you’d suffered
Nine cracked ribs, sinal
Fractures, blood clots and a
Concussion. Now you’ve got
Pneumonia and an ulcer in
Your stomach. In the eye of
The storm you lie, on the far
Side of the lake – my mother –
Struggling for your breath.
Arriving at the nursing home, I
Take the elevator, walk down
The hallway and enter your room.
In a drugged, demented state,
You pierce me with your eyes:
‘If you love me, you’d take me
Out of this Gehenna. Pack my
Bags, pay the bill, take me home!”
Trying to explain, I say: “You’ve
Suffered a terrible fall, mother.
You have to mend, to heal.”
Adamant, you refuse to listen.
Fixing me with your eyes, you cry:
“I want to sleep in my own bed,
Take a bath, eat food again. You’re
Torturing me, I’d rather be dead!”
The ordeal you’ve been through
Might well have been too much:
Shattered your mind, my mother.
Now you demand to phone
Your attorney. “Get me Bill’s
Number. He’ll get me out of here.
And he’ll make changes in my will.”
It’s like a scene from Lear, with
You as the King and me, Cordelia:
Threatening to disinherit your son.
I have to let you rant, treat you
Like a child. You simply don’t
Know what’s good for you.
My mother, my mother –
You’ve suffered far too much.
I hope you’re not destroyed,
Taken away from us, forever.
As I drive home drained, I
Listen to Parsifal: the suffering
Of Amfortas was nothing
Compared to yours.
In the hospital’s examining
Room you lie between huge
White medical machines, as
I sit in the adjoining room
Watching an x-ray image of
Your skull: my mother’s jaw,
Teeth and spine, alive on
The screen before me. In
Black and white – to the hum
Of the instruments – I see
You swallow a cup of juice.
For the past three months
You’ve been fed through
A tube stuck through a
Hole in your stomach.
Finally the nurse evaluates
Your test: you’ve passed
With flying colors! At last
You can eat and drink
Again. We celebrate your
Little triumph with a hug.
On the way back I ride
With you in the ambulence.
Your little hand grasps mine,
As I stroke your velvet knuckle
With my thumb, gazing out the
Window at trees streaming by.
Angel of Mercy
Seated by her bedside
On your twelve-hour shift,
You’re the guardian who
Watches over my mother.
Your face is framed by
A nylon red hijab: bright
Brown eyes; gentle smile.
Slight gap between your
Teeth framed by its halo.
Minding the instruments
Monitoring her heart
And respiration, you give
Her sponge baths and
Help her to the toilet.
Nothing human is alien
To you. You fetch the
Nurse when she’s in pain,
Cut her food up and
Spoon it into her mouth,
Minister to her with
The patience of a saint.
And when she finally falls
Asleep, you do your book
Of crossword puzzles.
Listening to the Ode
To Joy on fm radio,
We celebrate her
Victory over death.
As we ride in the back of
The ambulance, I hold your
Little hand: its blue veins,
Liver spots, arthritic joints
In mine. Repeatedly, I brush
My thumb against the velvet
Of your skin, as, bumping
Along, we gaze out the
Window at the green
Trees streaming by.
In the examining room I
Sit beside you, stroke your
Shoulder through your gown.
Suspended above you is a
Lozenge of fluid from which
An IV runs into your arm.
I watch the drip of drops
Like a clock flow into
Your bloodstream. A clamp
Grips your finger, plastic
Tubes run into your nostrils.
Beside you are a computer
Screens with flashing numbers
Monitoring your heart and
Respiration. On your forehead
Is a pale gray vein like a Y-
Shaped tuning fork. Then they
Stick a miniature camera up
Your nose to spy out your
Damaged lungs and throat.
Afterwards, I’m shown a
Photograph: the red and
White scar-tissued oval
Of my mother’s throat.
Losing Your Teeth
At night they rest in a yellow
Plastic cup with a blue fizzing
Tablet in water on my sink.
There is an elaborate upper
And a silver, one-tooth lower.
Taking them out at night and
Replacing them each morning.
I recalled my last appointment.
In the waiting room I ran my
Tongue over my lower right
Molar, bidding it a fond farewell.
On the walls and coffee table
There were glossy magazines,
Charlize Theron on the cover of
Bazaar and National Geographic.
Framed by a window in the wall
Was the dentist’s female assistant,
And to the left was the door to
The examining room, which I
Entered, and occupied the “chair”.
Attached to the chair was a tray,
On which were tweezers, probe
And a massive extraction forceps.
In the background was the chatter
Of talk show radio commercials.
To my left was an x-ray machine and
A small wastebasket with orange
And black labels: BIOHAZARD”.
To the right were sets of false teeth,
Family photos and jars marked
Dr. Mike entered and clipped a
Paper napkin in around my throat.
He placed the local anesthetic on
A wooden stick inside my cheek,
Saying: “Open wide. Head back.”
Nearly blinded by the spotlight,
I closed my eyes and gripped the
Armrests with white-knuckled fists.
With a high-pitched screaming wail
He drilled the lower right molar,
Then took x-rays and examined
Ghostly black sheets on the wall.
Finally, he lifted the massive forceps
From the tray: “This won’t take long.”
What followed seemed an eternity.
Wads of cotton stuffed my cheeks,
Hairy fingrs pried open my lips,
And, as saliva gathered and I
Attempted to suppress a cough,
He proceeded to extract my tooth.
Inhaling the dentist’s Old Spice
And his assistant’s perfume,
I sweated like a pig, squirming in
The chair, as he wrenched away,
With high-pressure uprooting,
Ripping my jaw from my skull.
Forceps finally returned to the tray,
As I aly, exhausted, sweat-bathed.
A wad of gauze was inserted where
The lower right molar had been,
And I bit down to staunch the wound.
Removing the napkin from my throat,
I noted the dark red bloodstain.
That night I lay before the TV,
Avoiding the chasm in my jaw,
Anticipating my next appointment.
Across the street from the Morse El,
Its sound a constant rumbling
And trembling in the background,
Glowed a neon orange, blue and
Green sign in the form of a foot.
I arrived at the office with an infected
Blister at the base of my big right toe,
The product of slush, wet socks
And dried twisting leather.
Elderly patients were seated in the waiting
Room around me, one in a wheelchair with
A drooping silly-putty face and
A long hooked Hebrew nose.
Another wore a red beret and a read a miniature
PREVENTION magazine, surrounded by
Artificial flowers in brown wicker baskets.
I hobbled into the examining room
With its diagram of a foot on the wall,
Together with a half-century-old copy of a
Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Week ad
From the Saturday Evening Post, and
Nineteenth-century illustrations of
Podiatrists examining their patients feet.
I’m seated in the red-leather upholstered
Podiatrist’s chair with a bright spotlight
On the ceiling illuminating my foot,
While various medical appliances sit on the
White metal counter and upon a three-
Wheeled contraption against the wall.
Beneath the chair is a plastic trash can
Plastered with orange-and-black stickers:
POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS CONTENTS.
The doctor enters, with his clipped
Black moustache, and I introduce
Myself and thank him for
Taking me on such short notice.
After he examines my toe, the nurse
Fills a small hypodermic with a
Clear fluid from a tiny capsule,
And with a “Take a deep breath.”,
He injects the needle into my toe
With its sharp sting to bundled nerves.
Then he laces the silver metal tray
Attached to the arm of the chair
So as to block my view of my foot.
With his silver scalpel he scrapes
Away the infected tissue:
On and on, the blade scrapes bone,
Removing layer after layer,
Seeming an eternity that never ends,
As I grasp the red leather arms
Of the chair with white-knuckled
Claws, hanging on for dear life
With tightly-clenched teeth…
Finally, the scalpel is laid aside,
As he winds white gauze round my toe,
A brown bandage surrounds this
In a balloon at the end of my foot.
Then I step carefully into a blue plastic
Shoe that’s secured with Velcro straps.
I make a follow-up appointment with the nurse,
And emerge into the bitter-cold daylight.
Boarding the Howard El, I attempt to recover:
Closing my eyes, taking deep breaths,
While cradling my chin in the cup of my hand
Like Michelangelo’s Sistine Jeremiah.
I feel the tingling reminder of the
Ordeal I’ve just undergone,
Shudder at the pain-etched memory,
Babying the wire-stretched foot.
Later, as I sat in a tea shop eating a three-cheese quiche,
I looked out the window onto Randolph
As a black and silver pimp-mobile passed by.
On his lunch break he’d often visit Macy’s”:
Sailing hither and yon through its brightly-lit
Displays where sirens of scent had beckoned.
Before him colorful cabinets were arrayed:
Lipstick in cylinders, make-up in circles,
Potions and crèmes in square boxes,
Above them silken banners unfurled
Of the illustrious fashion houses:
Channel, Shiseido, Estee Lauder,
Dior, Lancombe and Ralph Lauren.
His first port was Philosophy cosmetics,
With itsluminizers, soufflés and puddings,
Its products were entitled Purity, Hope
And a Prayer, Pigment of the Imagination.
A lifestyle brand, its brochure proclaimed,
Its power-packed peptide formula
Promised you the clearest, most
Youthful, radiant skin of your life.
Next, he ran the gauntlet of perfumes,
Each scent in its own designer bottle.
Once more, a philosophical theme prevailed:
Truth by Calvin Klein, Paradox, Destiny,
Chance by Channel, Sublime and Eternity.
Each bottle was a crystal artwork:
Dior’s Addict, in midnight blue flask,
Prada’s Tendre, in ultra-violet phial,
And pale-pink Angel, in a crystal star.
After his voyage through fragrant isles,
He’d perch on the green marble fountain.
Above him rose floors of escalators
In intersecting white parallel shafts,
Along which a slow-motion pageant,
An assembly-line of shoppers,
Glided up and down.
This consumer ballet was
Accompanied by the tinkle
Of the fountain, which drew
Flocks of little children by its
Sounds and the water’s play.
Making secret wishes, they
Cast their precious pennies
Into the magic grotto’s depths.
The previous night, with my foot propped
Up against the kitchen sink, I cut off
The bandage with a red-handled scissors.
Removing the brownish outer wrapper
And the blood-encrusted gauze revealed
A scar at the base of my big right toe:
Inflamed pink around the pale-white center.
Feeling its wire-stretched tingling,
I tossed the bandage in the trash,
And applied white ooze from a
Little silver tube to the wound.
Unwinding and folding the gauze in
A patch, I taped it to my foot.
The next morning I returned for my
Follow-up appointment with the podiatrist.
Once again, the storefront office
With its crowded waiting room,
On whose walls are certificates
From the American College of Podiatry
And the Illinois College of Ankle Surgeons.
Pamphlets on bunions, hammer toes and gout
Are displayed in little compartments on the wall.
Besie me sit Russian-speaking elderly ladies,
And on a nearby end table is a miniature Flexitol
Plastic foot and green plants in wicker baskets.
I hobble into the examining room,
Lit by rows of bright florescent tubes.
Before me stand white cabinets, a
Sink and glass jars of cotton swabs.
On the radio, in the background,
Is Mozart’s Violin Concerto “#3,
A dramatic spotlight attached
To the ceiling, lined with silver
Foil, illuminates my big right toe.
Surrounding me are medical appliances:
A Biosound Reader, with its green
Screen and miniature keyboard,
A Midmark Automatic Sterilizer,
And X-ray Film Illuminator on the wall.
I sit waiting, anticipating another
Dreaded session with the scalpel.
The doctor enters in his trim blue scrubs,
Shakes my hand, and examines my toe.
I feel the rumbling of the Morse El passing
Overhead, rattling the walls and ceiling.
The nurse enters, wearing her blouse
With its multi-colored childish footprints.
He manipulates my toe, rubs on yellow goo.
Containing two layers of ulceration,
He says, my toe will heal “eventually”.
He applies lotion and bandages my toe.
After making another appointment,
I tie two plastic bags over my sock and
Place my foot in the blue plastic shoe.
Crossing the slushy street, I hobble up
The stairs of the Morse Red Line platform.
Boarding the southbound train, I hear
The P.A. system’s disembodied voice:
“This is Morse…Ding. Dong.
Doors are closing. Loyola is next.
Doors open on the left at Loyola.
Standing passengers please do
Not lean against the doors.
Smoking, eating and thinking
Are prohibited on CTA vehicles.”
Gazing out the airplane’s tiny window on
Returning from a weekend with out folks,
I scrutinize the clouds like Hamlet,
Projecting cloud-whales into the
Distance as the vast formations
Passed like tides across the sky.
My brother dozed beside me as
I remembered out trip to Detroit.
On the table made of a large sheet of
Glass and two marble cubes it stood:
A Hoya crystal vase purchased for our
Parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary.
Resembling a giant diamond,
It was intended as a symbol of
Their marriage: our family jewel.
That Sunday I’d sat there before it:
My eyes scanning its crystalline structure,
Peering into its egg-like central chamber,
At its multi-faceted planes, its spectral bands,
Its twisted image of the exterior world.
For years it stood there, witness,
As their marriage had been destroyed.
But who could’ve ever foreseen it?
First, their father had moved out,
Claiming his wife restricted his freedom.
She was stung, felt deeply scorned,
Believed he’d publicly humiliated her.
As time passed, she wove a
Tapestry of rancor, a passionate
Indictment of his real and imagined faults.
Now the two of them lived apart:
Their father in a senior citizen’s facility,
Their mother in their family home.
Yet, as long as he’d sat before it,
Probing the diamond’s face,
He couldn’t find its flaw.
Entering the alley behind my apartment
Carrying plastic bags destined for the trash,
I saw three black men searching through the bins,
One by one, they removed the plastic bags,
And while carrying on a running conversation,
Sifted and sorted through the garbage.
From one blue metal bin to another,
From one black plastic bag to the next,
They patiently progressed on their journey
Through the alleys of Roger Park.
The alley was lined with brown utility poles:
Up and down raced silver squirrels, who
Scavenged in the bins along with the men.
On one pole was an orange-and-black sign:
Department of Streets
Bordering the alley were garages, garden
Gates, brick walls and wooden fences.
Utility lines were strung high overhead
Like staffs on the blue score of the sky.
Treacherous ice had formed on the
Ground which I negotiated with care,
As cawing crows and chattering sparrows,
Gathered on the chain-linked fence,
Enlivening the chilly Sunday morning.
Below the joint of his right thumb
Was the callous on which it rested:
The mark of a player like the
Discoloration on a violinist’s throat
And there were the callouses on
His fingertips from collisions
With its metal rings and keys.
In the case’s faded blue velvet it lay,
Four sections of black grenadilla.
He assembled them: the short barrel,
Flaring bell and central sections with
Their Boehm system key work.
Selecting a reed, he mounted it
On the facing of the mouthpiece,
Slipped on the ligature and
Tightened it metal screw.
On the stand stood Stravinsky’s
“Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet”.
He set the metronome at quarter=52.
With his fingers curved above the keys,
Lips banded about the mouthpiece,
And diaphragm supporting the sound,
He began the first piece: “Sempre
P e molto tanquillo”, reminding him
Of his singular meeting with the maestro.
As a kid, his parents had taken
Him on a trip to L.A., where
They’d stayed in a posh hotel.
One day, while riding the elevator
Down to the lobby, who was seated
In a wheelchair beside him, but the
Octogenarian, elfin-eared artist with
His thick-lense, round black spectacles!
At the time, he’d been studying
His “Three Pieces”, but was so
Awestruck, he didn’t say a word.
Perhaps, it was the closest
He’d ever gotten to greatness.
Each three or four days he
Sloughed his skin like a snake:
Returning home each evening
To the psoriasis on his legs,
Back, belly and buttocks.
He ran his fingers over the
Red and gray scabs on his
Calves that expanded like
Coral reefs and archipelagos.
As he scratched away,
Skin gathered beneath his
Nails in a snowstorm of scales
Descending into the tub, while
Blood oozed out the edges.
He’d stopped wearing shorts
Or bathing suits at the beach,
Feared others would find
His crusted skin repellent.
It’d been nearly a dozen
Years since he’d last got laid:
Holed up in his cave,
Lived off layers of fat,
Slept lie a bear through winter.
Poor Tom’s Tribe
She was seated on the corner,
At the foot of the rust-brown
Steel and tinted-glass tower.
Her crutches lay on the pavement
Beside her, and a paper cup
Gathered coins between her feet.
Her brown cardboard sign read:
“Cold. Homeless. Hungrey.
I’m not a bad girl,
Just made bad decisions.”
Her lips moved as she
Spoke aloud to herself.
One block away he rested before
Borders’ Books, in a hooded parka
And a blue Cubs cap, with a child’s
Blanket draped over his legs.
His gloved hands were
Grasped in his lap for warmth.
What looked like a teardrop
Dangled from the end of his nose,
As if his frozen nose were weeping.
A battered sign rested on the
Ground that hid his bearded face:
“Alone and broke.
Just hungry and homeless.”
Later, that evening, his place was
Taken by a member of the night shift.
A black tenor sax player performed
With woolen glove minus fingertips.
Beyond were the subway stairs
Where I descended, passed through
The turnstile, and walked down yet
Another flight to be serenaded by
The underworld’s cast of musicians.
Tonight featured the Chinese grandma
In her padded blue coat and red scarf.
Seated on a folding chair, she played a
One-stringed traditional instrument with
Bow and amplifier’s accompaniment.
Her white canvas bag collected change.
In my mind I made a pilgrimage to
Their various stations in the loop,
Ran the gauntlet of familiar figures,
Saw their tribe increase and multiply.
To Consider Too Curiously
Bowels reel me in and out,
Back and forth to the bowl,
And I the little Dutch boy,
My finger plugging the dike.
Perched upon the throne,
I knead my stomach for gas,
Relieve the inner detonations,
Farting at one end,
While belching at the other.
Then the peristaltic rhythm
And a deafening explosion:
A nuclear blast and the anal
Retentive relief of that
Ancient erogenous zone.
Later, I sit there, exhausted,
Listen to the turd’s plip-plop,
As I trace their course
Through the guts of a librarian.
Delectables enter the G.I. tract
To emerge, excreta in the bowl.
Flushed from there through the
Plumbing’s intestine-like pipes
To our own Cloaca Maxima,
Their final destination. And
The symphony beyond the stall:
Tinkle of piss against ceramic,
Washing of faces and hands,
And the electri dryer’s roar.
My raw red rectum wiped,
I flush and emerge green-faced.
Quoth my bowel: “Evermore.”
She wore a black woolen hat,
Like a toadstool on her head,
Dressed entirely in black,
Except for red reading glasses,
And left her shopping bags on
A table in the western stacks.
As the day wore on, she’d saunter
Along on her well-worn path,
Round and round the library,
And with her pinched, sour
Face delivered a non-stop
Paranoid monologue to the air.
He arrived before nine in his
Red Cubs cap and trench coat,
Carrying his frayed canvas bag.
His first stop was the restroom,
Then he proceeded to his table
In the southeast reading room.
Removing a sheaf of newspapers
And manila files from his bag,
He began by reading the Red Eye.
As the day wore on, he was often
Seen snoring, his crumpled red
Face slouched over, jowls
Gathered in folds beneath his chin.
His brown-spotted hands were
Gathered in his lap, as he
Mumbled aloud in his sleep.
When I left work each evening,
The two had long since returned
To the darker half of their lives.
I said goodnight to the little Polish
Cleaning lady in her blue uniform,
As she waltzed gracefully along with
Her huge T-shaped broom as partner,
Sweeping floors long into the night.
While relaxing on the couch, reading,
At the Metropole Café, she arrived
Placed her laptop on the table, and
Lifted her infant child into her arms.
To avoid staring, I focused on the
Page, burying myself in my book.
But the power of that ancient image
Drew my quickened imagination
Into realms of memory and myth.
The infant took his thumb into his
Mouth, resting, content, in her arms,
Gazed fixed on the eyes of his mother.
His gaze was returned, as she held
Him with his head upon her breast.
Now I recalled the soothing feel of
My thumb in my mouth, its moist
Touch against the satin of my lips.
And the accidental intrusion on
Our maid as she got undressed.
Her chocolate breasts had fixed
My eyes, heart pounding in my
Chest: I stood there, paralyzed.
And my first time in the Red Light
District on an Amsterdam night:
In a picture window above the
Winding street she sat, as I stood
Below, gazing upward, enthralled.
I’m the Adoration’s infant,
Cat at the feet of a queen,
Echo pinning away in my pool,
I’m an aged faun L’Apres Midi,
Unicorn with my head in her lap.
Way of Tea
Dressed in my cotton kimono,
I set the copper kettle to boil.
Unsealing the black foil bag,
I measure out ground beans into
A filter atop the porcelain cup.
The hissing steam alerts me to
The water’s readiness, as I
Pour and wait for it to steep.
The pungent odor of Mocha
Java fills the kitchen’s chamber,
As I add cream to the brew
Until the right shade’s reached
And repair to the living room view.
On the wall before me is a poster
Of a Franz Kline retrospective,
Featuring, Andrus, his masterpiece.
Settling back in my Eames chair
Replica, I sip my potent beverage,
Initiate at the feet of a Master.
Only in his final years did he
Break though the black and
White barrier to reach the
Wondrous realm of color.
Young, he died of a heart attack,
Andrus was his doctor’s name.
From art I turn to nature, and
My window’s Lake Shore view.
Outside is the dynamic of bare
Black tree limbs intersecting
Like a Kline in black and white.
And, in the distance, through
The branches, tiny figures stroll
Along the parallel paths of piers.
Under a Government…
We gathered in Federal Plaza
For the Fifth Anniversary of
The U.S. Invasion of Iraq.
Rising above me MIes’
Steel and black-tinted glass
And De Suvero’s orange sculpture.
As pedestrian streamed
By, I sold copies of Socialist
Worker on the corner
Of Dearborn and Adams.
A colorful sea of protesters,
Holding banner, posters, flags,
Listened to the rally’s speakers.
Behind the platform was a banner
Reading: TROOPS OUT NOW!
The plaza was surrounded
By crowd control barriers,
And hundreds of Chicago cops
In blue uniforms with their dogs,
Clubs, guns and paddy wagons.
It reminded me of that morning,
Five years before, when I’d
Gathered with fifty others here,
For civil disobedience to
Protest the U.S. invasion.
We were seated before the
Revolving door of the Federal
Building, while cops with plastic
Handcuffs stood behind us.
We were cuffed and led
Away to the large blue vans.
We waited for hours, cuffed
And stuffed in like sardines, until
We were finally driven away.
Finger-printed and registered,
We were marched off to jail.
Here, we were greeted by
The previous night’s arrested.
Through the bars they flashed peace
Signs, as I returned a power fist.
Released at about midnight,
We were finally driven home.
Later, we were tried, and received
A six-months suspended sentence.
Under a nation dedicated to Abu
Graib and Guantanamo Bay,
A just man’s place is in jail.
A Special Providence
Unlocking the gate, I entered the alley,
And saw it dead on the pavement:
Against the black asphalt it lay
Crushed beneath the tread of a tire,
Its head squashed flat, and a
Pink pool of blood issuing from
Its beak, as its splayed feet
Rose into the air above it.
Sunshine fell upon it, and in the
Background, was the chatter of birds,
As a jet aircraft passed overhead,
Whose deep roar blended with
The waves of Lake Michigan.
I gather it up with a sheet of
Newspaper, dropping it gently
Into the blue trash receptacle.
My Father’s Shirt
It was left hanging in his closet:
He’d worn it before he died,
But It had remained unlaundered.
I put it on, buttoned it, and
Oddly enough, it’d retained
The very odor of my father.
And that scent brought back
The sensations of our past.
The taste of a cinnamon roll
And coffee we ate at the lunch
Counter of a little restaurant on
The way to the family business.
The smell of Old Spice he
Wore as I was lifted by the
Crane high above the valleys
Of concrete blocks and vaults.
The rich black stink of asphalt
That permeated the clothes he
Wore home and his office with
Its antique desk and chairs.
“Men don’t cry,” he’d once
Said, “they grit their teeth and
Bear it.” But wearing his
Shirt, I cried for my father.
Hanging over the shower curtain,
Drying, was her white brassiere:
Its nylon ellipsoids beckoning.
Locking the bathroom door,
I removed it, burying my face
In its cups: a monk in his cell
With his object of worship.
Hermetically sealed and seated
In my place before her shrine,
I thumbed through the glossy
Pages of my prayer book.
On the sink beside me was
A goblet in which a libation
In her honor was poured.
With a swallow, my devotions
Resumed, in mystery absorbed.
In the back of my mind the
Opening strains of Le Sacre
Began, as its powerful rhythm
Took over: it caused my pulse
To quicken and my heart to
Race, as I was caught up in its
Rhetoric and carried away
Toward its culminating point.
Prologue to His Sleep
Opening the freezer door, I
Remove the frosted bottle,
And from the cupboard above
The sink select a glass.
I unscrew the cap from the
Vodka, pour a small libation.
Toasting the god, I down it,
Shot after shot, as I study
The photograph before me,
Taken twelve years ago.
The black velvet gown reveals
Her bare sculpted shoulders,
And from a gold chain around
Her neck a blue topaz pendant is
Suspended between her breasts.
To Drink, the great provider,
Of Sleep, the power of repose:
I raise my cup once more to
Pour another chilled libation.
Only in dreams I seek you,
Or else give me sweet oblivion.
Seal my eyes, rock my cradle.
Grant my wish, gentle Morpheus,
Consummate shaper of sleep.
Emperor of Diet
After the rain the worms emerge,
Crawling slowly toward death
Beneath the feet of pedestrians.
Attempting to avoid them,
I try not to crush them into
Crevices of dark concrete:
My rubber soles sending
Their worm souls heavenward.
I sing you, pink invertebrate:
Juicy bait upon a hook that
Is eaten by a fish, which is
Caught, fried and eaten by us.
Fish dine on a diet of worms,
We feed on those very fish.
But, in the end, it boneless
Worms that devour us.
My Father’s Diapers
In a little blue bag he keeps them,
Resting on the seat of his walker.
In a compartment beneath the
Seat lies his silver-headed cane.
At 95, he plods along behind it,
Shoulders stooping and a white
Nimbus crowning his head.
As I walk, there, beside him,
Our roles have been reversed:
I , the child become the parent
Of my foolish, fond old father.
To piss your pants is nothing
To be ashamed of, my father.
To lose control of your body
Is as inevitable as age, itself.
But let me not lose my mind,
Let me forever avoid that.
Before that day comes, let me
End my life by my own hand.
Like Nietzsche, to always have a
Loaded pistol beneath your pillow.
With a crane as your paintbrush
You weld a vision of rusted steel
That soars toward heaven’s gate.
On I-beams wings we rise,
From cable shoulders swing,
In an alphabet of form.
Its metal plates we read,
A code of shapes, decipher,
As your epic voyage begins,
Maestro Marco Polo, explorer
Of the Empire of Space.
With arthritic fingers she shaped
Her collection of miniature trees.
Those tiny hands – swollen
Joints, liver spots and blue veins
Distended – planted cuttings,
Pruned roots, grafted limbs and
Wove a web of wire round
Knotted trunks and branches.
With art she sculpted nature:
Twigs interlacing, bark brown
And gnarled, trunks white
As bleached bones blasted.
And she spoke to them, her
Children, her favorite three:
Her Japanese Wisteria, like
A tiny weeping willow, with
Falling pink tendrils like
Waves of hair hanging
From the crown of its head.
Her dwarf rock garden, like
A Northern Sung landscape,
With stylized cliffs in whose clefts
Green moss and foliage blooms.
Her miniature forest, with
Trees no bigger than your
Hand, implanted on an
Isle in an earthenware pot.
These, created in her image,
Heirlooms handed down
To the next generation.
Her bequest to us, just as
We were hers to the world.
In the photo he stands
Against a concrete wall
Balanced upon a crate,
A black pointed
Hood over his head,
A Klansman’s sheet
To hide his nakedness,
His arms outstretched
And electric wires
Attached to his fingers:
Our Iraqi crucifixion.
A second depicts
An impish Pfc.
In fatigues she stands above
A naked, bearded prisoner.
Gazing down upon her captive,
She snatches a leash
Attached to his throat,
As he thrashes on the floor.
In a third, she poses,
With her partner.
They stand behind
A naked pile of prisoners
In a human pyramid:
A tangle of thighs, backs
And buttocks on display.
But torture’s not enough,
They must be humiliated:
Sodomized with a stick;
Slammed against a wall,
Wires attached to their balls.
Yet we continue to wear
Those pins on our lapels…
Amen. God Bless America.
On my lunch hour I strolled through
Millennium Park to the shallow pool
Between its pair of square towers.
In the sunshine children splashed,
Danced like urban water sprites,
Cooling heels and toes, playing
Tag with smiles of sheer delight
On their faces. Through digital
Cameras their parent watched.
From one tower a fountain gushed,
In which young girls washed their
Hair – ringed it out, squeezed it
Between their hands – and tied
It in ponytails with rubber bands.
Chicago nymphs and naiads
Frolicking in brook and stream.
Nearby, school kids swung on
Di Suvero’s great iron Shang.
Some pushed while others
Rode the brown rusted iron.
And on green lawns beyond
Young dryads lay, glistening
With oil, tanning their legs,
Arms and bosoms in the sun.
Finally, there was “Cloud Gate”,
What locals called “The Bean.”
A fantastic hall of mirrors
Beneath which little children
Leapt, jumping for joy,
Gleefully dancing with their
Twisted image in the glass.
Foolish Fond Old Father
At 95, you’re a shadow of your self:
Stoop-shouldered, bent over,
Plodding along behind your walker.
With drooping jowls, elfin ears and
An aureole of fine white hair, your
Pale face sags upon your skull.
Often you forget your hearing
Aids, so I’m forced to shout,
Repeat myself, losing my temper
And patience, though I know
Your simply can’t help it.
You have your days of clarity,
Then bouts of self-pity,
Petulance, anxiety attacks.
A kvetch and worry wart,
You forget what you’ve said,
And like a broken record,
Are constantly repeating
Your predictable routines.
Lear-like, you plead with me
For patience, understanding:
Then I remember all the
Things you’ve given me.
From you I learnt about
Justice, Truth and Beauty.
The trips to museums where
We played name the artist;
The summer Stratford where
We saw Scofield in Coriolanus;
The recital at Masonic Temple
Where we heard Oistrakh
Play the “Kreutzer” Sonata.
And when the Vietnam War
Raged on, you marched,
Signed petitions, to protest
That crime against humanity.
So you’ve been an honorable
Man, done many a good
Deed in your lifetime.
And, most of all, you’ve
Been the best of fathers.
My Brother’s Keeper
As a kid, you were an intellectual’s
Dennis the Menac. A precocious
Little rogue, you once climbed up
On our glass-topped kitchen table
And leapt up and down – crashing
Through without a scratch! On our
Backyard patio you’d sit with a
Magnifying glass, incinerating ants
Like a little god. You ate cold
Campbell’s bean soup or pepperoni
Pizza for breakfasts: were on deman
Feeding, as our mother would say.
And in Acapulco, where we stayed
In a luxury condominium, you spied
Squatters below in their squalid
Little shack: had an instinct
For justice long before me.
As a man, you marched against
The War in Vietnam. Left grad
School in philosophy to organize
The union reform movement.
You had the guts to fight the mob-
Ridden Teamsters, went from
Theory to practice to build the
T.D.U. It wasn’t’ till decades later
That you finally told me that story:
How you’d got anonymous
Phone call from some Teamster
Goon threatening to tape a
Bomb beneath your car. And
The devotion you’ve shone to
Our aging father and mother.
How you’ve sat by her bedside,
With her through her suffering:
Gently combed her hair, sponged
Her sweating brow, cleaned up
Her diarrhea. Like a nurse,
You’ve practiced the healing art.
Like a parent, cherished parents
Like your very own children. As
Brother, son, comrade – as a
Man – there’s no one on earth
I’d trade you for, my brother.
Half has been removed:
The half that included me
Sitting there beside you.
In the remainder you’re
Arrayed in your most
Your chin rest gently
On your upturned palm
With your black satin
Sleeve on the table. On
Your finger is a ring, on
Your wrist a gold bracelet,
And around your throat
Is a blue topaz pendent
On a fine mesh chain that
Matches the color of your
Eyes. Your shoulder-less
Dress reveals your arms’
White marble, and a collar
Of black satin frames your
Face. Below the page-
Boy cut and bangs are
Your eyes, sculpted cheeks
And chin. And that smile
That’s a needle to my heart.
It’s been thirteen years since
I last saw your face, since I
Last got laid, since I last
Had a woman in my life.
Unreciprocated love runs like
A thread upon that needle.
Like castrati who’ve had
Their balls removed, I’ve
Devoted my life to art.
Men Don’t Cry
When my father learned of his
Sister’s death, he had called
My Uncle Bern in Philadelphia.
Sitting there beside him, I’d
Heard them speak of Aunt Eve.
“She always looked at the
Bright side.” said my uncle
Through his tears. “And she
Had a joke for every occasion.
When you asked her how she was,
She’d say ‘wonderful’. You
Added. “She went peacefully,
Al, and we lived a good, long
Life.” said my uncle. “I’ve
Always been proud to have
You as my brother-in-law,
Bern.” you’d concluded.
Then you hung up with tears
Running down your cheeks.
Each week she’d call you after
Sunday morning brunch. It
Reminded me of that Sunday
Morning call so many years
Ago when you learned of
Your mother, Becky’s, death.
At the desk in the den you’d sat,
With your head in your hands –
My father – crying your eyes out.
At nine, I’d never seen you cry.
When I asked my mother what
Was wrong, she led me from
The den, closed the door
Behind us, and sat me on the
Living room sofa beneath the
Portraits of the prophets on
The wall. Then she told me
That my grandmother had died.
You’d loved your mother more
Than anyone else in the world.
A place of honor was always
Kept for her framed photo on
Your bedroom chest of drawers.
And there were your stores of
Her. How, during the depression,
You’d waited in line and learned
The bank had failed. And when
You returned home to tell your
Parents that your tuition for
College was gone, your mother
Had climbed the stairs, emptied
Her jewel box and marched to the
Pawnshop to hock her diamond ring.
And when I was born, she’d come to
Help my bedridden mother; said my
Shit was like chocolate fudge.
I remember you once telling me:
“A man shouldn’t cry, he should
Grit his teeth and bear it.: Then
I’d heard you sob through the
Living room wall. Now I watch
You as you cry for your sister.
You gaze through cracks in Border wall, Mexico. p. 28, 29.
Rusted sheets of iron of a
Berlin Wall on the Mexican
Border. The sun beats down,
You dream of life on the other
Side, plan night passagae
Through mountain and dessert.
Jam-packed, you risk your lives, Boat people, Gibraltar. p 43.
Venture night across the Strait,
Fighting wind and toppling wave.
Others run aground on the rocky
Beach: scattered remnants of
Wrecks found along the coast;
Dead buried in unmarked graves.
Your home, an abandoned car, Juvenile detention center, Hong Kong. p. 64.
In a vast scrap yard of wrecks,
With fellow squatters from across
The continent. From backseat bed
You gaze, surrounded by rusted
Steel hulks, awaiting permission
To enter your new home, Spain.
Curling caterpillars of barbed wire Juvenile detention center, Hong Kong. p. 64.
Crown fence and concrete walls’
In which your entire childhoods
Have been spent. Some arrived
As infants; other were born here.
The world outside seen through
Razor wire and wire mesh grid.
You take to the roads, all you own Refugees. p. 204, 205.
In bundles on your heads, as you
Flee the murder’s ax. Memory’s
Filled with millions massacred:
Mutilation; scattered limbs;
Bodies left unburied. Your nation
Scarred and maimed, forever.
Exhausted, wet and weak, you Mother and child. Rwanda, p. 211.
Rest, seated on a railroad track,
Your baby in a bag on your back.
In your hands rests your chin, a
Walking stick and bundle at you
Feet, as you pause to gaze into
The camera’s shuttered lens.
Your rib cages protrude though Living skeletons, Rwanda. p. 213.
The back skins of your breasts, as
Your shoulder blades piece the air.
A baby with the face of a wizened
Old man, with huge accusing eyes
And tiny withered fingered hands.
Orphan hobbling along on Orphan, Rwanda. p. 214.
Makeshift crutches, a rivulet of
Blood running down you stick-
Like wounded legs. Clothed in
Rags you inch forward as others
Are left to die in the sun among
The weeds by the roadside.
You pray before a catafalque Zapatista funeral chapel, Mexico. p. 292, 293.
Of four wooden coffins, lighted
Candles and flower bouquets.
Surrounded by bare concrete
You mourn, head bowed,
Hands clasped before you
For your murdered victim son.
Armed with sickles and machetes Revolt of the landless, Brazil. p. 298.
Held high above your heads you
Advance in your thousands,
Fists clenched and flags unfurled.
Through wooden gates you
Burst to occupy the land, seize
The power to feed your own.
*A volume by Brazil’s greatest photographer.
Salgado’s Terra: Struggle of the Landless*
Your face a web of wrinkles Old Woman, Parambu. p. 21.
Leather mask curled by the sun.
Sagging throat, toothless gums,
Bags beneath bright brave eyes.
Lit by the light of an open window Man with shovel, Permambuco. p. 43.
You stand, one hand on the cross
Piece, the other on your shovel,
Fierce eyes and torso glistening.
In the ant heap of the mine you Gold miner, Serra Pelada. p. 56.
Pose with hands upon your hips,
Your feisty face and limbs
Besmeared with mud and grime.
In worn leather sandals on the stone Three feet, Ceara. p. 99.
Floor you stand, nails caked and
Cracked, toes calloused and gnarled
Below the torn hems of your jeans.
Seated naked on the table’s edge, Sick baby, Serra Grande. p.65.
Tiny child with the face of a sick
Old man. Bloated belly, crippled
Feet: hared and crackled like claws.
You comb the dump with canvas Garbage dump, Fortaleza. p. 76, 77.
Sacks upon your backs. Together
With vultures circling overhead,
You search for refuse and metal.
Against the background of the city, Abandoned infants, Sao Paulo. p. 94, 95.
In cotton pajamas you play. Some
Lie in cradles, others crawl, one’s
Seated in a highchair in the air.
Armed with sickles and machetes Revolt, El dorado dos Crajas. p. 123-127.
Held high over your heads, you
Advance in your thousands,
First clenched and flags unfurled.
Mourners circle a dozen coffins Funeral, Curionopolis. p. 120, 121.
On wooden benches in the center
Of the floor. Loved ones, fighters
Killed by bullets in the head.
*A volume by Brazil’s greatest photographer.
Gray hemisphere lodged within Brain Haemorrahage. p. 60.
The cranium of the skull besieged
By clots of vessels burst. Caught in
A tangled knot of black coagulation:
Paralyzed by sudden stroke.
Pair of smoked, gray bags bridged Lung cancer, p. 67.
By a pale, pink pipe: by
Cancerous growths you’ve invaded.
Tumor hordes arise, metastasize,
Malignantly destroy you.
Clenched fist of muscle within Heart attack. p. 75.
Our breast, infested by fat that
Clots, clogs artery and vein.
Blood stream’s blocked.
Vessels burst. Cardiac arrest.
Beige balloon with your string Stomach ulcer. p. 92.
Of sausage, burnt by hydrochloric
Acid, your lining bleeds. Tissues
Become inflamed by membranous
Spots: to form an ulcer’s knot.
*The anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies by Gunter von Hagens.