Like everybody else, I wasn’t a Jew
Until I came to New York. In Portland, OR,
The other day, a young Latina asked me
If I were Jewyorican. Papa and Bubby
Came from Ukraine, landed in Brooklyn,
Settled in Harlan, KY, and named my father
Benjamin Franklin. My mother, the offspring
Of a coalminer, married Ben, the only Jew
In town. He didn’t last. Ma remarried.
In kindergarten, in Cincinnati, instead
Of moving to the afternoon session the second
Semester, I stayed in Morning and changed my name.
This is the year 5755. In Chinese it is Year
Of the Dog. I just learned that the time between
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Days
Of Awe. Moody and gray, with dashes of absolute
Clarity, I love these days. Cleansing
Summer’s sweat from the streets of New York,
I always think of the year beginning in
September. “That’s when school starts.” A holdover
From Youth. This year, for the first time, woo,
It’s the real New Year, and I am a real Jew.
A real Jew, and a real coalminer’s son, too.
The amazing thing is not that geese can get sucked into an Airbus engine and cause it to conk out or that a pilot can tell air traffic control, “There’s only one thing I can do,” then take a deep breath and do it—ditch in the Hudson with a buck and whine, then walk the aisle as the plane fills with water to make sure everyone’s gotten out— but that afterwards
many who weren’t hurt in a lifelong way, only shaken, scratched, no doubt in shock, had nothing else to do, finally, except take a bus back to LaGuardia and catch another plane home. Amazing too how before long people stop talking about it, they move on and eventually need an extra beat to recognize
that camera-shy pilot when he appears—retired now, somehow smaller now, no longer shy— as an air travel expert (“Sometimes carry-ons just shouldn’t be carried on”) on the nightly news and connect his name to what he did that day, probably— let’s face it—because no one died. Though most stories don’t end
like that. In Shanxi Province, the BBC told me late last night when I should’ve been asleep instead of sitting in the dark, twenty-four workers— all men, they said, and some much older than I would’ve imagined— were trapped in a mile-deep mineshaft deemed too dangerous now for a rescue, though apparently it was safe enough to work in. Shovel clang and gravel rumble turned to echoing
silence. Eventually the company execs sent down a slender silver robot with tank treads, tiny pincer hands, a camera for a face, but all it found—how long it looked, they didn’t say—was a single miner’s helmet, dented and dusty, its frail light still burning.
Blacks in one box
Blacks in two box
Blacks stacked in boxes stacked on boxes
Blacks in boxes stacked on shores
Blacks in boxes stacked on boats in darkness
Blacks in boxes do not float
Blacks in boxes count their losses
Blacks on boat docks
Blacks on auction
Blacks on wagons
Blacks with masters in the houses
Blacks with bosses in the fields
Blacks in helmets toting rifles
Blacks in Harlem toting banjoes boots and quilts
Blacks on foot
Blacks on buses
Blacks on backwood hardwood stages singing blues
Blacks on Broadway singing too
Blacks can Charleston
Blacks can foxtrot
Blacks can bebop
Blacks can moonwalk
Blacks can beatbox
Blacks can run fast too
Blacks on knees and
Blacks on couches
Blacks on Good Times
Blacks on Roots
Blacks on Cosby
Blacks in voting booths are
Blacks in boxes
Blacks in rows of houses are
Blacks in boxes too
Rockets concuss. Guns rattle off.
Dogs in a public square
feed on dead horses.
I don’t know, Jim, where you are.
When did you last see
birds? The winter sky in Boston
is gray with flu. Newspapers,
senators, friends, even your mom
on Good Morning America—
no one knows where you are.
It’s night, cold and bruised,
where you are. Plastic twine binds
your hands. You wait and pray, pray
and wait, but this is where the picture goes gray.
We don’t know, Jim, where you are.
In the absence of sparrows: a crowd of friends and family gather in Rochester,
New Hampshire to recite the holy rosary.
We keep your picture on the kitchen table, pack of American Spirits,
airplane bottle of Scotch, a copy of Krapp’s Last Tape.
Don’t get me wrong; we expect you back. Skinny, feral,
coffee eyes sunken but alive, you’ve always come back, from Iraq,
Syria, Afghanistan, even Libya after Gaddafi’s forces
captured and held you for 44 days. You tracked time scratching
marks with your zipper on prison walls, scrawling notes on cigarette
boxes, reciting the Koran with other prisoners. Then, you called.
DJ, it’s Jimmy…I’m in New Hampshire, brother! I wanted
to break your fucking nose. We ate lobster rolls, instead,
on a picnic bench by Boston Harbor. You made a quick round
of TV shows, packed your camera and Arabic phrasebook.
You skipped town on a plane to Turkey. We talked once. You said
you’d play it safe. The connection was lost.
In the absence of sparrows: American journalist James Foley disappeared
after being taken captive by armed gunmen near Aleppo, Syria on Thanksgiving Day.
In the absence of sparrows: our house burns blue with news.
Winter solstice, 1991. You turned donuts,
drinking beers, in a snowy public lot next to the lake.
Girls yelped. You cranked the Pixies louder, cut the lights,
and steered Billy’s grandma’s Chrysler onto the Winnipesaukee ice.
The moon flamed bright as a county coroner’s light.
You revved the station wagon’s engine. Billy tied
a yellow ski rope off the hitch, flashed a thumbs up,
and you punched the gas—5, 15, 20, 25 miles per hour—
towing Billy, skating in high-top sneakers,
across the frozen lake. Chill air filled his lungs.
Billy pumped his fist. You torqued the wheel left.
Triumphant, you honked and flashed the lights.
You took a swig of Heineken and wheeled
the wood-paneled station wagon in a wide-arcing turn
to pick up Billy, bloodied but standing. People do reckless things
but your friends dubbed you the High King of Foolish Shit.
The nose of Billy’s grandma’s Chrysler broke the ice.
You jammed it into reverse. Bald tires spinning,
you flung yourself from the car. In seconds, it was gone.
You gave Billy’s grandma a potted mum
and a silver balloon. Standing on her screened-in porch,
you mumbled an apology. What am I supposed to do now?
she asked. What the hell do I do now?
In the absence of sparrows: when falling snow, out the window, looks like radio waves,
your face appears, your baritone laugh.
August 31, 2004
We read Abbie Hoffman, 1968, watched Panther documentaries, The Weather Underground, and packed our bandanas, first aid kits,
fat markers, maps and signs for New York City. A31, they called it,
a day of direct action, a time to heave ourselves on the gears
of an odious machine. We marched, drumming and chanting, half a million strong,
through the streets of Lower Manhattan. Worst President Ever, A Texas Village
Has Lost Its Idiot. Protestors carried a flotilla of flag-covered coffins.
We hoisted homemade signs and cried out, Whose streets?
Our streets? No justice, no peace! I’d packed sandwiches,
water, mapped restrooms along the parade route, inked
the hotline for Legal Services on your forearm and mine.
You, my wild half brother, packed only a one hitter, notepad, and pen.
When the parade snaked past the New York Public Library,
we peeled off to confront 20 cops in riot gear blocking entry
with batons drawn. We took position on the library steps.
Stone-still, inches from police, we held our signs
stamped with a student gagged by padlock and chain.
I could feel breath on my neck. We narrowly escaped arrest,
then streamed toward the Garden, a ragtag troop of 200.
We evaded barricades. Cut down alleys. At Herald Square, only
blocks from the Republican Convention, cops on mopeds
cut us off. They rolled out a bright orange snow fence,
hundreds of yard long, then zip cuffed us, one by one.
I called Ebele. You called your brother, set to be married in just three days.
His best man, you were headed to jail. “I’ll be there Friday for the golf outing,”
you vowed, a cop cutting your phone call short. They took you first.
Threw you on a city bus headed to Pier 14 on the Hudson,
a giant garage stinking of axel grease and gasoline. Stepping off the bus,
I scanned hundreds of faces staring through chain link, newly erected
and topped with concertina wire. I couldn’t find you. I can’t. They transferred me,
in soapy light, to the Tombs, Manhattan’s city jail, and freed me after 24 hours
to wander the streets. I peered in Chinese restaurants, seedy Canal Street bars,
called your cell phone from a payphone, trekked to Yago’s apartment
in Spanish Harlem, eager to crack beers, to begin weaving the story
we would always tell. You were not there. Waiting outside the Tombs,
I missed my flight home. Waiting, I smoked your cigarettes on the fire escape.
They held you and held you. You are missing still. I want to hold you. Beauty
is in the streets, my brother. Beauty is in the streets.
In the absence of sparrows: trash fires, a call to prayer. Dusk.
Rockets whistling, plastic bags taking flight.
In the absence of sparrows: all of a sudden, you appear. Standing before a cinder block
wall, you’re holding a video camera with a boom mic and wearing a bulletproof
In the absence of sparrows: the front page story says you’ve been missing since
November 22, 2012. Everything else it doesn’t say.
In the absence of sparrows: you simply wandered off, past the Sunoco, pockets stuffed.
The door to your apartment is open still—
When was the last lobotomy, I wonder?
Too late for Carl at least, whom it’s all but hopeless
to think of as a whipsaw of hateful passion
that would if it could have torn up his mother and father,
mild as they are; but that’s how old villagers say
Carl acted before he was cut. Their smiles are rueful.
They shake their heads, subtle. A raven, unsubtle,
grates from a hemlock as Carl steps into sight.
His wave’s familiar: he jerks and drops one palm.
How old must he be? He’s ageless. His eyes are empty—
the operation. He turns now: ninety degrees,
then ninety again like a sentry, the other way.
He turns the same on each warm evening, retreating
past the house of our mutual neighbor, who will not speak
to Carl’s father, for reasons likely beyond recall.
It seems a shame not to edit grievances.
It’s some awful stink nearby that draws the raven,
but the rest of the world seems fixed on the morbid too:
a squirrel keeps pouring spruce cones down at me;
a gall-blighted butternut groans; the broadleafs wilt;
there’s a pair of toads at my feet that wheels have flattened
side by side, like cartoon icons of failure;
mosquitoes strafe me, a mammoth dragonfly—
one of the season’s last—attacks a moth
so close to me I can hear the fatal click.
The other day a son went off to college.
His mother and I are quietly beside ourselves.
We embrace each other harder now, and vow,
as one vows, to love our children harder too.
Though I hum to distract myself, the raven dives
loud as gunfire through brush to its mess. I jump,
but Carl doesn’t seem to hear. I watch him limp
to his family’s drive—then again that sure right angle.
Like him, our family finds a virtue in order:
we rise at six to eat our breakfasts together,
then make a certain sandwich for one of the girls,
a certain one for the other; we leave at seven;
we gather the girls promptly at end of school.
Carl opens his door and shuts it—click—behind him.
It’s after Labor Day, it’s end-of-summer,
it’s another season upon us. Now he scolds me,
that squirrel on his branch, his store of weapons gone.
Why me, dumb brute? I haven’t done anything wrong,
I’ve got no grievance with him—not with anyone really.
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
The wishing star is not enough to light
the space around me while this bit of hymn from my schooldays
plays, while daytime’s creatures crawl to cover,
and night ones, having no choice, confront the night.
I saw some people starving There was murder, there was rape Their villages were burning They
were trying to escape I couldn’t meet their glances I was staring at my shoes It was acid, it was tragic It was almost like the blues
I have to die a little Between each murderous thought And when I’m finished thinking I have to die a lot There’s torture and there’s killing There’s all my bad reviews The war, the children missing Lord, it’s almost like the blues
I let my heart get frozen To keep away the rot My father said I’m chosen My mother said I’m not I listened to their story Of the Gypsies and the Jews It was good, it wasn’t boring It was almost like the blues
There is no G-d in heaven And there is no Hell below So says the great professor Of all there is to know But I’ve had the invitation That a sinner can’t refuse And it’s almost like salvation It’s almost like the blues
This poem was originally published in The New Yorker
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.