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Poems from Mortal Companions

  Spectrum Elegy  
                          for Louis Rose  



Ribbon of violet draped on shoulders, gun
in your lunchbox, cap set straight — you might
have died against metal, filaments of bright steel
arrayed at your chest like blades of shrapnel.
You might have skidded by the hospital
and greeted death with a bomb’s quick violence.

Makeshift ghost, you ransacked country roads
in silence intense and deep as indigo
and shuddered the cricket pumpkin dark
with bed sheets flash-lit from beneath
as if your demon’s breath were lightning! Uncle,
you prankster, did you know the fright you pirated
was treasure rich and inviolate as midnight snow?

The blue of your mechanic’s veins
terrified a battery of finger men who swore
to get you juiced-up and ego-tripping and raw
with energy until you dared swing an immigrant
Yid fist at America. I loved you because you kicked
fascisti horsemen in the balls and hung
your faith out when the deathwinds blew.

No one ever grew green with desire for you:
you refused to stay planted long enough
and drew your wiry roots out, our soiled imaginings
still clinging, and flew head-on into the first
clean wind. Aerobic and stellar, you broke into
dare-Jesus dancing that clicked like a gun’s safety
and jagged a thin lip of tin against time’s grain.

I snagged a loop of my soul on your machine,
yellow taxi trafficking in images: meter down but
ticking-off its nickels in your gut where the true toll was. 
You rattled away on the crazed cobbles of the ’30s: love-
runner and chief itinerant cook — dishing up whores,
caches of cool wine, stashed bread. At the end of your day’s
run, the dazed guards bellowed.

You were a genius at cards: Play this one! you’d say,
or Sit still! A tease of love and blood, you’d poker-
face it till the flood swept our game away: the world
gone orange suddenly. But we knew your anger was a bluff —
it was the game inside that fooled us, under your mask,
where the cancer waited, then played its ace-high flush

against your round-the-corner straight. Then the blood came
and kept coming, thickly red and strange. They could do so little.
You bled slowly from my head, thin ribbons of pain. 
I couldn’t hear what was said when they slipped your body
into the bare rip in the earth like a boy’s ruined bicycle.
The heat in my chest brooded like a hen tending a cracked egg.




  A Six-Pointed Star



Today you are real, child-to-be.
You kick at the walls of your prison house,
splintering the nerves at the tips
of my fingers.

When I touch my scalp
blood wells up
as if a small taproot of terror
has become unplugged.

I bend over your crib:
you still breathe, yes! yes!
The vaporizer whirrs
like a spaceship,
blows cool wet air —
a kind of invisible ray
potent with the numb murder
of sleep.

Your face is beautiful in the dim light
blowing in from the hallway:
your mouth open so I can see your few teeth,
small bits of yourself that will last.
You are the continuance, you make Auschwitz
less of a mockery.

Your body is small but perfect,
each pout and dip of flesh
gleaming with soapy water.

When I scrub your limbs
I can see there is hair on them already,
a light down of human feathers.
It is all I can handle
to towel you dry.

Today in the park
we walked away from your mother.
You ran ahead into the open field,
intent under your snow hood
as the winter sun.

I tossed you the ball underhand,
had to tell you to watch it
fall toward you like a tiny comet:
a dozen times before we could take our eyes
off each other.
Already you fly too far
from me, your life rising
quietly from your skull
like hair warming in sunlight.

The swing holds you up
like a gallows, the full weight
of your childhood suspended
on the crosspiece.

I push you out again,
watching you drift beyond my reach
on that liferaft, then pulled back toward me
by your small gravity.

Each time I push you out
you return more slowly,
with the weight of your bones
towing against you.

You brush your hair
little Jew girl —
already the dark roots
flame out,
reach higher with each stroke.

How well you've learned
what I could not teach you:
you wear the star inside,
ashamed to state too clearly
who you are.

I see the knowledge of pain
guide your soft white arm.
Your pointed fear
puts out my eyes.




  Miss Curtin
                          Marguerite Curtin, 68, was found clubbed
                        to death in her Ozone Park home Tuesday.

                                                                        Note in a daily newspaper


She must have been sleeping
that dark evening in November
or reading in her upstairs bedroom,
drifting on a tide of words, then swimming
with the black but moonstruck current
all the way down river.

She must have been lulled by the rush
and propulsion of language, so that she
could hear nothing extraneous    nothing
below the surge and murmur
of the pulsing stream, nothing above
the moan and pitch of it.

One thing is clear: she didn’t hear
her murderer enter, didn’t hear
when he clicked on the TV or, later, climbed
the stairs. Immersed as she was in the books
she loved, she let the world float away. 
Why would she wake when death entered? 

                                *  *  *

I remember her in her brightness,
how she stood in the stark landscape
of the classroom, winsome and matronly,
at once. Her starched white blouse,
though buttoned to the throat, 

could not conceal the rise and fall
of her breasts. We called her “Ma” Curtin,
though she was still in her early ’30s. 
Archetypal “schoolmarm,” she forgave
our ignorance while encouraging

the tiniest sparks of wit and insight.
How we relished her sternness:
in her casual displays of anger or irony,
we read the grace notes of affection. 
I recall her pale Irish face, her sharp tongue

and short temper, but also the nosebleeds
that taught us she, too, was vulnerable,
only older and more complete. Who knew —
if we kept hammering away at our lessons,
one day, we might shine like her and live.




  The Firetruck
                     When books are burnt, humans
                   will be burnt in the end.



The firetruck is moving always
through the dimly glaring time-
           red lights FLASHING
                   corners of a flag
The firetruck is coming at me
soundless as a floating coffin,
one blue bulb at its left front fender
potent as a radium capsule
                                      The firemen
are waving at me: black and wet
in monkish slickers,

falling in the brackish darkness:
The firetruck is glowing, gliding
like a hellbound taxi
                                red as a fish gill 
black as a coal vein

                               *  *  *

                                 The firetruck
looms nearer to me
                              the driver is driven
by a hot bare wire
                             his hatless head
is bald as a vampire's
I have no views on saving widows!
A body burnt is a seat on the subway!

His voice is pale as a scar on a baby:
the firetruck is a poor man's abbey
near as the red box in the hallway
break the glass and kiss your lady!
Crazy!  Crazy!  Crazy!  Crazy!

                              *  *  *

Rain beads on leaves along the highway:
bright white gleams on translucent pebbles
wet dead pulsebeats on cooled gravel
my heart holds still as a turtle
The monks chant Shrivel!  Shrivel!  Shrivel!
The sky is white as a mass card

                              *  *  *

Heine knew the world would flame out
under a madman's thumb
                                         and warned
his Jewish countrymen
                                I understand
their numb refusal: Humdrum! Humdrum!
In 1821
who knew how well bones could fuse?