g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
In those days I never liked
where I’d been or was going.
Life had the texture of my face.
Now, the memories are beginning–
no, how can I put this–
I’m beginning to leave
the memories. What’s left
is the mere consciousness of having
been conscious, as in some dreary
second-semester philosophy course.
There was a layover,
I forget where. There was a cheeseburger;
food on the plane had been airplane food.
A napkin in my collar.
A careful leaning forward.
(Why didn’t I take off the jacket?)
My grip was no doubt full of tubes and knives.
Aloft, when the light went out, I smoked.
It was important to me
to smoke. As much as to read–
imposing titles neatly half-revealed.
When the stewardess came by
with her pillbox hat and space-station-blue
uniform, I forget whether
I flirted with her
or tried with my brown eyes to evoke
a faint awareness that I was in hell.
(Was there a difference?)
Self-conscious to the point of exhibitionism.
Flying, a pause between two minor hells.
I separate from him, though I mourn the hair,
even the crew-cut. There must be
some abstract principle where he
could be subsumed, find peace,
and which I’m just the man
to posit. What adolescents need,
almost as much as to get laid,
is dignity. Which can’t come from within,
because it’s never named or even imagined.
It can only be conferred
from outside, but under most conditions probably
isn’t, and anyway we’re landing.
SMALL FOREIGN COASTAL TOWN
Their transitory postures barely
please or perturb. An old woman
crying neatly and briefly, lovers’
curtailed convulsive kiss,
a beggar performing a scene from his death;
the harlequinades of police, who don’t bother
to look serious here
where only they are serious–even
the mountains and fussing gulls
underplay so well there’s no play.
Surely triumphant capital, which filled
the gaps between houses, the cavities left
in plaster by ancient bullets
(when there’s decay now, all decays),
must lend and jealously guard
continuity. But behind
each unsought counter salesmen flick
their beads and, in a manner of speaking,
dream; or loudly beg
salvation, explanations from their mobiles.
The theme of tourism suffers where all,
even those who never leave,
are tourists. But that’s how
I like it. The container ships
on the horizon vanish more
at every glance. The widow dabs
her eyes and smiles with measured pessimism.
The past is ziggurats of herring,
old men and jobless young who choke
on their God, Who is great, and smoke.
They may decide I’m responsible
for death, and kill me. May expel me
like the Roma, in the name of purity.
A wave over the embankment
may steal this letter-paper I prefer
to email because it’s matter.
Which is more ephemeral,
really? is a question as delightful
as the breeze that will last us
hopefully to the bottom of this page.
We keep our lodgings scrupulously clean
though plastic yellows, fabrics wear,
mold grows back. We cook
as well as we can, as well as the food allows,
and feed each other. There’s often
an awkward silence before we eat
at the end of difficult days.
It occasions discussions
of words and emotions
like “grace,” “gratitude,” “prayer,” even
“the oceanic sense”–
which are fine, we agree, as long as one frees them
from syntax. No one necessarily
bestows “grace,” and one needn’t
feel grateful to anyone.
“Transcendence” is merely that;
it goes nowhere.–
Nothing emerges from these talks;
but at least there’s no shouting,
no interruption or rhetoric,
and that’s something.
We scarcely remember what she looked like.
And the one who came
for her becomes so stylized
he might even have been one
of us. It doesn’t matter,
as I walk after dinner
through mud, then up to my cot.
What matters is
her happiness, which also seems rather abstract:
raven curls against blue
candy sky ... So I try more profoundly
to grasp what her happiness meant
to her. But isn’t happiness happiness,
an absolute, like water,
indifferent to its container?
Then one of the inevitable rats
in the corner chides: These reflections
are sentimental, the emotions very much borrowed.
And to my confusion
I share the rat’s equivocal little voice.
When Rabbi Löwy struck
the Aleph from among
the letters on the Golem’s brow, changing
EMET (“eternal”) to MET (“death”),
the creature toppled, and was carried
to an empty room atop
the synagogue. On the street,
people the thing had killed,
Gentiles and Jews, were also taken away
and survivors stared at the Rabbi.
“Our beloved Emperor,” he said,
“has rescinded his edict
against the Jews of Prague.
The abomination fulfilled
its purpose. But at such cost!
I should have known it would be
to tell friend from foe, or foe from neutral,
its clay hand raised against all others.
When rain has removed this blood,
I shall be left with guilt
and you with a myth,
ambiguous like any myth,
and as small compared to the Law.”
Perhaps because of these words,
though in every pogrom
of the following centuries Jews
looked to that window
which may have marked its room,
the Golem never reappeared.
It’s said that an SS lieutenant
took a knife to stab it
and was never seen again, but that story
may be apocryphal.
Over time, even the moisture
recalling spirit in the Golem’s clay
dried, and the creature
became friable, smaller.
Yet a strange potency remained.
It may have been the talk of freedom
that stirred it in ‘89,
although several more years
passed in a sort of pain.
Until, in a new hotel
as streamlined as a submarine,
full of fresh-faced, madly ambitious
and incompetent staff, a woman
from the IMF lost it, shrieking, “What do you mean
you can’t get a connection to
New York? I have been waiting
I can’t do business under these conditions!”
Then suddenly her scream
changed as she saw,
on a street still called Leninova,
the Golem halting new BMWs,
and the last Tatras and Skodas, visibly
flaking like itself. How had it crossed
town? In darkness probably,
beside walls its own color. But now
it had stopped
in the sun. It was confused
by the sun, and a lack of instructions,
but also by the beings, people,
staring. The terrible need to do battle
remained, but what it saw
was neither friends nor enemies nor neutrals,
only things like itself, warring mud,
with neither “death” nor “deathless” on their brows.
So without a word (it had no mouth),
the Golem ran into a wall
that had belonged to the secret police
and would soon house a Swiss bank,
forming a somewhat turtle-shaped
bulge in the stucco. It isn’t
part of the normal Prague tour,
or touted in guidebooks beside
the craze for monster trucks and Kafkaburgers.