In ten years of teaching, I tell them
I have never said this before.
Yet they lost one student this past fall
so the dean invites me to share
what I wish I couldn’t readily recall.
Bringing forth this brother now, and hours later, too,
to another class, on this same industrial carpet,
where long Formica tables stand in rows,
as if order meant reason,
the segue’s natural as a river’s artery.
There is no rustling of paper. Even the leaves
stop bobbing out the window; the fog lifted seconds ago.
The frames are a still life.
In backpack pockets, cell phones emit waves insensate.
I’ve introduced them to Septimus Smith and Virginia Woolf herself
and Anja Spiegelman, whose photo they have seen only once
but mostly know only as a mouse. Mental illness
is just that, an illness, and addiction is just that.
For years I took such illness as a personal affront
—depression, addiction—inexorably joined.
Rocks in her pockets. Walk in the water.
Let me know, I say. Ask, I tell them, when someone’s depressed—
ask the question, be specific: Are you suicidal? Remember,
Not Really is a Maybe. Anything other than a No is a Maybe
and a Maybe is a Yes. A Maybe is always a Yes.
When she was a baby, bobbing her head
on my chest, blue eyes searching, lips latching on,
she wouldn’t let go until sleep took hold.
Now, nearly grown and hazel-eyed, she studies Latin
in the other room, eats pasta that she’s rolled.
She alternates between two beds, two homes,
with the constancy of female friends.
Waving her hands as if conducting the wind,
she talks of boys, first-shaven. Invisible, I drive.
Girls in the backseat, their voices high and sweetly soft,
overlay each other’s phrases in counterpoint.
There must be a goddess I’ve never read about
who gathers stars only to disperse them.
She opens her palms and stars spill out,
enough to occupy the universe.
The road ahead’s so bright it almost hurts.
Plates shift, cause and effect—
friction wears against the final straw.
One grinds over the other; less is left.
Marriage dissolves and you reflect
what you sensed (unseen, there really was more).
Plates shift, cause and effect.
No widow’s wardrobe yet utterly bereft,
sudden weight loss, you’re numb to the core.
One grinds out from under the other; less is left.
You’ve a daughter to protect.
Gingerly walk; there is no floor!
Plates shift, cause and effect.
For a while you receive a monthly check,
pay the bills, cross out each chore.
One grinds over another. Less is left.
And now you start to live beyond the wreck,
home orderly and safer than before;
plates shifted, cause begat effect—
One ground over the other, less is left.
Green yields itself to us
this time of year,
the hopeless birch, felicitous willow,
and even the pink tulips,
with their green stands and leaves,
bend over as most any flower would
in such a breeze. Air rushes in
with the smell of green, tries to articulate
the pure cerulean of the sky
and fails. But somehow the sweet
smell lingers, and the willow
mops the sky. Through the miniature gray boxes
of the screen door I can see: two red metal
chairs with their fanned backs,
a yellowish straw mat to wipe one’s feet on,
and the lawn’s vast expanse,
a variety of greens—mint, army, pine.
The paper with its black-on-white
characters is tossed near the door;
its scroll shape rolls, morning
after morning, just beyond the green.
Slender fingers push open the door.
Coffee’s smell wafts
through this small house,
and look: the table’s ready, the white
porcelain cup reflecting the silver
of a fork, sizzle then splatter
of a real meal cooking,
and doesn’t the sky seem bluer today?
The colors outside will be more
of what they are, each piece of fruit,
every dirty lawn chair, each blade of hair.
Even the air carries the smell of color,
apple blossoms exploding,
pink and white. Today is a day
to remember, brushing a mosquito
away from the face, feeling that calm
at seeing lawn, gray-brown bark
of a tree, violet in a bud, green,
green as only summer, in a stem.
Up the brown steps,
a plaid dress on the chair waiting
to be worn, and loafers abandoned
in the corner, brown leather
staring at brown leather. A few amber hairs
in the brush, amber which will grow darker,
then lighter, gray, gray-white, softer.
Night is the darkest blue punctuated
by white dots. Iridescent blue wings flutter
between brown trees, and individual nouns
are attempting to spell Forever.
Color and form divide, distinguish,
modify, as everything ages.
The moon is only a chip of gold, a transmutation
of its old substance, adequate light
to catch the lilacs bobbing. The elm
in the back of the house has been standing
for hundreds of years, the blue wings
flickering for maybe a moment.
Just before evening’s end, the list begins:
three piles of laundry, like the mind, divided,
the electric bill, that intrepid old LIFE
magazine I’ve been meaning to…
Churchill on the cover
reminds me of Clementine.
The sad oranges and arugula that need
to be tossed. In New Orleans,
tumbling churches, streets under water.
Another Malaysian airplane missing.
My three cousins
all horribly ill at once,
an outbreak of honesty.
Wondering when our time will be up—
First my mother, then my brother,
slow sinking, rapid fire.
First love, husband, marriage implodes.
A love never to be found again,
still it aches like a mad desire,
the match that can’t catch fire.
I remember my father and me
running out his studio door in bathing suits,
steam rising. He went first, and then
we both went under. A few minutes treading water,
and then we lay, heads pillowed,
side by side on covered mats.
We talked quietly, breath haloed
beneath a canopy of trees
—pines’ white boughs bowing in moonlight,
sugar maples dredged in snow—
curved lines frosting
the blue-white night softly coated,
stars dotting sky.
We dipped our heads under
so our hair wouldn’t bead with ice.
We spoke now and then, mostly watched.
I ran and he followed, back into the studio;
we slipped on terrycloth robes.
Upstairs, when I fell asleep
my day slipped easily away,
and night was everything I wanted.
in memory of Hymie Groskind
When I dropped by your house to lend your wife a book,
the second night of Chanukah, you asked my daughter
to light the menorah. Only three, she held the candle lit
—for anyone else I’d have protested—
but there you were in your short sleeves:
7 7 3 2 3.
I’d never seen your numbers before.
They cattled you well, each European
7 evenly crossed.
When you returned to Auschwitz with your son,
they charged admission; you shook your head,
held out your arm, and they let you in.
Survivors always travel for a birth or a wedding—
your son’s wedding, with your two old friends,
from New Jersey and Philly, the three of you,
again, and again: three consecutive numbers.
Tom, I couldn’t get into
the skin you so desperately
wanted to crawl out of
even though we began in the same womb
not two years apart.
I didn’t foresee
what appears transparent
now—those last months—
I yearn to go back
to the illusion that
our family’s intact,
to have your wide wrist wear this
big Cartier watch,
for you to be dressed
in these sweaters now stacked
in cedar against the moths.
Simply to hear your voice again
on the phone, your tone rising, past
effusive, brimming with affection:
(Being present with emotion
was a punitive condition.)
There you were on the line, making amends,
repeating, with tendor candor,
I love you, Cin I love you, Cin I love you, Cin
I didn’t recognize goodbye.
in memory of my brother Tom
At first, my mother preferred to say took his life.
I said: Suicide.
They thought he overdosed, which made sense:
the exit wound was so high up
an oversized yarmulke covered it, and my family reversed
his casket’s direction. (Who’d notice?)
Smartest thing we did, my mother said.
No one walked around the backside
with huge roses displayed.
I glanced at him: high cheekbones, sculpted face,
angelic in his white robe, one diamond stud.
I returned to the back room, preparing to perform.
Naturally, my parents rushed home,
An estranged cousin
perused the fine Federal furniture.
The whole city was in the dining room. On the wall
my grandmother’s miniatures, verre églomisé silhouettes.
Note the title of the prettiest, The Happy Family.
Yes, I know Tolstoy was right, we are not all alike.
One woman asked,
How did he do it? Was he alone?
A man said, You have his dog?
Yes, I promised, if anything happened…
So you had a warning, he said. (Who’d notice?)
I woke up, thought Tom wasn’t really gone,
descended the steps to my dining room,
saw each shiny black letter engraved
the family of on cream paper.
No one minded I picked out a casket
too ornate. (Who noticed?)
Later, I sent myself away,
repeated, He put a bullet in his head.