General Poems


We’d listen in the kitchen to the voices
In the dining room. We’d lean against
The door and press our ears to hear the sounds
Of parents fighting, shouting at each other
Like soldiers in a war, like mighty trees
Collapsing, falling to the ground. –– I keep
This moment with me. Yes, I treasure it
More than a well-worn photograph, because
It is who we are, more than a picture
Could ever be. It says: family.

You who understand my words can add
Another stanza here. Write about
Those memories, those treasures, kept so deep
Within your own life that they ache when you
Awake and burn a hole within your soul.
Write them down, remembering how you’d listen.

General Poems

Kaddish for Dan

for Dan, died in a fire, 1996

Hold on a moment, angels.
Why are you always in such a hurry?
Can’t I have the simple chance
To say the goodbye I never got to say,
To reach out and shake my friend’s hand one last time,
To tell one last joke, to see one last smile,
To eat with him one last meal,
To take with him one last walk or one last drive,
To feel him take one last breath?
Can’t you grant this small, admittedly selfish request?

Yes, since you took away my friend
I grow more and more selfish;
Even now I feel it growing within me
As I ask myself, What did I do?
Why was I punished this way,
Never to see my friend again
Except in a handful of old photographs
All of them years and years old already?
Steady voices say,
We beat ourselves with our pride this way,
Crush ourselves in self-importance,
Grind our lives to a halt,
Rummaging through memories.
If I had only done this … only said that … only been there then …
Then everything would have been different,
Everything would be better than it is now.
So many questions without answers,
So many ifs, if … if … if … a world of ellipses…

The audience is hushed as the house lights fade out.
The curtain rises.
But I’m not ready for my latest role;
Tonight I play the Doxologist.
What does that even mean?
Praising G-d and seeking his acceptance?
Will he give me any understanding in return?
The audacity of the situation — how can I speak to Him?
Me, Nebuchadnezzer Grether, goy boy king,
Shegetz magus magnum among the shkotsim.
But I have had a stunning dream that has left my senses aching:
A sky blue day, one cloud rockets past in the breeze.
10 of us are there in a city park.
The hot earth smells like fresh-cut grass.
And the sycamores around us are blooming.
We smell their sweetness too.
I sit by a fountain to rest my feet of clay.
Beside me there you are my friend.
We don’t talk, don’t move, don’t do anything,
Nothing, but I bask in the moment:
You are alive again beside me,
If only for that tiny moment,
The tiniest of measurable moments,
One ten-billionth of a microsecond — that’s too large;
It’s the time it takes light to spin around the curves of my eyes,
The time it takes a nerve impulse to jump across a synapse,
Telling me the alarm is buzzing, wake up, it’s morning,
Forget what you remembered, it’s a dream.

A further dream, this one waking:
I climb the Ziggurat,
Throw my staff down before the high priest,
Demand answers — now!
He takes my hand and shows me all the city,
All its riches and all the people in it.
This is not enough? he asks
“No, not nearly, what about my friend?
The world must be more than suffering and dying?”
I collapse in agony.
“What else is there, what lies beyond, what is the purpose?”
He says, Why come to me about this?
“As the high priest, you of all people should have the answers!”
His voice becomes a whisper as he sings me a psalm he calls “To Time”:
Yes, each of us must bow before our queen,
Our one queen, she who knows no class or race
And never waved a flag or sang a song,
Nor ever thought of evil or of grace.
There is no good, no faith on which to cling
Our spinning lives but what we dream upon.
And yet, I tell you, she’s within our reach:
Just yesterday, she spent the night with me;
She walked me up and down the lazy beach
And counted all the waves there in the sea.

This is not enough, I say
Again and again, not enough,
Not enough, not enough, not enough.
There is more, there must be.
We are gathered together, all of us
Wrapped up in the endless arms of G-d,
But I had a friend, Dan, I called Belteshazzar
Who followed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego
Into the fiery furnace but did not live.
His whole life had at times seemed fire.
When I look back now I feel
He burned as he spoke, burned as he sat, burned as he slept;
Giant plumes of smoke blackened the sky around him;
The sun and stars were blotted out;
Gray ash fell softly like snow, an endless winter
With the ground scorched beneath his feet.

But there is more to the story.
These memories are wrong.
These facts are false.
Stop the presses.
The underworld was not his world.
Winter not his only season.
There was more.
He knew hot summers:
We gaze at the sky as we drive down the road,
The air blazing against our skin.
An hour to wait before the movie starts,
We lose ourselves in long, long thoughts.
He knew rainy green springs:
The grass pokes up through the sidewalk;
Cars splash through puddles on the street near the creek;
Only small steps now, we’ve given up running;
We’re soaked through, shrugging, laughing;
Late again for school.
And he knew somber autumns:
Cool air slides through the open window;
Songs roar to life on the stereo;
We meticulously dissect every note,
Revealing hidden magics.

We are gathered together, all of us
Wrapped up in the endless arms of G-d,
Dan no exception, bringing his friends strength,
Amazingly, in a smile out of the gray ash earth
And asking precious little in return.
Now I have said my goodbye
And know he will be unforgotten,
Remembered not for pain
But instead for the happiness he brought me.
I no longer walk along the same old paths
We used to walk together,
Having left his city for a new Babylon,
But I’m still repeating his old jokes,
Still playing his old games,
Still dreaming the old dreams we shared
Of music, laughter, love and more, more, more!
Always more! … angels, continue on your way.

General Poems

In the Children’s Ward

A Sonnet for G.M. Hopkins

Behold the hands of God in the feverish
And sick. Behold their shining halos, there
Above their heads, as they lie smiling in
Their beds and run their fingers through their hair.
Sweet Margaret — you smile? When I can’t bear
To look at you and see your scars? Outside
It’s autumn. You could run and jump in piles
Of leaves, or play with us a game of hide
And seek in all the old elm trees behind
Our house — but these sad dreams will never be.
The sullen doctors speak in whispers and
Just shake their heads when you aren’t looking. Me,
I’m half a man now — yet you smile? What heart
Has heard of this, your game, your endless art?