Even Yiddish doesn’t have a word
for the greatness of my Yiddish poem,
a poem so exquisite that if Dante could rise from the dead
he would have to rend his clothes in mourning.
Oh, the drabness of his noisy,
futile little paradise
when it’s compared with my Yiddish poem.
His poems? They’re everywhere. A dime a dozen.
A photocopier can take them down in no time.
But my Yiddish poem can never be taken down,
not even by a pious scribe
who has fasted an entire year
to be pure enough to write my Yiddish poem,
which exists—doesn’t he realize?—
in no realm at all
unless the dead still manage to dream dreams.
It’s even a question
whether God Himself
can make out the text of my Yiddish poem.
If He can, He won’t be happy.
He’ll have to retract everything,
to re-create the universe
without banalities like firmament and light
but only out of words extracted
from the stingy tongues of strangers,
smuggled out in letters made of camels,
houses, eyes, to deafen
half a continent with argument
and exegesis, each refinement
purified in fire after
fire, singed almost beyond
recognition, but still
not quite consumed, not even
by the heat of my Yiddish poem.
Views of La Leggenda della Vera Croce
How will I ever get this in a poem,
When all I have to do is type AREZZO
And the name sidles up along a station platform,
The train I’m riding in begins to slow,
And—though I swore I wasn’t getting off this time—
I know a train comes every hour or so
To wherever I’m headed—Perugia? Rome?—
And suddenly I’m rushing off the train,
Depositing my bag, crossing the waiting room,
And striding up the Via Monaco again
As if I couldn’t see each fresco perfectly,
Couldn’t see them, now, against this screen. . . .
But in a minute, they’ll array themselves in front of me:
Soldiers, horses, placid ladies, kings,
All patient, in their places, not spinning crazily
Like the first time I saw them: unearthly beings
Breathing luminous pearl-green instead of air,
Horses and ladies-in-waiting flapping wings
Stolen from the eagle on the soldiers’ banner,
Their brocaded sleeves and bridles grazing spinning walls,
Hats twirling, armor flying, coils of hair
Unraveling into whirling manes and tails—
And that was before the winged arm’s appearance. . . .
When the Times ran an article about Stendhal’s
Famous nervous breakdown from the art in Florence,
Half a dozen friends sent it to me.
I suppose these tales of mine require forbearance.
Not that I had a breakdown, though I was dizzy,
Closed my eyes, leaned against a wall,
And told myself that there was time to see
Each panel—one by one—down to each detail:
Hats, sleeves, daggers, saddles, bits of lace;
I studied every panel: Adam’s Burial,
St. Helena’s Discovery of the Cross,
Solomon Meeting Sheba, The Annunciation,
The Dream of Constantine, The Torture of Judas,
Whose other name I learned from a machine
Which, with the help of a hundred-lire coin,
Supplies a telephone with information.
I did it for a laugh; I chose Italian.
I thought I heard the torture of the Jew
And was so stunned I played the thing again
(My Italian was, after all, fairly new
And the woman on the tape spoke very quickly
But she did say the torture of the Jew—
In Italian it’s ebreo—quite matter-of-factly)
The torture of the Jew who wouldn’t reveal
The location of the true cross—I got it exactly—
Put in a lot of coins to catch each syllable
(I also heard the English, which said Judas),
All the while not looking at the rope, the well;
Instead, I chose a saintly woman’s dress,
An angel’s finger pointing to a dream,
A single riveting, incongruous face—
What was I supposed to do? They were sublime.
The Inquisition wasn’t exactly news
And, while I did keep my eyes off that one frame,
I wasn’t about to give up on those frescoes.
In fact, I saw them again, a short while after
And again soon after—in those heady days,
Trains cost almost nothing and a drifter
Gould easily cover quite a bit of Italy,
Though I tended to stay in Tuscany. The light was softer,
And—probably not coincidentally—
It had a higher density than any other place
Of things that could dazzle inexhaustibly.
And I was insatiable, avaricious
For what—even asleep—a person can’t see
From a slim back bedroom in a semidetached house
Like every other house in its vicinity
On a site whose inhabitants had been wiped out
To make room for spillover, like my family,
From the very continent I would have dreamed about
If I’d had even an inkling of the mastery
Of what its subtlest inhabitants had wrought
When they weren’t doing away with people like me. . . .
See how Solomon, listening, leans his head?
How the tired horseman leans against a tree—
How the guard beside the emperor’s makeshift bed
Can’t resist the sorcery of sleep—
So only we can catch the angel’s finger pointed
At the dreamer’s head, the horse’s sudden leap,
As if straight from that vision, to the battle scene:
Christianity’s triumph over Europe. . . .
I love the wing, the arm, the dreaming Constantine,
The moonlight casting shadows on the tent—
It is moonlight, though there is no moon—
Pale, as always, silvery and slant;
It’s coming from the angel’s pointing arm
Which I didn’t even notice that first moment—
All I saw was undiluted dream—
I didn’t really care what it was for—
Besides, we fared no better under pagan Rome,
Which hadn’t stopped me from going there—
I might not even have thought about Jerusalem,
If I hadn’t found myself staring straight at her.
I was wandering lazily around the Forum
Without even a guidebook or a map.
I didn’t care which stones were the gymnasium,
Which pillars hunched together, needing propping up,
Paid tribute to which boastful, scheming god.
Amazing, I suppose, that all that stuff could keep—
The advantage of stone, I guess, over mud and wood—
But the things I like best are always beautiful;
I don’t admire antiquities as I should,
I lack the imagination for them. Still,
In my own haphazard way, I was thorough;
I did cover everything, though I’d had my fill,
Walked through every arch, every portico,
And—there—in the middle of the Roman Forum
Was my own first menorah, stolen years ago,
My altar, carved with rams’ horns on its rim
(If you want to find them, they’re on the Arch of Titus,
On your right, as you face the Colosseum;
Splendid reliefs, the Blue Guide says;
It’s the only arch acknowledged with a star)—
Soldiers were parading them, victorious,
Transporting them—if only I knew where. . . .
What was I doing at these celebrations,
When I’d fasted over this, year after year,
Chanting the entire book of Lamentations
In candlelight, sitting on the floor?
How she’s become as a widow, that was great among nations . . .
The torture of the Jew couldn’t compare.
After all, wasn’t it a work of fiction?
This was actual footage from a war
Which had always been—forgive me—an abstraction,
Despite—or because of?—all the people killed
Trying to save the Temple from destruction,
The few survivors forced to watch as every field
Around Jerusalem was plowed with salt,
Then brought to Rome in chains, for all I knew to build
This very chronicle of their defeat.
Still, if you take the long view, here I am
And Titus isn’t anywhere in sight.
Besides, I’d hate to sacrifice a ram
Or whatever’s required—bullock, turtledove—
I much prefer the chance to chant a psalm
When I need a quick, relatively foolproof, salve
Or have managed to entangle myself yet again
In a muddle only God would ever forgive.
(Like this breeziness about the Temple’s destruction,
This complete inability to feel its loss,
Not to mention my ridiculous and total passion
For Piero’s Legend of the True Cross,
The way Jerusalem is most alive to me
When it looks just like Arezzo in his frescoes.)
It’s not a matter of faith—though it should be—
But the chance to infiltrate with my own voice
All that unadulterated majesty.
Don’t be too shocked, I’m often blasphemous;
It’s a deal I have with God; at least I pray.
Though He may have a plan—I’m not impervious—
In which I’m expected to wake up one day,
Go to synagogue, recite the psalms,
And convince myself with every word I say.
Beggars can’t be choosers; these are godless times;
Let Him hold on to His illusions.
Besides, maybe I do have a few qualms
About my persistent heretical allusions
To Someone who is—after all—a Deity. . . .
You’ll find I’m a jumble of confusions.
Besides, I’m not sure God much cares for piety;
My guess is—since David was His favorite—
That He’s partial to passion, spontaneity,
And likes a little genuine regret.
True, David lost his ill-begotten child—
But what did the pious ever get?
Unless you buy that dictum in the Talmud
That the reward for the commandment is the commandment—
In which case, nothing’s ever withheld,
But that may not be what the rabbis meant.
And who am I, at the end of a mangled century,
To talk about God, reward, and punishment?
Especially from this vantage point, in Italy—
And that’s where we are, gaping, in Arezzo—
Though there are lots of places we could be:
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, the piazza
Where they rounded up the Jews to ship them east . . .
Or reading some well-known facts about matzoh
In a just-published newspaper in Bucharest
(How it must contain the blood of Christian children);
Or even at a swim meet, as Europe’s finest
Actually do a synchronized routine
About the Nazis and the Jews and win the cup.
Why not Ostia Antica, in the ruin
Of the oldest known synagogue in Europe?
Go yourself, take the Rome Metro, Linea B;
Otherwise, you’ll think I’m making this up.
They found it building a road in 1960.
At first it looks like any Roman basilica:
Columns with ornate capitals, a stairway,
And then you notice bits of Judaica
On some of the columns—lulav, etrog, shofar—
And, after a while, looking down, the swastika
Patterned in the black-and-white mosaic floor—
I know, I know, it was an obvious design:
Bold, easy to lay out; you see it everywhere—
But to me, it’s a harrowing premonition:
We should never have set foot on such a continent;
How could we have failed to see this omen,
Which, even in retrospect, will not look innocent
Of what it would inevitably mean?
As if no Jewish building on the continent—
Not even under layers of earth—escaped that sign,
But, still, it’s third century (let’s call it C.E.
Since my Lord is, after all, an older one)
And there—carved in the marble, for all to see—
Are a few of my most beloved eccentricities:
The shofar, with its desperate cacophony,
And the etrog and lulav—pure frivolities
Of gathered citron, willow, myrtle, palm,
Shaken in the air to jumbled melodies
Of a congregation belting out a psalm,
Then circling the room chanting hosanna.
Call it piety. Call it delirium—
Citron, willow, myrtle, palm, hosanna—
No one’s even certain what they mean,
Unless it’s sheer loveliness, sheer stamina—
Some say the citron’s a heart, the palm branch, spine,
The willow leaf’s two lips, the myrtle, eye
(Does every group of plants concoct a human?)
But this came after the commandment—some rabbi,
Improvising, finding similarities,
But I say God devised it purely whimsically—
(And ye shall take you . . . the fruit of goodly trees,
Branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick
Trees and willows of the brook), merely to tease
The solemn air in which they were to frolic. . . .
Maybe God prefers synagogues as I do:
Dismantled, as in Ostia, bucolic,
A few columns and mosaics in a meadow,
The grass and weeds so high you think you’re lost.
He can slip out, that way, incommunicado;
One day in seven isn’t enough rest.
Not that I claim to understand His ways—
I’d fail, if He put me to a test
Of anything but willingness to praise—
But still, I would think the UJA
Or World Jewish Congress would be able to raise
Enough funds to pave a little pathway
From the rest of Ostia Antica to the synagogue. . . .
For older people, for instance, it’s a long way
(Since, as usual, the local Roman demagogue
Banned synagogues within the city wall)
And some of them might be cheered to see an etrog,
A lulav, a shofar on an ancient capital,
The way, when I’m standing on the bimah,
Chanting ancient columns from a scroll
And come to, say, They called the place Be’er Sheva
And so we call it to this very day,
I feel a kind of wild reverse amnesia,
Having forgotten—and suddenly remembered—all eternity,
Proof, beneath my narrow silver pointer,
That there will be no end to this very day. . . .
But I’m forgetting the swastikas on the floor,
The distance from town, the torture of the Jew,
The roundup in Florence, the Judean war,
Who Italy’s allies were in World War II
Before their final-hour about-face,
How—if you make your way to Urbino,
To enter the double turrets of the palace
That looks like something Piero once dreamed up
To house his enigmatic masterpiece
(The Flagellation, the reason for your trip)—
You will also have to forget the Paolo Uccello.
Or walk right by it. Don’t even stop.
Don’t let the helpful guide attempt to show
The beauty of its composition, frame by frame,
How the tiny golden circle that appears to glow
Between the stately woman’s finger and thumb
Is the sacred host—stolen from the altar—
Purchased by a Jew for a hefty sum;
How the red stream, in the next frame, on the floor
Is blood from the host burning in his fireplace
As soldiers with spears and axes throng his door.
One child sobs, one grabs his mother’s dress;
The blood has seeped outside, through stone and mortar
And into the next frame’s version of the stateliness
Of a clerical procession to the altar:
Incense. Psalter. Cross. The Host Returned.
Next, the woman, out in a field somewhere,
Is met by an angel and . . . what? forgiven? warned?
Before the soldiers hang her from a tree. . . .
Then the Jew, with wife and children, is burned;
The flames near one child’s head, the other’s knee
(All four are tied together to the stake).
But we don’t see the Christian woman die;
In the final frame she’s on a catafalque,
A pair of devils grabbing at her feet
For what the angels, at her head, will not forsake
Without at least putting up a fight.
(My money’s on the angels, but it’s close.)
The guide calls it Uccello’s greatest insight
To leave us with something so ambiguous—
A spiritual struggle . . . iniquity.
You see, I didn’t heed my own advice;
I actually asked the guide to tell the story,
And a crowd gathered round to listen in.
No one blinked an eyelash but me. . . .
Perhaps they didn’t notice the children
Burning, in that fifth frame, at the stake. . . .
It is, after all, a nighttime scene;
The Jew is wearing red, the children, black.
Besides, in Europe, burning Jewish children
Aren’t all that difficult to overlook,
What with the complex struggle over sin
And so much never-ending beauty—
And even I, who see them, still take in
The two Pieros, the Raphael, the ideal city
Which unreal Urbino still resembles. . . .
Is there anything more despicable than ambiguity?
How could I not have left the palace in shambles?
Or, at least, burned the painting publicly?
I’m not interested in symbols
With two breathing boys right in front of me
Burning with their parents on a palace wall
For anyone who comes along to see
Or, rather, not see—since they’re invisible
To all but specially trained eyes.
Tie a rope around me. Throw me in a well;
I’m sick of this unnatural disguise.
Sick of turning away. Sick of everything.
I need—as in Arezzo—to close my eyes,
To stop these flames and likenesses from spinning
From the painted to the identical real landscape,
But it’s worse with my eyes closed; now they’re careening
Around my tight-shut eyelids’ burning map—
That red you get when you shut your eyes in sunlight
Consuming the entire extent of Europe—
A continent notoriously profligate
Of knees, heads, fingers, elbows, thighs.
Wasn’t this Uccello’s greatest insight:
That if you gradually habituate the eyes
They will be capable of watching anything?
I wonder if this came to God as a surprise.
Could He actually have known about this failing
And still gone ahead with our creation?
You can’t, after all, have everything;
We’re pretty good at visual representation,
Not to mention all those people who could sing
And care for sheep while arguing with a vision. . . .
He’s certainly done His share of watching
And nonetheless managed to survive.
Unless He hasn’t. But I’m not touching
That one. Besides, when you work out how to live
Your one puny life on this unnerving earth,
It’s so much more appealing to believe
In some strategic artistry, some worth,
As if bitterness were a fleeting misconception.
I do have a fondness for the truth
ut am willing to make, in this case, an exception,
Which has been, more or less, my people’s way.
We’ve learned to be remarkable at self-deception
What with the Messiah’s long delay. . . .
Just look at the Jew in the fresco in Arezzo,
Why have I avoided him until today?
Clearly he’s faking it—the first Marrano
(According to the legend he’s accepting Jesus)—
That’s not how rapture looks to Piero;
The over-the-top bliss is preposterous.
The Jew was probably desperate to get dry. . . .
He hasn’t got a clue about the location of the cross;
He can’t even manage his own inventory.
Where’s his holy ark? his candelabrum?
Why are these bits of ash dredging the sky?
Where’s his citron, willow, myrtle, palm?
What’s that splinter in his upturned eye?