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Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

A Little History

 Some people find out they are Jews.
They can't believe it.
Thy had always hated Jews.
As children they had roamed in gangs on winter nights in the old neighborhood, looking for Jews.
They were not Jewish, they were Irish.
They brandished broken bottles, tough guys with blood on their lips, looking for Jews.
They intercepted Jewish boys walking alone and beat them up.
Sometimes they were content to chase a Jew and he could elude them by running away.
They were happy just to see him run away.
The coward! All Jews were yellow.
They spelled Jew with a small j jew.
And now they find out they are Jews themselves.
It happened at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
To escape persecution, they pretended to convert to Christianity.
They came to this country and settled in the Southwest.
At some point oral tradition failed the family, and their secret faith died.
No one would ever have known if not for the bones that turned up on the dig.
A disaster.
How could it have happened to them? They are in a state of panic--at first.
Then they realize that it is the answer to their prayers.
They hasten to the synagogue or build new ones.
They are Jews at last! They are free to marry other Jews, and divorce them, and intermarry with Gentiles, God forbid.
They are model citizens, clever and thrifty.
They debate the issues.
They fire off earnest letters to the editor.
They vote.
They are resented for being clever and thrifty.
They buy houses in the suburbs and agree not to talk so loud.
They look like everyone else, drive the same cars as everyone else, yet in their hearts they know they're different.
In every minyan there are always two or three, hated by the others, who give life to one ugly stereotype or another: The grasping Jew with the hooked nose or the Ivy League Bolshevik who thinks he is the agent of world history.
But most of them are neither ostentatiously pious nor excessively avaricious.
How I envy them! They believe.
How I envy them their annual family reunion on Passover, anniversary of the Exodus, when all the uncles and aunts and cousins get together.
They wonder about the heritage of Judaism they are passing along to their children.
Have they done as much as they could to keep the old embers burning? Others lead more dramatic lives.
A few go to Israel.
One of them calls Israel "the ultimate concentration camp.
" He tells Jewish jokes.
On the plane he gets tipsy, tries to seduce the stewardess.
People in the Midwest keep telling him reminds them of Woody Allen.
He wonders what that means.
I'm funny? A sort of nervous intellectual type from New York? A Jew? Around this time somebody accuses him of not being Jewish enough.
It is said by resentful colleagues that his parents changed their name from something that sounded more Jewish.
Everything he publishes is scrutinized with reference to "the Jewish question.
" It is no longer clear what is meant by that phrase.
He has already forgotten all the Yiddish he used to know, and the people of that era are dying out one after another.
The number of witnesses keeps diminishing.
Soon there will be no one left to remind the others and their children.
That is why he came to this dry place where the bones have come to life.
To live in a state of perpetual war puts a tremendous burden on the population.
As a visitor he felt he had to share that burden.
With his gift for codes and ciphers, he joined the counter- terrorism unit of army intelligence.
Contrary to what the spook novels say, he found it possible to avoid betraying either his country or his lover.
This was the life: strange bedrooms, the perfume of other men's wives.
As a spy he has a unique mission: to get his name on the front page of the nation's newspaper of record.
Only by doing that would he get the message through to his immediate superior.
If he goes to jail, he will do so proudly; if they're going to hang him anyway, he'll do something worth hanging for.
In time he may get used to being the center of attention, but this was incredible: To talk his way into being the chief suspect in the most flamboyant murder case in years! And he was innocent! He could prove it! And what a book he would write when they free him from this prison: A novel, obliquely autobiographical, set in Vienna in the twilight of the Hapsburg Empire, in the year that his mother was born.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

December 25

 Christmas defeated Chanukah
once again last night
by a margin of three billion dollars
or so, but every time I hear
a Yiddish word like bupkes
in a movie (L.
A.
Confidential) or when Oleg Cassini in that new play Jackie calls a garment a shmatta, it's "good for the Jews," as our parents used to say.
Meanwhile some things have stayed the same; the drunken lout in the street is still somebody's father.
Hey, kid, how does it feel to have a pop that's a flop? And we had such good ideas for changing the mental universe, if only as a project in philosophy class, the one I still dream about failing when I have that dream everybody has, of being back in college and needing this one course to graduate, which I forgot to attend
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

A Quick One Before I Go

 There comes a time in every man's life 
when he thinks: I have never had a single 
original thought in my life 
including this one & therefore I shall 
eliminate all ideas from my poems 
which shall consist of cats, rice, rain 
baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants 
red brick houses where I shall give up booze 
and organized religion even if it means 
despair is a logical possibility that can't 
be disproved I shall concentrate on the five 
senses and what they half perceive and half 
create, the green street signs with white 
letters on them the body next to mine 
asleep while I think these thoughts 
that I want to eliminate like nostalgia
0 was there ever a man who felt as I do 
like a pronoun out of step with all the other 
floating signifiers no things but in words 
an orange T-shirt a lime green awning
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

November 6

 Remember when Khrushchev said
"We will bury you!"
on the cover
of Time
I thought he was
employing a metaphor
as in "Braves Scalp Giants!"
on the back page
of the Daily News
I pictured the Russians
burying us under a mound
of all the rubble
that rubles could buy
when what he meant was
he had come not to praise Caesar
but to bury him
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

Operation Memory

 We were smoking some of this knockout weed when
Operation Memory was announced.
To his separate bed Each soldier went, counting backwards from a hundred With a needle in his arm.
And there I was, in the middle Of a recession, in the middle of a strange city, between jobs And apartments and wives.
Nobody told me the gun was loaded.
We'd been drinking since early afternoon.
I was loaded.
The doctor made me recite my name, rank, and serial number when I woke up, sweating, in my civvies.
All my friends had jobs As professional liars, and most had partners who were good in bed.
What did I have? Just this feeling of always being in the middle Of things, and the luck of looking younger than fifty.
At dawn I returned to draft headquarters.
I was eighteen And counting backwards.
The interviewer asked one loaded Question after another, such as why I often read the middle Of novels, ignoring their beginnings and their ends.
when Had I decided to volunteer for intelligence work? "In bed With a broad," I answered, with locker-room bravado.
The truth was, jobs Were scarce, and working on Operation Memory was better than no job At all.
Unamused, the judge looked at his watch.
It was 1970 By the time he spoke.
Recommending clemency, he ordered me to go to bed At noon and practice my disappearing act.
Someone must have loaded The harmless gun on the wall in Act I when I was asleep.
And there I was, without an alibi, in the middle Of a journey down nameless, snow-covered streets, in the middle Of a mystery--or a muddle.
These were the jobs That saved men's souls, or so I was told, but when The orphans assembled for their annual reunion, ten Years later, on the playing fields of Eton, each unloaded A kit bag full of troubles, and smiled bravely, and went to bed.
Thanks to Operation Memory, each of us woke up in a different bed Or coffin, with a different partner beside him, in the middle Of a war that had never been declared.
No one had time to load His weapon or see to any of the dozen essential jobs Preceding combat duty.
And there I was, dodging bullets, merely one In a million whose lucky number had come up.
When It happened, I was asleep in bed, and when I woke up, It was over: I was 38, on the brink of middle age, A succession of stupid jobs behind me, a loaded gun on my lap.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

The Gift

 "He gave her class.
She gave him sex.
" -- Katharine Hepburn on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers He gave her money.
She gave him head.
He gave her tips on "aggressive growth" mutual funds.
She gave him a red rose and a little statue of eros.
He gave her Genesis 2 (21-23).
She gave him Genesis 1 (26-28).
He gave her a square peg.
She gave him a round hole.
He gave her Long Beach on a late Sunday in September.
She gave him zinnias and cosmos in the plenitude of July.
He gave her a camisole and a brooch.
She gave him a cover and a break.
He gave her Venice, Florida.
She gave him Rome, New York.
He gave her a false sense of security.
She gave him a true sense of uncertainty.
He gave her the finger.
She gave him what for.
He gave her a black eye.
She gave him a divorce.
He gave her a steak for her black eye.
She gave him his money back.
He gave her what she had never had before.
She gave him what he had had and lost.
He gave her nastiness in children.
She gave him prudery in adults.
He gave her Panic Hill.
She gave him Mirror Lake.
He gave her an anthology of drum solos.
She gave him the rattle of leaves in the wind.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

Tenth Commandment

 The woman said yes she would go to Australia with him
Unless he heard wrong and she said Argentina
Where they could learn the tango and pursue the widows
Of Nazi war criminals unrepentant to the end.
But no, she said Australia.
She'd been born in New Zealand.
The difference between the two places was the difference Between a hamburger and a chocolate malted, she said.
In the candy store across from the elementary school, They planned their tryst.
She said Australia, which meant She was willing to go to bed with him, and this Was before her husband's coronary At a time when a woman didn't take off her underpants If she didn't like you.
She said Australia, And he saw last summer's seashell collection In a plastic bag on a shelf in the mud room With last summer's sand.
The cycle of sexual captivity Beginning in romance and ending in adultery Was now in the late middle phases, the way America Had gone from barbarism to amnesia without A period of high decadence, which meant something, But what? A raft on the rapids? The violinist At the gate? Oh, absolute is the law of biology.
For the pornography seminar, what should she wear?
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

Twelfth Night

 His first infidelity was a mistake, but not as big
As her false pregnancy.
Later, the boy found out He was born three months earlier than the date On his birth certificate, which had turned into A marriage license in his hands.
Had he been trapped In a net, like a moth mistaken for a butterfly? And why did she--what was in it for her? It took him all this time to figure it out.
The barroom boast, "I never had to pay for it," Is bogus if marriage is a religious institution On the operating model of a nineteenth-century factory.
On the other hand, women's lot was no worse then Than it is now.
The division of labor made sense In theories developed by college boys in jeans Who grasped the logic their fathers had used To seduce women and deceive themselves.
The pattern repeats itself, the same events In a different order obeying the conventions of A popular genre.
Winter on a desolate beach.
Spring While there's snow still on the balcony and, In the window, a plane flies over the warehouse.
The panic is gone.
But the pain remains.
And the apple, The knife, and the honey are months away.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

Shake The Superflux!

 I like walking on streets as black and wet as this one
now, at two in the solemnly musical morning, when everyone else
in this town emptied of Lestrygonians and Lotus-eaters
is asleep or trying or worrying why
they aren't asleep, while unknown to them Ulysses walks
into the shabby apartment I live in, humming and feeling
happy with the avant-garde weather we're having,
the winds (a fugue for flute and oboe) pouring
into the windows which I left open although
I live on the ground floor and there have been
two burglaries on my block already this week,
do I quickly take a look to see
if the valuables are missing? No, that is I can't,
it's an epistemological quandary: what I consider
valuable, would they? Who are they, anyway? I'd answer that
with speculations based on newspaper accounts if I were
Donald E.
Westlake, whose novels I'm hooked on, but this first cigarette after twenty-four hours of abstinence tastes so good it makes me want to include it in my catalogue of pleasures designed to hide the ugliness or sweep it away the way the violent overflow of rain over cliffs cleans the sewers and drains of Ithaca whose waterfalls head my list, followed by crudites of carrots and beets, roots and all, with rained-on radishes, too beautiful to eat, and the pure pleasure of talking, talking and not knowing where the talk will lead, but willing to take my chances.
Furthermore I shall enumerate some varieties of tulips (Bacchus, Tantalus, Dardanelles) and other flowers with names that have a life of their own (Love Lies Bleeding, Dwarf Blue Bedding, Burning Bush, Torch Lily, Narcissus).
Mostly, as I've implied, it's the names of things that count; still, sometimes I wonder and, wondering, find the path of least resistance, the earth's orbit around the sun's delirious clarity.
Once you sniff the aphrodisiac of disaster, you know: there's no reason for the anxiety--or for expecting to be free of it; try telling Franz Kafka he has no reason to feel guilty; or so I say to well-meaning mongers of common sense.
They way I figure, you start with the names which are keys and then you throw them away and learn to love the locked rooms, with or without corpses inside, riddles to unravel, emptiness to possess, a woman to wake up with a kiss (who is she? no one knows) who begs your forgiveness (for what? you cannot know) and then, in the authoritative tone of one who has weathered the storm of his exile, orders you to put up your hands and beg the rain to continue as if it were in your power.
And it is, I feel it with each drop.
I am standing outside at the window, looking in on myself writing these words, feeling what wretches feel, just as the doctor ordered.
And that's what I plan to do, what the storm I was caught in reminded me to do, to shake the superflux, distribute my appetite, fast without so much as a glass of water, and love each bite I haven't taken.
I shall become the romantic poet whose coat of many colors smeared with blood, like a butcher's apron, left in the sacred pit or brought back to my father to confirm my death, confirms my new life instead, an alien prince of dungeons and dreams who sheds the disguise people recognize him by to reveal himself to his true brothers at last in the silence that stuns before joy descends, like rain.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

When A Woman Loves A Man

 When she says Margarita she means Daiquiri.
When she says quixotic she means mercurial.
And when she says, "I'll never speak to you again," she means, "Put your arms around me from behind as I stand disconsolate at the window.
" He's supposed to know that.
When a man loves a woman he is in New York and she is in Virginia or he is in Boston, writing, and she is in New York, reading, or she is wearing a sweater and sunglasses in Balboa Park and he is raking leaves in Ithaca or he is driving to East Hampton and she is standing disconsolate at the window overlooking the bay where a regatta of many-colored sails is going on while he is stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
When a woman loves a man it is one-ten in the morning, she is asleep he is watching the ball scores and eating pretzels drinking lemonade and two hours later he wakes up and staggers into bed where she remains asleep and very warm.
When she says tomorrow she means in three or four weeks.
When she says, "We're talking about me now," he stops talking.
Her best friend comes over and says, "Did somebody die?" When a woman loves a man, they have gone to swim naked in the stream on a glorious July day with the sound of the waterfall like a chuckle of water ruching over smooth rocks, and there is nothing alien in the universe.
Ripe apples fall about them.
What else can they do but eat? When he says, "Ours is a transitional era.
" "That's very original of you," she replies, dry as the Martini he is sipping.
They fight all the time It's fun What do I owe you? Let's start with an apology Ok, I'm sorry, you dickhead.
A sign is held up saying "Laughter.
" It's a silent picture.
"I've been fucked without a kiss," she says, "and you can quote me on that," which sounds great in an English accent.
One year they broke up seven times and threatened to do it another nine times.
When a woman loves a man, she wants him to meet her at the airport in a foreign country with a jeep.
When a man loves a woman he's there.
He doesn't complain that she's two hours late and there's nothing in the refrigerator.
When a woman loves a man, she wants to stay awake.
She's like a child crying at nightfall because she didn't want the day to end.
When a man loves a woman, he watches her sleep, thinking: as midnight to the moon is sleep to the beloved.
A thousand fireflies wink at him.
The frogs sound like the string section of the orchestra warming up.
The stars dangle down like earrings the shape of grapes.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

Wittgensteins Ladder

 "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: 
 anyone who understands them eventually recognizes them as 
 nonsensical, when he has used them -- as steps -- to climb 
 up beyond them.
(He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.
)" -- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus 1.
The first time I met Wittgenstein, I was late.
"The traffic was murder," I explained.
He spent the next forty-five minutes analyzing this sentence.
Then he was silent.
I wondered why he had chosen a water tower for our meeting.
I also wondered how I would leave, since the ladder I had used to climb up here had fallen to the ground.
2.
Wittgenstein served as a machine-gunner in the Austrian Army in World War I.
Before the war he studied logic in Cambridge with Bertrand Russell.
Having inherited his father's fortune (iron and steel), he gave away his money, not to the poor, whom it would corrupt, but to relations so rich it would not thus affect them.
3.
On leave in Vienna in August 1918 he assembled his notebook entries into the Tractatus, Since it provided the definitive solution to all the problems of philosophy, he decided to broaden his interests.
He became a schoolteacher, then a gardener's assistant at a monastery near Vienna.
He dabbled in architecture.
4.
He returned to Cambridge in 1929, receiving his doctorate for the Tractatus, "a work of genius," in G.
E.
Moore's opinion.
Starting in 1930 he gave a weekly lecture and led a weekly discussion group.
He spoke without notes amid long periods of silence.
Afterwards, exhausted, he went to the movies and sat in the front row.
He liked Carmen Miranda.
5.
He would visit Russell's rooms at midnight and pace back and forth "like a caged tiger.
On arrival, he would announce that when he left he would commit suicide.
So, in spite of getting sleepy, I did not like to turn him out.
" On such a night, after hours of dead silence, Russell said, "Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or about yours sins?" "Both," he said, and resumed his silence.
6.
Philosophy was an activity, not a doctrine.
"Solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism," he wrote.
Dozens of dons wondered what he meant.
Asked how he knew that "this color is red," he smiled and said, "because I have learnt English.
" There were no other questions.
Wittgenstein let the silence gather.
Then he said, "this itself is the answer.
" 7.
Religion went beyond the boundaries of language, yet the impulse to run against "the walls of our cage," though "perfectly, absolutely useless," was not to be dismissed.
A.
J.
Ayer, one of Oxford's ablest minds, was puzzled.
If logic cannot prove a nonsensical conclusion, why didn't Wittgenstein abandon it, "along with the rest of metaphysics, as not worth serious attention, except perhaps for sociologists"? 8.
Because God does not reveal himself in this world, and "the value of this work," Wittgenstein wrote, "is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.
" When I quoted Gertrude Stein's line about Oakland, "there's no there there," he nodded.
Was there a there, I persisted.
His answer: Yes and No.
It was as impossible to feel another's person's pain as to suffer another person's toothache.
9.
At Cambridge the dons quoted him reverently.
I asked them what they thought was his biggest contribution to philosophy.
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," one said.
Others spoke of his conception of important nonsense.
But I liked best the answer John Wisdom gave: "His asking of the question `Can one play chess without the queen?'" 10.
Wittgenstein preferred American detective stories to British philosophy.
He liked lunch and didn't care what it was, "so long as it was always the same," noted Professor Malcolm of Cornell, a former student, in whose house in Ithaca Wittgenstein spent hours doing handyman chores.
He was happy then.
There was no need to say a word.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

Sestina

 for Jim Cummins 

In Iowa, Jim dreamed that Della Street was Anne Sexton's
twin.
Dave drew a comic strip called the "Adventures of Whitman," about a bearded beer-guzzler in Superman uniform.
Donna dressed like Wallace Stevens in a seersucker summer suit.
To town came Ted Berrigan, saying, "My idea of a bad poet is Marvin Bell.
" But no one has won as many prizes as Philip Levine.
At the restaurant, people were talking about Philip Levine's latest: the Pulitzer.
A toast was proposed by Anne Sexton.
No one saw the stranger, who said his name was Marvin Bell, pour something into Donna's drink.
"In the Walt Whitman Shopping Center, there you feel free," said Ted Berrigan, pulling on a Chesterfield.
Everyone laughed, except T.
S.
Eliot.
I asked for directions.
"You turn right on Gertrude Stein, then bear left.
Three streetlights down you hang a Phil Levine and you're there," Jim said.
When I arrived I saw Ted Berrigan with cigarette ash in his beard.
Graffiti about Anne Sexton decorated the men's room walls.
Beth had bought a quart of Walt Whitman.
Donna looked blank.
"Walt who?" The name didn't ring a Marvin Bell.
You laugh, yet there is nothing inherently funny about Marvin Bell.
You cry, yet there is nothing inherently scary about Robert Lowell.
You drink a bottle of Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale, as thirsty as Walt Whitman.
You bring in your car for an oil change, thinking, this place has the aura of Philip Levine.
Then you go home and write: "He kissed her Anne Sexton, and she returned the favor, caressing his Ted Berrigan.
" Donna was candid.
"When the spirit of Ted Berrigan comes over me, I can't resist," she told Marvin Bell, while he stood dejected at the xerox machine.
Anne Sexton came by to circulate the rumor that Robert Duncan had flung his drink on a student who had called him Philip Levine.
The cop read him the riot act.
"I don't care," he said, "if you're Walt Whitman.
" Donna told Beth about her affair with Walt Whitman.
"He was indefatigable, but he wasn't Ted Berrigan.
" The Dow Jones industrials finished higher, led by Philip Levine, up a point and a half on strong earnings.
Marvin Bell ended the day unchanged.
Analyst Richard Howard recommended buying May Swenson and selling Anne Sexton.
In the old days, you liked either Walt Whitman or Anne Sexton, not both.
Ted Berrigan changed that just by going to a ballgame with Marianne Moore.
And one day Philip Levine looked in the mirror and saw Marvin Bell.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

Eleventh Hour

 The bloom was off the economic recovery.
"I just want to know one thing," she said.
What was that one thing? He'll never know, Because at just that moment he heard the sound Of broken glass in the bathroom, and when he got there, It was dark.
His hand went to the wall But the switch wasn't where it was supposed to be Which felt like déjà vu.
And then she was gone.
And now he knew how it felt to stand On the local platform as the express whizzes by With people chatting in a dialect Of English he couldn't understand, because his English Was current as of 1968 and no one speaks that way except In certain books.
So the hours spent in vain Were minutes blown up into comic-book balloons full Of Keats's odes.
"Goodbye, kid.
" Tears streamed down The boy's face.
It was a great feeling, Like the feeling you get when you throw things away After a funeral: clean and empty in the morning dark.
There was no time for locker-room oratory.
They knew they were facing a do-or-die situation, With their backs to the wall, and no tomorrow.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

Sexism

 The happiest moment in a woman's life
Is when she hears the turn of her lover's key
In the lock, and pretends to be asleep
When he enters the room, trying to be
Quiet but clumsy, bumping into things,
And she can smell the liquor on his breath
But forgives him because she has him back
And doesn't have to sleep alone.
The happiest moment is a man's life Is when he climbs out of bed With a woman, after an hour's sleep, After making love, and pulls on His trousers, and walks outside, And pees in the bushes, and sees The high August sky full of stars And gets in his car and drives home.
Written by David Lehman | Create an image from this poem

October 16

 What can you say about the Mets
down three games to none
one run down with six outs to go
Cedeno singles steals second Mora walks
they pull off a double steal
and Olerud singles them home
off the previously unhittable John Rocker
(look at his eyes, he's so intense
he looks cross-eyed) and we're still alive
and I'm still fourteen years old
and the kids in the movie about summer camp
are beatniks and this is the 1960s
the early 1960s of Maury Wills
on the basepaths and Ray Charles
on the radio and chemistry biology
geometry locker-room cruelty and daily masturbation
what a relief to return to 1999
in time for Benitez to strike out
the Braves' last batter