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by Robert Pinsky |

Ginza Samba

 A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone
Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinitely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In Sax's Belgian imagination

And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two

Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin's child Becomes a "favorite negro" ennobled By decree of the Czar and founds A great family, a line of generals, Dandies and courtiers including the poet Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning His wife's honor, while the other cousin sails In the belly of a slaveship to the port Of Baltimore where she is raped And dies in childbirth, but the infant Will marry a Seminole and in the next Chorus of time their child fathers A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing His American breath out into the wiggly Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths--the Ginza Samba of breath and brass, the reed Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable Wires and circuits of an ingenious box Here in my room in this house built A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere: It is like falling in love, the atavistic Imperative of some one Voice or face--the skill, the copper filament, The golden bellful of notes twirling through Their invisible element from Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering Speed in the variations as they tunnel The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup And anvil echoing here in the hearkening Instrument of my skull.


by Robert Pinsky |

Poem With Refrains

 The opening scene.
The yellow, coal-fed fog Uncurling over the tainted city river, A young girl rowing and her anxious father Scavenging for corpses.
Funeral meats.
The clever Abandoned orphan.
The great athletic killer Sulking in his tent.
As though all stories began With someone dying.
When her mother died, My mother refused to attend the funeral-- In fact, she sulked in her tent all through the year Of the old lady's dying.
I don't know why: She said, because she loved her mother so much She couldn't bear to see the way the doctors, Or her father, or--someone--was letting her mother die.
"Follow your saint, follow with accents sweet; Haste you, sad notes, fall at her flying feet.
" She fogs things up, she scavenges the taint.
Possibly that's the reason I write these poems.
But they did speak: on the phone.
Wept and argued, So fiercely one or the other often cut off A sentence by hanging up in rage--like lovers, But all that year she never saw her face.
They lived on the same block, four doors apart.
"Absence my presence is; strangeness my grace; With them that walk against me is my sun.
" "Synagogue" is a word I never heard, We called it shul, the Yiddish word for school.
Elms, terra-cotta, the ocean a few blocks east.
"Lay institution": she taught me we didn't think God lived in it.
The rabbi is just a teacher.
But what about the hereditary priests, Descendants of the Cohanes of the Temple, Like Walter Holtz--I called him Uncle Walter, When I was small.
A big man with a face Just like a boxer dog or a cartoon sergeant.
She told me whenever he helped a pretty woman Try on a shoe in his store, he'd touch her calf And ask her, "How does that feel?" I was too little To get the point but pretended to understand.
"Desire, be steady; hope is your delight, An orb wherein no creature can ever be sorry.
" She didn't go to my bar mitzvah, either.
I can't say why: she was there, and then she wasn't.
I looked around before I mounted the steps To chant that babble and the speech the rabbi wrote And there she wasn't, and there was Uncle Walter The Cohane frowning with his doggy face: "She's missing her own son's musaf.
" Maybe she just Doesn't like rituals.
Afterwards, she had a reason I don't remember.
I wasn't upset: the truth Is, I had decided to be the clever orphan Some time before.
By now, it's all a myth.
What is a myth but something that seems to happen Always for the first time over and over again? And ten years later, she missed my brother's, too.
I'm sorry: I think it was something about a hat.
"Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air, Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair; Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me.
" She sees the minister of the Nation of Islam On television, though she's half-blind in one eye.
His bow tie is lime, his jacket crocodile green.
Vigorously he denounces the Jews who traded in slaves, The Jews who run the newspapers and the banks.
"I see what this guy is mad about now," she says, "It must have been some Jew that sold him the suit.
" "And the same wind sang and the same wave whitened, And or ever the garden's last petals were shed, In the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened.
" But when they unveiled her mother's memorial stone, Gathered at the graveside one year after the death, According to custom, while we were standing around About to begin the prayers, her car appeared.
It was a black car; the ground was deep in snow.
My mother got out and walked toward us, across The field of gravestones capped with snow, her coat Black as the car, and they waited to start the prayers Until she arrived.
I think she enjoyed the drama.
I can't remember if she prayed or not, But that may be the way I'll remember her best: Dark figure, awaited, attended, aware, apart.
"The present time upon time passëd striketh; With Phoebus's wandering course the earth is graced.
The air still moves, and by its moving, cleareth; The fire up ascends, and planets feedeth; The water passeth on, and all lets weareth; The earth stands still, yet change of changes breedeth.
"


by Robert Pinsky |

At Pleasure Bay

 In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.
Here under the pines a little off the road In 1927 the Chief of Police And Mrs.
W.
killed themselves together, Sitting in a roadster.
Ancient unshaken pilings And underwater chunks of still-mortared brick In shapes like bits of puzzle strew the bottom Where the landing was for Price's Hotel and Theater.
And here's where boats blew two blasts for the keeper To shunt the iron swing-bridge.
He leaned on the gears Like a skipper in the hut that housed the works And the bridge moaned and turned on its middle pier To let them through.
In the middle of the summer Two or three cars might wait for the iron trusswork Winching aside, with maybe a child to notice A name on the stern in black-and-gold on white, Sandpiper, Patsy Ann, Do Not Disturb, The Idler.
If a boat was running whiskey, The bridge clanged shut behind it as it passed And opened up again for the Coast Guard cutter Slowly as a sundial, and always jammed halfway.
The roadbed whole, but opened like a switch, The river pulling and coursing between the piers.
Never the same phrase twice, the catbird filling The humid August evening near the inlet With borrowed music that he melds and changes.
Dragonflies and sandflies, frogs in the rushes, two bodies Not moving in the open car among the pines, A sliver of story.
The tenor at Price's Hotel, In clown costume, unfurls the sorrow gathered In ruffles at his throat and cuffs, high quavers That hold like splashes of light on the dark water, The aria's closing phrases, changed and fading.
And after a gap of quiet, cheers and applause Audible in the houses across the river, Some in the audience weeping as if they had melted Inside the music.
Never the same.
In Berlin The daughter of an English lord, in love With Adolf Hitler, whom she has met.
She is taking Possession of the apartment of a couple, Elderly well-off Jews.
They survive the war To settle here in the Bay, the old lady Teaches piano, but the whole world swivels And gapes at their feet as the girl and a high-up Nazi Examine the furniture, the glass, the pictures, The elegant story that was theirs and now Is part of hers.
A few months later the English Enter the war and she shoots herself in a park, An addled, upper-class girl, her life that passes Into the lives of others or into a place.
The taking of lives--the Chief and Mrs.
W.
Took theirs to stay together, as local ghosts.
Last flurries of kisses, the revolver's barrel, Shivers of a story that a child might hear And half remember, voices in the rushes, A singing in the willows.
From across the river, Faint quavers of music, the same phrase twice and again, Ranging and building.
Over the high new bridge The flashing of traffic homeward from the racetrack, With one boat chugging under the arches, outward Unnoticed through Pleasure Bay to the open sea.
Here's where the people stood to watch the theater Burn on the water.
All that night the fireboats Kept playing their spouts of water into the blaze.
In the morning, smoking pilasters and beams.
Black smell of char for weeks, the ruin already Soaking back into the river.
After you die You hover near the ceiling above your body And watch the mourners awhile.
A few days more You float above the heads of the ones you knew And watch them through a twilight.
As it grows darker You wander off and find your way to the river And wade across.
On the other side, night air, Willows, the smell of the river, and a mass Of sleeping bodies all along the bank, A kind of singing from among the rushes Calling you further forward in the dark.
You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you And you make love until your soul brims up And burns free out of you and shifts and spills Down over into that other body, and you Forget the life you had and begin again On the same crossing--maybe as a child who passes Through the same place.
But never the same way twice.
Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows, The new café, with a terrace and a landing, Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was-- Here's where you might have slipped across the water When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.


by Robert Pinsky |

The Night Game

 Some of us believe
We would have conceived romantic
Love out of our own passions
With no precedents,
Without songs and poetry--
Or have invented poetry and music
As a comb of cells for the honey.
Shaped by ignorance, A succession of new worlds, Congruities improvised by Immigrants or children.
I once thought most people were Italian, Jewish or Colored.
To be white and called Something like Ed Ford Seemed aristocratic, A rare distinction.
Possibly I believed only gentiles And blonds could be left-handed.
Already famous After one year in the majors, Whitey Ford was drafted by the Army To play ball in the flannels Of the Signal Corps, stationed In Long Branch, New Jersey.
A night game, the silver potion Of the lights, his pink skin Shining like a burn.
Never a player I liked or hated: a Yankee, A mere success.
But white the chalked-off lines In the grass, white and green The immaculate uniform, And white the unpigmented Halo of his hair When he shifted his cap: So ordinary and distinct, So close up, that I felt As if I could have made him up, Imagined him as I imagined The ball, a scintilla High in the black backdrop Of the sky.
Tight red stitches.
Rawlings.
The bleached Horsehide white: the color Of nothing.
Color of the past And of the future, of the movie screen At rest and of blank paper.
"I could have.
" The mind.
The black Backdrop, the white Fly picked out by the towering Lights.
A few years later On a blanket in the grass By the same river A girl and I came into Being together To the faint muttering Of unthinkable Troubadours and radios.
The emerald Theater, the night.
Another time, I devised a left-hander Even more gifted Than Whitey Ford: A Dodger.
People were amazed by him.
Once, when he was young, He refused to pitch on Yom Kippur.


by Robert Pinsky |

Shirt

 The back, the yoke, the yardage.
Lapped seams, The nearly invisible stitches along the collar Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break Or talking money or politics while one fitted This armpiece with its overseam to the band Of cuff I button at my wrist.
The presser, the cutter, The wringer, the mangle.
The needle, the union, The treadle, the bobbin.
The code.
The infamous blaze At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes-- The witness in a building across the street Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step Up to the windowsill, then held her out Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another.
As if he were helping them up To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms Around his neck and kissed him.
Then he held Her into space, and dropped her.
Almost at once He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down, Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers-- Like Hart Crane's Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning.
" Wonderful how the patern matches perfectly Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme Or a major chord.
Prints, plaids, checks, Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras.
The clan tartans Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian, To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor, Bailey, MacMartin.
The kilt, devised for workers to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners.
The loader, The docker, the navvy.
The planter, the picker, the sorter Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields: George Herbert, your descendant is a Black Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma And she inspected my shirt.
Its color and fit And feel and its clean smell have satisfied both her and me.
We have culled its cost and quality Down to the buttons of simulated bone, The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters Printed in black on neckband and tail.
The shape, The label, the labor, the color, the shade.
The shirt.


by Robert Pinsky |

To Television

 Not a "window on the world"
But as we call you,
A box a tube

Terrarium of dreams and wonders.
Coffer of shades, ordained Cotillion of phosphors Or liquid crystal Homey miracle, tub Of acquiescence, vein of defiance.
Your patron in the pantheon would be Hermes Raster dance, Quick one, little thief, escort Of the dying and comfort of the sick, In a blue glow my father and little sister sat Snuggled in one chair watching you Their wife and mother was sick in the head I scorned you and them as I scorned so much Now I like you best in a hotel room, Maybe minutes Before I have to face an audience: behind The doors of the armoire, box Within a box--Tom & Jerry, or also brilliant And reassuring, Oprah Winfrey.
Thank you, for I watched, I watched Sid Caesar speaking French and Japanese not Through knowledge but imagination, His quickness, and Thank You, I watched live Jackie Robinson stealing Home, the image--O strung shell--enduring Fleeter than light like these words we Remember in, they too winged At the helmet and ankles.


by Robert Pinsky |

Ode To Meaning

 Dire one and desired one,
Savior, sentencer--

In an old allegory you would carry
A chained alphabet of tokens:

Ankh Badge Cross.
Dragon, Engraved figure guarding a hallowed intaglio, Jasper kinema of legendary Mind, Naked omphalos pierced By quills of rhyme or sense, torah-like: unborn Vein of will, xenophile Yearning out of Zero.
Untrusting I court you.
Wavering I seek your face, I read That Crusoe's knife Reeked of you, that to defile you The soldier makes the rabbi spit on the torah.
"I'll drown my book" says Shakespeare.
Drowned walker, revenant.
After my mother fell on her head, she became More than ever your sworn enemy.
She spoke Sometimes like a poet or critic of forty years later.
Or she spoke of the world as Thersites spoke of the heroes, "I think they have swallowed one another.
I Would laugh at that miracle.
" You also in the laughter, warrior angel: Your helmet the zodiac, rocket-plumed Your spear the beggar's finger pointing to the mouth Your heel planted on the serpent Formulation Your face a vapor, the wreath of cigarette smoke crowning Bogart as he winces through it.
You not in the words, not even Between the words, but a torsion, A cleavage, a stirring.
You stirring even in the arctic ice, Even at the dark ocean floor, even In the cellular flesh of a stone.
Gas.
Gossamer.
My poker friends Question your presence In a poem by me, passing the magazine One to another.
Not the stone and not the words, you Like a veil over Arthur's headstone, The passage from Proverbs he chose While he was too ill to teach And still well enough to read, I was Beside the master craftsman Delighting him day after day, ever At play in his presence--you A soothing veil of distraction playing over Dying Arthur playing in the hospital, Thumbing the Bible, fuzzy from medication, Ever courting your presence, And you the prognosis, You in the cough.
Gesturer, when is your spur, your cloud? You in the airport rituals of greeting and parting.
Indicter, who is your claimant? Bell at the gate.
Spiderweb iron bridge.
Cloak, video, aroma, rue, what is your Elected silence, where was your seed? What is Imagination But your lost child born to give birth to you? Dire one.
Desired one.
Savior, sentencer-- Absence, Or presence ever at play: Let those scorn you who never Starved in your dearth.
If I Dare to disparage Your harp of shadows I taste Wormwood and motor oil, I pour Ashes on my head.
You are the wound.
You Be the medicine.


by Robert Pinsky |

Impossible To Tell

 to Robert Hass and in memory of Elliot Gilbert


Slow dulcimer, gavotte and bow, in autumn,
Bashõ and his friends go out to view the moon;
In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter,

The secret courtesy that courses like ichor
Through the old form of the rude, full-scale joke,
Impossible to tell in writing.
"Bashõ" He named himself, "Banana Tree": banana After the plant some grateful students gave him, Maybe in appreciation of his guidance Threading a long night through the rules and channels Of their collaborative linking-poem Scored in their teacher's heart: live, rigid, fluid Like passages etched in a microscopic cicuit.
Elliot had in his memory so many jokes They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture Inside his brain, one so much making another It was impossible to tell them all: In the court-culture of jokes, a top banana.
Imagine a court of one: the queen a young mother, Unhappy, alone all day with her firstborn child And her new baby in a squalid apartment Of too few rooms, a different race from her neighbors.
She tells the child she's going to kill herself.
She broods, she rages.
Hoping to distract her, The child cuts capers, he sings, he does imitations Of different people in the building, he jokes, He feels if he keeps her alive until the father Gets home from work, they'll be okay till morning.
It's laughter versus the bedroom and the pills.
What is he in his efforts but a courtier? Impossible to tell his whole delusion.
In the first months when I had moved back East From California and had to leave a message On Bob's machine, I used to make a habit Of telling the tape a joke; and part-way through, I would pretend that I forgot the punchline, Or make believe that I was interrupted-- As though he'd be so eager to hear the end He'd have to call me back.
The joke was Elliot's, More often than not.
The doctors made the blunder That killed him some time later that same year.
One day when I got home I found a message On my machine from Bob.
He had a story About two rabbis, one of them tall, one short, One day while walking along the street together They see the corpse of a Chinese man before them, And Bob said, sorry, he forgot the rest.
Of course he thought that his joke was a dummy, Impossible to tell--a dead-end challenge.
But here it is, as Elliot told it to me: The dead man's widow came to the rabbis weeping, Begging them, if they could, to resurrect him.
Shocked, the tall rabbi said absolutely not.
But the short rabbi told her to bring the body Into the study house, and ordered the shutters Closed so the room was night-dark.
Then he prayed Over the body, chanting a secret blessing Out of Kabala.
"Arise and breathe," he shouted; But nothing happened.
The body lay still.
So then The little rabbi called for hundreds of candles And danced around the body, chanting and praying In Hebrew, then Yiddish, then Aramaic.
He prayed In Turkish and Egyptian and Old Galician For nearly three hours, leaping about the coffin In the candlelight so that his tiny black shoes Seemed not to touch the floor.
With one last prayer Sobbed in the Spanish of before the Inquisition He stopped, exhausted, and looked in the dead man's face.
Panting, he raised both arms in a mystic gesture And said, "Arise and breathe!" And still the body Lay as before.
Impossible to tell In words how Elliot's eyebrows flailed and snorted Like shaggy mammoths as--the Chinese widow Granting permission--the little rabbi sang The blessing for performing a circumcision And removed the dead man's foreskin, chanting blessings In Finnish and Swahili, and bathed the corpse From head to foot, and with a final prayer In Babylonian, gasping with exhaustion, He seized the dead man's head and kissed the lips And dropped it again and leaping back commanded, "Arise and breathe!" The corpse lay still as ever.
At this, as when Bashõ's disciples wind Along the curving spine that links the renga Across the different voices, each one adding A transformation according to the rules Of stasis and repetition, all in order And yet impossible to tell beforehand, Elliot changes for the punchline: the wee Rabbi, still panting, like a startled boxer, Looks at the dead one, then up at all those watching, A kind of Mel Brooks gesture: "Hoo boy!" he says, "Now that's what I call really dead.
" O mortal Powers and princes of earth, and you immortal Lords of the underground and afterlife, Jehovah, Raa, Bol-Morah, Hecate, Pluto, What has a brilliant, living soul to do with Your harps and fires and boats, your bric-a-brac And troughs of smoking blood? Provincial stinkers, Our languages don't touch you, you're like that mother Whose small child entertained her to beg her life.
Possibly he grew up to be the tall rabbi, The one who washed his hands of all those capers Right at the outset.
Or maybe he became The author of these lines, a one-man renga The one for whom it seems to be impossible To tell a story straight.
It was a routine Procedure.
When it was finished the physicians Told Sandra and the kids it had succeeded, But Elliot wouldn't wake up for maybe an hour, They should go eat.
The two of them loved to bicker In a way that on his side went back to Yiddish, On Sandra's to some Sicilian dialect.
He used to scold her endlessly for smoking.
When she got back from dinner with their children The doctors had to tell them about the mistake.
Oh swirling petals, falling leaves! The movement Of linking renga coursing from moment to moment Is meaning, Bob says in his Haiku book.
Oh swirling petals, all living things are contingent, Falling leaves, and transient, and they suffer.
But the Universal is the goal of jokes, Especially certain ethnic jokes, which taper Down through the swirling funnel of tongues and gestures Toward their preposterous Ithaca.
There's one A journalist told me.
He heard it while a hero Of the South African freedom movement was speaking To elderly Jews.
The speaker's own right arm Had been blown off by right-wing letter-bombers.
He told his listeners they had to cast their ballots For the ANC--a group the old Jews feared As "in with the Arabs.
" But they started weeping As the old one-armed fighter told them their country Needed them to vote for what was right, their vote Could make a country their children could return to From London and Chicago.
The moved old people Applauded wildly, and the speaker's friend Whispered to the journalist, "It's the Belgian Army Joke come to life.
" I wish I could tell it To Elliot.
In the Belgian Army, the feud Between the Flemings and Walloons grew vicious, So out of hand the army could barely function.
Finally one commander assembled his men In one great room, to deal with things directly.
They stood before him at attention.
"All Flemings," He ordered, "to the left wall.
" Half the men Clustered to the left.
"Now all Walloons," he ordered, "Move to the right.
" An equal number crowded Against the right wall.
Only one man remained At attention in the middle: "What are you, soldier?" Saluting, the man said, "Sir, I am a Belgian.
" "Why, that's astonishing, Corporal--what's your name?" Saluting again, "Rabinowitz," he answered: A joke that seems at first to be a story About the Jews.
But as the renga describes Religious meaning by moving in drifting petals And brittle leaves that touch and die and suffer The changing winds that riffle the gutter swirl, So in the joke, just under the raucous music Of Fleming, Jew, Walloon, a courtly allegiance Moves to the dulcimer, gavotte and bow, Over the banana tree the moon in autumn-- Allegiance to a state impossible to tell.