David Lehman |
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
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.
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 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
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
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
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
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
That is why he came to this dry place where the bones have come
To live in a state of perpetual war puts a tremendous burden on the
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
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.
David Lehman |
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.
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
David Lehman |
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
David Lehman |
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.
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
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.
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.
David Lehman |
"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
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
David Lehman |
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
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.
David Lehman |
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?
David Lehman |
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.
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.
David Lehman |
Remember when Khrushchev said
"We will bury you!"
on the cover
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
David Lehman |
"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
The first time I met Wittgenstein, I was
"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.
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.
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.
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
He became a schoolteacher,
then a gardener's assistant at a monastery
He dabbled in architecture.
He returned to Cambridge in 1929,
receiving his doctorate for the Tractatus,
"a work of genius," in G.
Starting in 1930 he gave a weekly lecture
and led a weekly discussion group.
without notes amid long periods of silence.
Afterwards, exhausted, he went to the movies
and sat in the front row.
He liked Carmen Miranda.
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.
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.
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.
how he knew that "this color is red," he smiled
and said, "because I have learnt English.
were no other questions.
Wittgenstein let the
Then he said, "this itself is the answer.
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
Ayer, one of Oxford's ablest minds,
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"?
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
" 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.
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
But I liked best the answer John
Wisdom gave: "His asking of the question
`Can one play chess without the queen?'"
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
He was happy then.
There was no need to say a word.