Robert Pinsky |
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.
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.
The little rabbi called for hundreds of candles
And danced around the body, chanting and praying
In Hebrew, then Yiddish, then Aramaic.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Ogden Nash |
This is a song to celebrate banks,
Because they are full of money and you go into them and all
you hear is clinks and clanks,
Or maybe a sound like the wind in the trees on the hills,
Which is the rustling of the thousand dollar bills.
Most bankers dwell in marble halls,
Which they get to dwell in because they encourage deposits
and discourage withdrawals,
And particularly because they all observe one rule which woe
betides the banker who fails to heed it,
Which is you must never lend any money to anybody unless
they don't need it.
I know you, you cautious conservative banks!
If people are worried about their rent it is your duty to deny
them the loan of one nickel, yes, even one copper engraving
of the martyred son of the late Nancy Hanks;
Yes, if they request fifty dollars to pay for a baby you must
look at them like Tarzan looking at an uppity ape in the
And tell them what do they think a bank is, anyhow, they had
better go get the money from their wife's aunt or ungle.
But suppose people come in and they have a million and they
want another million to pile on top of it,
Why, you brim with the milk of human kindness and you
urge them to accept every drop of it,
And you lend them the million so then they have two million
and this gives them the idea that they would be better off
So they already have two million as security so you have no
hesitation in lending them two more,
And all the vice-presidents nod their heads in rhythm,
And the only question asked is do the borrowers want the
money sent or do they want to take it withm.
Because I think they deserve our appreciation and thanks,
the jackasses who go around saying that health and happi-
ness are everything and money isn't essential,
Because as soon as they have to borrow some unimportant
money to maintain their health and happiness they starve
to death so they can't go around any more sneering at good
old money, which is nothing short of providential.
Erin Belieu |
Ferdinand was systematic when
he drove his daughter mad.
With a Casanova's careful art,
he moved slowly,
stole only one child at a time
through tunnels specially dug
behind the walls of her royal
chamber, then paid the Duenna
well to remember nothing
but his appreciation.
Imagine how quietly
the servants must have worked,
loosening the dirt, the muffled
ring of pick-ends against
the castle stone.
one eye gauging the drugged girl's
sleep, each night handing over
another light parcel, another
small body vanished
through the mouth of a hole.
Once you were a daughter, too,
then a wife and now the mother
of a baby with a Spanish name.
Paloma, you call her, little dove;
she sleeps in a room beyond you.
Your husband, too, works late,
drinks too much at night, comes
home lit, wanting sex and dinner.
You feign sleep, shrunk
in the corner of the queen-sized bed.
You've confessed, you can't feel things
when they touch you;
take Prozac for depression, Ativan
for the buzz.
Drunk, you call your father
who doesn't want to claim
He says he never loved your mother.
No one remembers Juana; almost
everything's forgotten in time,
and if I tell her story,
it's only when guessing
what she loved, what she dreamed
about, the lost details of a life
that barely survives history.
God and Latin, I suppose, what she loved.
And dreams of mice pouring out
from a hole.
The Duenna, in spite
of her black, widow's veil, leaning
to kiss her, saying Juana, don't listen.
Paul Laurence Dunbar |
My muvver's ist the nicest one
'At ever lived wiz folks;
She lets you have ze mostes' fun,
An' laffs at all your jokes.
I got a ol' maid auntie, too,
The worst you ever saw;
Her eyes ist bore you through and through,—
She ain't a bit like ma.
She's ist as slim, as slim can be,
An' when you want to slide
Down on ze balusters, w'y she
Says 'at she's harrified.
She ain't as nice as Uncle Ben,
What says 'at little boys
Won't never grow to be big men
Unless they're fond of noise.
But muvver's nicer zan 'em all,
She calls you, "precious lamb,"
An' let's you roll your ten-pin ball,
An' spreads your bread wiz jam.
An' when you're bad, she ist looks sad,
You fink she's goin' to cry;
An' when she don't you're awful glad,
[Pg 248]An' den you're good, Oh, my!
At night, she takes ze softest hand,
An' lays it on your head,
An' says "Be off to Sleepy-Land
By way o' trundle-bed."
So when you fink what muvver knows
An' aunts an' uncle tan't,
It skeers a feller; ist suppose
His muvver 'd been a aunt.
Joyce Kilmer |
When I am tired of earnest men,
Intense and keen and sharp and clever,
Pursuing fame with brush or pen
Or counting metal disks forever,
Then from the halls of Shadowland
Beyond the trackless purple sea
Old Martin's ghost comes back to stand
Beside my desk and talk to me.
Still on his delicate pale face
A quizzical thin smile is showing,
His cheeks are wrinkled like fine lace,
His kind blue eyes are gay and glowing.
He wears a brilliant-hued cravat,
A suit to match his soft grey hair,
A rakish stick, a knowing hat,
A manner blithe and debonair.
How good that he who always knew
That being lovely was a duty,
Should have gold halls to wander through
And should himself inhabit beauty.
How like his old unselfish way
To leave those halls of splendid mirth
And comfort those condemned to stay
Upon the dull and sombre earth.
Some people ask: "What cruel chance
Made Martin's life so sad a story?"
Martin? Why, he exhaled romance,
And wore an overcoat of glory.
A fleck of sunlight in the street,
A horse, a book, a girl who smiled,
Such visions made each moment sweet
For this receptive ancient child.
Because it was old Martin's lot
To be, not make, a decoration,
Shall we then scorn him, having not
His genius of appreciation?
Rich joy and love he got and gave;
His heart was merry as his dress;
Pile laurel wreaths upon his grave
Who did not gain, but was, success!