(Written May, 1979)
I gobble them up like potato chips --
hard to stop when there are any left.
Nearly midnight -- why did I start?
Those of "me" have an outside I can't get into:
All the people I would show someday --
show WHAT? If that chubby kid
with scruffy hair and fat lips
was me, let HIM show them all.
Strange seeing him, stranger seeing
what he thought he saw.
Nostalgia runs its keen needle
back through the material, looping
and knotting, re-attaching the past;
each time through I have it newly,
There, for example, is Mom,
Freckled, my age now, afraid of
cameras because one eye crosses. I see
that in her story she played a part
quite unlike the supporting role she played
in mine. All I know of her is a few
of her crazinesses and tendernesses and
all her disappointments (etched on my mind
by an acid tongue). I was one of her favorite
disappointments. Being disappointed
was her best way to avoid looking
too closely at what she thought she wanted.
We decide ourselves into corners,
die rather than discover we can change
our minds. The life we dreamed we'd live
gets postponed, jammed into a narrowing
future, screaming at us: When, O when?
But we have a marriage, mortgage, kids,
obligations, mountains of agreement,
impassible, impossible to know just WHAT
we want, so we decide: Somehow something
Will set us free to have what we want,
and we pray for deliverance, which, under
the terms of our prayer, can only
be cancer, a car accident, a stroke...
(We were expecting a fairy godmother,
but our prayers find the paths
of least resistance), so that when
our deliverance comes, we moan:
"O Lord, not me! Why me! How can this be?"
(You can't always get what you want --
unless you want what you want when
you want it.)
You can tell the pictures
of her generation from mine, but,
where once I saw fading brown quaintness,
an antique time like a toy house,
now I see similarities:
My brothers and sisters are alive,
but we are all encased in obsolete decisions
enough to have killed
our childhoods several times over.
There's a baby prototype of one of us
screeching with joy. Does he remember
what that's about? Maybe Daddy at
the camera made googly eyes to fetch
such ecstasy, a bargain at the price.
I could look at these pictures for hours:
Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents,
great grandparents I never met, almost,
on fading prints, trans-parents.
Families are an easy way to cast
your stories. In school someone new
walks up and seems to "loom" -- the
friend for life? The arch enemy?
Or just a walk-on never again to be
seen? You look in vain for the clues:
Lingering camera shots, the swelling
background music, etc. (WILL
time tell?) But with Mama and Papa
there is no doubt! No need a
casting director or audition:
When Mama debuts, stage center,
15 times your size, with huge
gentle hands, that certain something,
and pat answers to everything, you KNOW
this has got to be one of the leads.
When Mama and Papa disappear too soon
like extras, we don't accept it;
We go on quests in search of them
and write symbolic books about it.)
I saw my grandmother earlier tonight,
breathing (in loud sighs) still, but
attenuating, fading, almost to an
old photograph of herself, as if
already as we spoke, I was among
these pictures. She kept saying,
uninflected, broken-record style,
how good it is to be with family
(wasn't I enjoying my visit?).
Later I strolled past our old
neighborhood and noticed where
the elms were no longer. I see that
several lifetimes ago I was me.
Who's that! My God, it's my young,
not-yet mother dolled up like a flapper,
ripe and strutting (1940), twinkling
with the mischief of (only) the pose -- on
the back she scrawled "me!"
In 1970 (sister's wedding) she's in a wheelchair
with a copper wig and eyes crazed
to brightness by the pain pills.
Dad looks ruddy and dignified, mellowed,
shortly before his last stroke. Grandpa
shrivels from picture to picture,
looking more withered and more gentle
(In his stern prime he tossed
hundred-pound sacks of potatoes about
like laughing children), less like
someone's papa and more like someone's
grandpa, suit and tie clumsily
disguising the suspenders, the long
underwear, musky, dark odor, Yiddish
paper dropped in his lap, large, mysterious
erose mole on his shoulder when he'd
let me get in bed beside him, intimate
mountain, and tell me about David and
Goliath or the coat of many colors again.
All of them glassy and transparent towards
the end. You can see through the shiny shell
or chrysalis. (I only hope I'll know how
to fly when I shed this cocoon.)
There's a birthday card, Dad to Mom;
He filled the blank page with doggeral
(Damned tears, hard to read!) about how
it was rough for her and not what he'd
promised, but there was still time,
he's "not licked yet" (Are you now?).
It all rhymes, finally linking "future"
to love being the "suture" that
binds them. Now she's dead (with the
sutures of several operations out-lasting
the tissue they knit) and he's
remarried and dead both, and I've
lost track of them, and I don't know
if they know (or do I but dream that
only bodies die, as moving pictures
flicker out in numbers, then the
reel is changed) that there's still time,
and all promises will be kept. These
pictures all have miles to go before
In the background
bridesmaids, groomsmen and friends of friends
play with the gitchie-goo babies -- and
none of us remember (ever knew?) who they are:
Even here in the heart of things
are bit players, extras, unidentified cameos,
alien faces, stars in their own albums,
cut off in shadows here, cherished there.
There I am, a baby, with a dazzlingly eager
smile. Can I still smile that way? (What
did we do before we had cameras?) More
recently, pictures that still hurt:
my wedding pictures (We took none
of the divorce) (There's the one
of my bride I found, visiting home
after the divorce, still on my mother's
shelf, but turned face down) -- all smiles,
both of us, but it is bare-assed obvious
that I'm glowing all over her like a bear
rooting with his snout in an abandoned
hive full of honey, while she's smiling off
into the middle distance. Why did it
take us four years to understand our own
There's a big Chicago
family picture taken right after
I shamed Mom by putting my hand
like a cup over the top of her head.
(I was a foot taller and directly
behind her. She hated the fact
that she was losing her hair.)
I told myself it was a joke.
(After all, you don't just say
to decent people: "I'm miserable
and bored with you all. You're banal,
unworthy of my profundity, and anyway
none of you grasp my true worth...."
Far better to have a delightful
sense of humor, final solution to the
See the thirty smiling relatives,
Mom, too, trying to smile, as I
wince, eyes squinched shut (or
was it just the flash bulb?)
There go each of my brothers and sisters
through states of beauty and hideousness.
When one begoggled sister looked odd, someone
persuaded her she was ugly, basically,
unalterably ugly, so she wears
her beauty awkwardly, smile
lop-sided, quick to retreat behind
an ironic shrug, a wise-crack. One brother
was so often assured of his cuteness
that he ripples through these pictures
as smoothly as a surfer rides a wave.
All in all a peaceful production -- not
a generation of martyrs and warriors -- yet.
When Hitler came to erase us, we were
three generations away from Vilna.
When nobody is paralyzing us on film,
we say things like, "Wasn't that a good
meal!" and so forth. But among ourselves
we are a clever bunch, more than one's own
family has a right to be. I will show them
this poem. My brothers and sisters are sports:
They think I'm someone special. So do I
(an occupational hazard of being me).
Once we even talked for maybe an
hour without me having to be funny.
In time my long letters get short answers.
The two with children have a wealth
beyond my belief. Four AM and I hear a nephew
whimper "Mom!" weakly. I fill in for Mom
(A poet's day is never done). He'd had a bad
dream--forgot what--fine now (Will he
remember, waking, bearded hulk of uncle
at bedside cautiously treading the
nursury-tiled waters of his dreams?)
Imagine having someone to call you
to take care of their bad dreams.
Their limitless loveableness must mean
we have more love to give than we'd reckoned.
I don't see how they'll ever turn into
us, or are we concealing our own abysses
of loveableness? They have such silky
soft skin with little faint blue veins
over the temples, and their voices
chirp, and their eyes flash and
their logic unravels with the charm
of a kitten in a ball of yarn.
Though they took me briefly away
from the pictures, the children belong
in this poem because they are still being
the pictures they're going to look at.
I suppose someone could click me up
right now -- flash! Poet leans over
kitchen table, writing, 19 May, 1979.
I'll look and say, "Was I that fat already?"
(hoping someone will reply,
"I don't think you're fat.")
I notice that, though since the criminal
day I first looked down upon my tiny,
empty gesticulating body in a match-box
room full of other doll-house bodies,
I have not counted myself among those
eligible for death's benefits, yet it is
of fascination to me that this Dean Blehert
body will, in certain fact, die dead
and rot very much so in a time
like all times, very nowish even,
you could brush your body's teeth
in that time or watch TV, but your body
is busy, bit by bit, becoming
root and slime that will not smile
on command, unphotogenic, over-exposed.
It's not me, but I've grown attached --
No that's the wrong punch line; the point is,
you have your woman, wide open, unashamed,
and there you are, two mother-naked bodies,
all the intimacies you can eat;
see, just bodies, nothing dirty or
mysterious about it -- but still,
the next day you don't go to work
naked, and a lady nursing her baby
on the bus still makes you make yourself
not look too directly, and an X-rated
porno flick is a teensy bit outrageous
at first; you just don't get used to
certain things easily.
is nakedness, and it is strange
to look through these family albums
and see my death, the deaths of my
brothers and sisters and children
yet unborn and your deaths all
so blatently delineated.
You look up
about to say, "Look here, this one
shows the crotch hair and everything --
I didn't think they ever showed that
in TIME Magazine," but the others
are all smirking at someone's old-fashioned
hat, and, decent folk all, no one's
noticed that they're looking at pictures
of their own deaths, and the emperor
ain't got no clothes on, and
I wonder, is it ME reading something
into innocent pictures?
I don't think so;
What else can they be? There's
"me" then and here's "me" now, and
fifty years from now there's "me" here
and here's "me" where?
Well, maybe I'm the sort to undress a woman
with my eyes, then cry "obscene!" (And if
they noticed, they might weep bitterly,
imagining death's strip-tease goes
deeper than we do. Our nakedness
shames even death, out-stripping flesh and bones.)
But it remains titillating that
I (however "I") will die--about a page
sooner than when I first mentioned it.
Someone quick start taking lots of pictures
of Dean Blehert. (I hope my friends
save my letters.) Save me! Some day
I'll be a rare and valuable find. Maybe
even deductable (Culture, you know).
(Death is a myth. Taxes remain.)
Anyway, this is part of what Dean Blehert
was thinking about on 19 May '79,
and, if you follow me, on whenever
you're thinking it for him. I guess
this is a picture. If it's a good enough
poem, some scholar someday will hunt down
my old family albums, sneeze, and speculate on
which pictures contributed what to it.
That's OK -- they're all good people
and bear looking at. They were all
cute babies and all the parents had children
who promised "brilliance" and each starred
in his own tale, told by an idiot
perhaps, but signifying EVERYTHING
to the brilliant idiot.
Why doesn't this poem
end? Because it still bothers me
that the pictures stopped right there
when everything else went on
and on (until now I see the pictures newly
so that THEY go on too):
Mom went on
and her body got eaten up by cancer, then
by maggots, the babies got uncute
with some compensation in wisdom....
This is not a new story either, but
I think I want my poem to keep going
the way a child keeps thinking up stratagems
to keep Mom from saying good night
(One more story! One more kiss goodnight!),
the way it's hard to leave a dwindling party
that you keep thinking is about to happen,
the way it made me cry once to have
Natasha and Pierre get middle-aged and
suddenly there weren't any more pages
to read in War and Peace.
This is so Goddamned trite: Grecian Urns,
Dorian Grey and Time Marches On. We're dying,
reader, dying. What a fascinating
lie! I can't argue with all these pictures
of radiant brides and grooms grimacing
because no one is to know they're as lovesick
as they feel. They won't stand
for immortality. They're changed now.
So what? So fuck death and dying!
Everyone stand absolutely still! Nobody
leaves this instant until I've solved the mystery
of us all so that nothing is ever lost!
Oh, that's right, nothing IS ever lost.
Forgive me -- I'd forgotten. I live where
we create what we are; I'm just a visitor
here, and what we create, we can always
create -- why else the poignant pang of
a picture, stirring us to create so
palpably the presence the picture tells us
(hence the pang) is gone?
I live in L.A., where we MAKE pictures .
Visiting in hicksville Minnesota
I got caught up in the story.
Nothing is ever lost. Cluttered with
cherished memories, taking pains to
forget nothing, no wonder we believe
in loss and invent a God who numbers
and records for us each dropped sparrow
feather, each unheard tick! of twig landing
on leaf litter;
losing our facts, confusing names, at length,
dazed, in a "Home," clutching at polite, hardy hands
to call a grandchild by a son's name,
like an over-ambitious shopper, arms
overflowing with packages, trying to
pick up one without dropping another,
teetering, dropping all, clatter-crack, shit!
No wonder we believe in loss, cherishing
its tokens, treasuring dying things,
mistaking that which creates for
oblivion, afraid to forget anything,
forgetting ourselves, as lost as we think we are
what must be remembered in order to BE,
roaming bewildered through albums
of unfamiliar faces, pictures without
setting or story, must be someone
else's family, but, there! -- isn't
that almost, just a twinge, a familiar
eyebrow? (Heart flutters!)
When will you know again
who makes familiar, who endows dearness?
These pictures are sure interesting --
I could look at them for centuries.
"It's a lie!" I tell us. Good.
Excellent. Let us lie together --
Let's tell lies with happy endings
and noble deeds and love and courage --
let's tell corny lies. Oh, my
disappointed mother, my apologetic
father, I wish for you only the courage
to carry out your corniness!
Let us sit down together and tell
tales of kings and weep. O, we can
lie better than this. It's almost
daylight. I've spent the whole night
wherever this is. Only the truth
can tell a lie. Lie like the truths
we are! We are so interesting,
my friends. See! I die! Take
We end as any piece
of music ends: The end is whenever
you end it. Taking a picture,
for example, ends that. SNAP!
(A snap-shot.) This poem doesn't want
(Up all night -- is my body tired? I feel
only a dazzled swarm of clarity.)
All lies lead to truths, their tellers.
My mother, so lovely and lively,
thought she was ugly, so made herself
a hag (and I believed her and was hag-ridden).
Cancer cleaned up the pieces. That one,
Dean, he thought he was better than others
because he had deeper thoughts. Which way is
deeper? For whom? If my thoughts are
deeper than you can think, what good are they?
But that Dean, he HAD to have deeper
thoughts, because he was fat, clumsy,
his hair wouldn't stay down, and he was no good
with machines, woodwork, sports, getting
along well with others (C-) or anything
"useful". So he made himself a poet,
which backfired, as THAT Dean Blehert
was a cliché, so I am making
a better one. Truth will clean up
the pieces. You are quite beautiful,
reader, and I could talk to you
for hours. Good morning.
copyright © 2004 All Rights Reserved