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new and uncollected:
"I Called My Uncle"
(click to listen to Jerry reading this poem)
from In Flagrante Delicto
from Picture a Gate Hanging Open and Let that Gate be the Sun
"Rock and Water"
All poems copyrighted © 2013 Jerry Mirskin
All rights reserved.
I Called My Uncle (click to listen to Jerry reading this poem)
I called my uncle. I had something to tell him.
Out of the clear blue, he sent me five hundred dollars.
He was giving gifts to his nieces and nephews.
I was living in Binghamton, working as a substitute teacher
and living in a crappy apartment.
I didn't know if I would have work from day to day.
I didn't know why he was giving me a gift, but when I saw the check, I was grateful.
My uncle was old school. When he died, a friend referred to him
as "a diamond in the rough."
I thought about what I knew of him. He had been in World War II.
There were some stories. Hard times. At his funeral, his brother-- my dad-- told a long rambling story about how my uncle took
my fatherto a baseball game when my dad was young.
My father stood by the graveand recounted. He remembered that on that day the famous player, Joe Dimaggio, hit two home runs.
It seemed like a funny story to tell at a funeral. And even more odd
was how my dad referred to the baseball player as, "Joe D."
Looking at the hole in the ground, he said,
"…. and Joe D hit two homers."
He hesitated, as if trying to find a few more words. Nothing.
Then eventually he said, "I liked him," and took a small step back.
I wasn't sure whom my dad was referring to: the baseball player
or my uncle? And then I realized it must be my uncle-- his brother.
He was talking about his brother.
It was a year earlier that I called to thank him.
I felt my uncle had looked down from somewhere and saw where the dark was collecting in the corners and wanted to do something for me.
When I called, I told him I wanted to thank him.
He didn't say anything. I said it was a surprise. I listened, waiting for a response, wonderingif there were something else I could say.
That's the hard part: knowing what to say.
I imagined my father's brother in his Bronx apartment, the way he wasthe last time I saw him. How he came to the door in his underclothes and then rested in bed while we talked.
I hadn't seen him like that before.
It was the beginning of his physical decline.
Before that, he was all strength and good humor.
Now, on the phone, it was as if we were both standing in the dark.
The undivided dark that we all share, but must abide alone.
Maybe it was that that made me really feel the simplicity of his gift,
and I told him I didn't think I deserved it. It was then that the silence on the other end of the line seemed more intense. I heard a soundlike someone trying to breathe.
And then I realized, he was crying. Quietly sobbing.Years later, after I gave a poetry reading, a friend of my father's
came up to me and shook my hand, and then he surprised me.
Holding my hand a moment longer, he said, You're not nothing.
We were standing in the doorway. I wasn't sure what he meant.
I still remember that. I didn't know, but I sensed it was meaningful.
After some time, it came to me, and I knew what to say.
Thank you, Uncle George, I said. I love you.
And before I hung up, and then for some time after, it seemed
my uncle and I were dwelling together in a timeless place.
A different place. Not this one.
In New York freezing is about forty-two inches. That's how far you have to dig if you're putting in a foundation. In this case, we were digging by hand because the backhoe couldn't get in. I'd done work like that before. One time on a farm, I had to dig a grave for a calf. I remember I was up to my waist in the hole. It was winter, the farmer came by, looked down and said, That's deep enough. Another time, I was digging and found a row of horse teeth. They were coated with dirt, but after I cleaned them off, I realized that they weren't teeth, but a row of keys from an adding machine. I remember holding the unearthed numbers in my hand. They'd been in the ground for some time, but I had a feeling they could still add.
Now it was summer and hot. Over ninety degrees. The foreman came by. Mike. He was a good guy, but I couldn't see it. All the others were inside, and I was out there in the heat. He picked up a shovel. It wasn't work that a master carpenter would do, but he started in. I wasn't assuaged. I wanted to know why I was the one in the hole. He didn't say. I knew a little bit about him. He had graduated high school and went right to work. By the time he was twenty five he was an accomplished craftsman and even taught a class in construction at the local community college. I also knew that he was recently married. His wife, a cute but tough girl, drove motorcycles in a circus. She was one of the riders in the round steel cage, going around and around and upside down, held by centrifugal force. Often there was more than one motorcycle in there. It was really loud and smoky, and you wondered how they didn't get dizzy or collide and crash.
Mike was in love with her. The circus was in Florida. One night she called him. They had been going together on and off . She was sick of it, but didn't know what to do. Mike got into his car that night and drove twenty hours to where she was. He proposed and they came back together. He would talk about her. Sometimes he would even share some of the private things they did. Other times he talked about how he'd come home from work, tired. She wasn't working and she was lonely and wanted to play. He told me how he used to stop at a park on the way home sometimes and take a nap, so that he had energy to be with her. I pictured him lying on the grass in some park. Resting between his work life and his home life.
We were digging. After awhile, we stopped to take a drink. The sweat was pouring off. He looked at me. I realized that he'd probably have to go back inside, but he didn't go in. Instead he started talking. He said that his dad died five years ago. He said that he couldn't get used to the idea that he would never see him again. His dad would never see him with a good job, or a wife and all they were planning. I hadn't ever seen him upset. I haven't actually seen a lot of men upset. He said he would work for a whole year in a trench and give all his pay if he could just see his dad for five minutes. A year of one's life for five minutes. I tried to picture that meeting. The meeting that couldn't happen. The truth was as flat and hot as the face of a shovel. For a moment there was quiet. There was sadness, but it felt peaceful. After a while, Mike went back into the house, and I went back to digging. Back to the girl in the cage. Back to driving all night long on the highway.
To understand this story
you have to picture a gate hanging open
and let that gate be the sun.
Then picture a boy bursting from the spell
of too much dark, how he tumbles
and slips from the effortless grip of the clouds.
What seemed last night like a good idea,
spanking the water.
I don't really understand why he had to die
beyond understanding the statute of limitations—
how imagination goes unsupported in the sky.
I suppose I understand how water goes on living,
while people like you and me prophesy a kind of patience
a pride in flying low, a wisdom
in the plain joy of just walking around.
But, to really understand this story
you have to imagine a kind of castle loneliness.
Nights when there is no telling
from all the things that men do, just what we want to do.
From that flightless dark
it is just a small step to seeing any sign of sun
as the kind of beauty our knowing can embrace.
Maybe it is just youthful infatuation,
but who wouldn't open their arms?
Who wouldn't feel in the light of such knowledge
like putting on their wings and going out?
Picture a gate hanging open.
And let that gate be the sun.
Rock and Water
They were a perfect pair.
The boy hunched over near the rocks.
His shadow moving gently on the surface
as if he were stirring the water.
When you looked closer, you could see
that he had something in his hand.
A small silver fish.
He was stroking it. Placing it in the water
in swimming position.
It floated to the surface and lay on its side.
The sun shone on the side of the fish
and the boy continued.
Nearby another boy stood with a fishing pole
facing the other way.
He was busy and only looked over once in a while.
The boy continued trying to help the fish
by adjusting it in the water, placing it in motion.
Patiently and deliberately, as if placing the last piece
in a puzzle. As if it only needed a little help, a touch.
Once in a while the fish would actually stir on its own
and then it would slip to the surface as if having died again.
Each time the boy seemed more intent
and repeated his stroking, hovering like a guardian
repeating this ritual of patient affection and concern.
It was a very clear day. The water and the light glittered.
I stayed until I couldn't watch any longer.
Hovering as if to understand.
They were a perfect pair.
The little fish did not know how to go on living.
And the boy did not know how to let it go.
I like the way they live forever in Italy .
I like the way they take the time to do it.
How they put their whole lives into it.
The wine will tell you this.
The way it stands on the table.
So lonely, dark and lonely.
I like the way they live forever in Italy .
Like each day they put a penny in.
A penny for art. One for work.
They know it will take a whole life to pay off.
All this art. All this beauty.
In Fiesole , outside of Florence
I saw two men walking the hills.
When they passed a small faded shrine
their walk faded. They gave a few pennies.
A handful of lira.
They were on one side of a hill
walking a small path to their homes.
On the other side was the city, and the duomo.
You can see it ten miles away
like a great tired heart sleeping soundly
in the smoke of sunlight.
Asleep and snug in the valley by the Arno .
Which side would I prefer?
From here we could see that the sun
was going down on one knee.
The grooves of the city were growing taller
like a taller garden.
Shadows were growing clever in the alleys.
Still, the sun was working hard as always.
Conspiring with the church and the city on one side
and the vine on the other.
I like the way they live forever in Italy .
Why does the poem appear in the middle of the page?
One would think it would slink around
the empty edges, singing and sinking its dark grounds
in the clear margins. But no, it takes residence right here,
lying like the shadow of a hand, a footprint
of a newborn cast into life. A fundamental thing.
One day I went to the fair.
All day I rode up and down.
All day I ate and drank.
There was in the air the rapacious odor of burning meat,
the sweet spin of sugar.
Bitter tongues of coffee, and boulevards of beer.
And there were the young and the old.
It was summer.
Light flung over the waters of evening.
I picked up a gun.
At the end of the day there was a star.
I aimed and fired. Aimed and fired.
I was cutting my mark.
Welding the parts of my scattered life on paper.
If only I could do this simple thing.
The man drew the paper toward us.
It came up on a long string, as if
from the future, the past.
It came to us with its bloody answer.
I had lived.
Full of desperation. Full of peace.
Of love. Of fear.
Each moment shooting out the next.
All the signs were there.
I wore the flesh that others wore.
That is why the poem appears as it does.
Because at the core there is an invisible center
with no trace of blood.
The poem steps in to take its place.
And then the word transpires and says otherwise.
It was me. I did it.
In a stringy wood in Florida
I tore it from its mother.
Sawing away with my motel key
I stole, stealing from the green, green world.
I don’t know if I invoked the sacred name
of sorrow, or the ragged name of fear
I remember striding into the hospital
with its head down by my side.
And how the woman in the next bed
recognized it immediately.
It’s on the list, she said. And meant a better one
than you could ever find in a hospital ward
in Florida, or any other state, for that matter.
What we did then was just look at it.
The little saw palmetto with its green
and juvenile crown of fans.
A small shy prince. Almost apologetic
even as it lifted and spread its bright deck
and serene face.
Have you ever seen one? This one
had already begun to be a light in the world.
Taking its place between two women,
one sick and one injured.
Endangered species. I still remember
how it looked, as if being endangered meant
that it knew from the very beginning
what sadness was, and what its work
would be. Far from home.
Far from the green, green world.
“Me, a name I call myself…”
With my special flare for the slightly perverse
I construct a cemetery in our backyard.
The innocent grass, those small hydrants of fire
do not know my mortal play. Nor the cedars
rimming the yard with their straight and recondite bones.
Nothing, and no one, not even my wife.
My plan is to enjoy a little peace, a little hush
in the here and now, the translucent present
before that other, evermore.
For obvious reasons, I cannot use real stones.
My love would not go for such a dumb show.
She would not have a salad among monoliths and slabs.
Instead, I place the barbecue at the foot of my plot
and at the foot of hers I place the clothesline.
No one knows what pleasures accrue
in this secret statuary, my miniature Stonehenge.
It is sublime, as I see now that the barbecue
was always my marker, and the clothesline hers.
We were already, without knowing, living outside of time.
Our eternal dominion suburban and mundane.
After awhile of peace and quiet and sun, I weary
of being dead, and go inside for a cool drink
thinking maybe she made some lemonade.
When I return refreshed, I see the clothesline
flashing with the light chatter of her underwear,
flitting bird like in the breeze, and on the ground
there is a patch of glittering shade so lovely
I must dive in and pass through the delicate blades
shimmering on the lawn.
When she comes outside I am on my knees
caressing the grass. Though she has no idea
what’s really going on.
Suddenly seized by her beauty and the moment,
I ask if she will pose nude for me by the clothesline.
She is in a fine mood today, and laughs
and gets on her bicycle and goes, calling behind
for me to leave a key for her in the garage.
Calling to me. Me. The shade.
The darker grass.
My wife, who is often as unassuming
as Ophelia, came in last night after I had
gone to bed. Where I was? And what?
No matter. Just some lifeless golem clay,
statue that lifts under her touch and flies
to the wing of her mouth.
And she to me?
More than perpetual stasis. More than
the hard chronos that disquiets and eludes.
So much that in the monument of the dark
the hands began, and the mouths and lips
all entering into the blind drinking
and the principle of consume and be consumed
was as fine as first commission.
For is it not original what two working
the endless math of one and one can perfect,
can echo in each other?
I looked out my window this morning,
which is what writers do.
The trees were enacting their simple vigil
of absence and creation, and I thought
for a moment that would be all.
But how powerful it was then to sense
through the closed door, a drawer opening
and soon after-- quiet steps on the smooth floor
and receding stair.
Before Skinner and increments of reinforcement,
there was Pez. Pellets of species specific candy.
A product of the industrial revolution that put things in packages,
brought meaning to cardboard and cellophane.
Now you could get a “pack” of something. And the stuff in the pack looked better than their ancestors,
those lumpy cigarettes you rolled by hand, or the cakes
grandma made with rumpled crusts and hunks of fruit.
I remember how an open pack of cigarettes looked like ammunition.
A line of bullets. Perfectly straight teeth. Come to think of it, that was probably when they started
clamping down—all of a sudden everyone was wearing braces,
and smiling their big industrial smiles.
It was all part of the process.
Pez came in a dispenser. That was key.
You didn’t just eat this stuff like feed from someone’s hand,
but with a flick of your thumb you forged a perfect tab,
a compact block of powdered sugar emerged as if from an assembly line.
Manufactured from the force of your hand, it was not unlike
how Superman turned a lump of coal into a diamond.
It was the nearest thing to witnessing birth.
The cool thing was you could take it everywhere and be ready
One time, after reading an essay by the young Prince Charles
about what he would take with him in the event that during a war
he was deserted on an island, my teacher asked us to write a similar essay.
She didn’t tell us what the smart and practical prince put down,
and I don’t remember all of what I wrote.
But I remember, I got the answers wrong.
My list, which included my bicycle and the dispenser, didn’t compare.
I pictured myself on my bike, zipping from foxhole
to foxhole. With my ready dispenser, I slid between salvo
and salvo, and moment to moment.
Clearly, I was delirious.
And I think that image really bothered her.
For what could you teach someone who had
a gadget of self-reliance—a personal dispenser of candy bullion.
But I had something that she couldn’t give me
and could barely control. It’s called enthusiasm.
And when I put it to good use, like not beating up my brother
or burning down the house, my parents gave me Pez.
All poems copyrighted © 2007 Jerry Mirskin
All rights reserved.