I live in Manhattan, where I taught high school for many years. My last book of poems was Where X Marks the Spot (Hanging Loose Press), and the new Tether magazine features my translation of Robert Desnos's first book of poems. I run a weekly poetry workshop at the Morningside Heights Library.
My Uncle at the Wake
On the upstairs porch where later I would go
on summer evenings trying to write, my pencils
neatly arranged before me on the desk
below the hanging plant that swayed lightly
in the breeze: there you would sit me down
to tell me about life, what life was like.
I can see your earnest, handsome face;
black hair shining in the sunlight, hands
carving the air or doubling into fists
emphatically. You speak passionately
of what lies before me in this world, and
what I most remember of your lectures
is the knife you said the world conceals
behind its back; the stabs it waits to give.
I was so far away from understanding
anything of life, but I sensed your distress.
I knew that you had come out of the War,
young, refused to let the Army doctors cut off
your legs when they froze somewhere in Europe,
and lived to thumb your nose and walk away.
The German officer’s hat you let me play with
bore a stain on the lining I thought was blood.
In the attic your bayonet hung in its scabbard
from a nail. Alone among cardboard boxes and grandma’s
worn-out dresses, I’d push the catch and slide it
out, trying to imagine what had happened.
Dashing, restless, intelligent, jitterbugging
Saturday nights at the Ritz Ballroom, now you
struggled to fit yourself to something whole. Who else
were you telling your troubles to, or were you?
And I was how old—eight? ten? twelve? Or
all of these, and even in my teens, when I first
began to write. You gave me your anthologies
of poetry, my first paperbacks. Their glassine covers
cracked and peeled, but carefully I
mended them with cellophane tape. The Winston
College Dictionary that I used through high school
you offered to me—the grail of shining words.
Somebody’s collection of quotations
gave me the idea that poetry
was a cinch: just pick out a wise saying,
dress it up in my own experience
and—presto!—I’d have a poem.
Except I had no experience to speak of,
nothing that seemed my own, the kind of life
that writers lived. You had wanted to write,
you told me, recounting the story of a teacher
who encouraged you when you wrote brilliantly
about a piece of notebook paper she crumpled
and left on her desk for the class to describe.
In it you saw a crushed world, white fire, the leaves
of a tree unfolding in fog. This was imagination! you cried,
digging into the air with your opened hands,
as if you could pull an invisible world out
of the words you spoke. I watched you, straining
to follow your thought beyond the porch where we sat,
waiting for the truth to be delivered.
No one had ever spoken to me this way. My only relative
to get to college, you went on to business school
at Columbia, in New York City. What a school! What a
world you’d discovered, where people really cared
about the mind! (Here you pointed to your head.) You
could sense it in the bricks, on the library steps.
You weren’t getting much of that, though, in the business
courses—the literature, the high-flown intellectual stuff.
Still, you’d sit in on humanities classes
at the University; the profs never gave you
a hard time, there were so many ex-GIs.
Then you married. A child soon on the way, you
dropped out after a year, never to return.
Is that what you meant when you talked about
the knife? Finally it did catch up with you.
But do you know that because of the light
in your eyes when you spoke of it, I fought
to get to New York, to Columbia, flunking out
of the small college I hated, cutting loose
at last from my mother’s apron strings. I wouldn’t
be writing this if I hadn’t come here, to
New York. And you were the one who sent me.
All of which I put down in a letter
two or three years ago at Christmas when,
on the outs with my father again, I turned to you.
An early memory shows you helping me arrange
tin soldiers atop my toy chest. In stencil letters
it said “Billie’s Toys” on the door. Weren’t we
close by name alone? “Big Bill” and “Little Bill,”
that’s how the family told us apart; named
as we were for your father, my grandfather
William. “Grandpa Drunkenshoes,” my father
called him, another unpaid Bill in our succession,
who gave his ideas away for a drink
to men who quickly turned them into money;
who could play any instrument with strings;
whose trousers, stained with urine, cloud the picture
I so love, taken at Christmas 1944,
a year before he died. In it, I am helped
to hold the Army portrait of my absent father.
My mother, young and slim, faces me towards
the eye of the camera. My grandmother
smiles as if her husband, nodding in the chair
behind her, isn’t even there. And you
yourself are a gold star on a window banner,
away at war with all the other young men.
How did my mother, your sister, figure
in the talks you gave me? Did she urge you
to play big brother because my father
was never home, off in his big red truck
fixing broken cars with the secret tools
I was never allowed to touch, my father
lost, lost to me forever, to the postwar
war to make money, now that good times were here?
The truth is, I wanted you for my father.
Is that what you saw in my face
when you came to the funeral home? You
called me by my childhood name, but your grey eyes
eluded mine, whirling away
when I questioned you. Why, I wanted to know,
had you sat me down for those talks? At first
you couldn’t remember, but I insisted. I recalled
a phrase you used, I think out of Maugham:
“the skin game.” That was life, you told me then.
Someone was always trying to skin you alive.
The crumpled ball of paper, the books you gave me--
I made you remember. Your eyes never came to rest
on me. You stared away and said, “Well,
you were such a sensitive little boy, so
easily . . . hurt. I thought if I could toughen
you. . . . You were so sensitive. . . .”
As you spoke I saw my younger self
at our corner window, stunned as my little friends
kicked apart the fort I had pieced together
in my yard with wood from orange crates
that afternoon, smoothing the earth
with my hands, pulling the weeds and pebbles
so each slat would stand. Why was I alone?
What had I done to them, or they to me
to bring such bitterness into my life?
What had they seen in my sensitive face
that marked me? Dusk had fallen, and my rage
mixed with tears as I followed the outlines
of their bodies as they completed their task.
What did you mean by “sensitive”? I should have
asked you that. I should have pushed you for answers,
but it was the wrong time, the wrong place.
What could I have learned that I couldn’t guess?
As you spoke I saw my younger self seated
before you. How little I understood!
And I knew then that I would never get
what I needed from you; and at that moment
I forgave you as you excused yourself,
disappearing amidst the handshakes
of relatives you hadn’t seen (it was
true) in such a long time. And at that moment
my anger flared anew, burning clean
and away in the useless flame of rage.
And at that moment I knew that only I
could give myself what I had wanted from you.
And with this knowledge cutting at my heart
I expected less of you than of my own father
lying in his coffin across the room
This poem appeared in Where X Marks the Spot by Bill Zavatsky (Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press).
©2015 Bill Zavatsky