I’ve been thinking about my parents, especially since my mother died at 99 a little over a year ago. They were immigrants from what was then Czechoslovakia, via China, where they had gone as refugees. How hard it must have been for them in America, though they were white and educated; a new language like a sticky mass on their tongues, strange manners, disturbing music, cars they didn’t know how to drive. My father walked away from the TV one day, after watching a few minutes of a rock ‘n roll program with me. “I don’t understand the world anymore,” he said, in German. “I understood it from 1906 – 1939, but I don’t understand it anymore.”
Cracking the Egg
I can remember cracking out of the egg,
then in a white, eye-stabbing flash,
I recognized that my parents didn’t know
much, their power to save me little
more than words made of air.
Safety was an illusion, and everywhere
there were fists and knives.
Over and over I heard my father say
I don’t understand the world anymore.
For him it broke in 1939 and never
got put back together right.
In my neighborhood, you could be hit
by a rock or the water main could break
while the elevator was down,
and you’d be hauling buckets up six flights.
I dreamt about that elevator every night
for fifty years – two women with packages
speaking Russian, and just before
they get off, one turns to me, shaking
her finger. Wrong floor, she says,
and when I get out, I’m lost in a hallway
maze. I recognize nothing, the apartment
numbers make no sense.
I’m in a canyon of buildings on the slope
of an unfamiliar hill.
I might as well be in the Bronx.
My parents are waiting somewhere,
probably frantic by now.
There’s a man sitting on a green bench
in a tiny park, and when I ask for directions
he points toward the subway.
I get a seat because now it is late,
but I have nothing to read, so I ride, reciting
poems in my head as the “lone and level sands stretch far away”.*
*which is the final phrase from Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” always good for a couple of stops on the E train.
My father lost himself on the trail
one day, when all of us hiked
in deep New England woods.
There was my mother and aunt
and several friends from that summer
whose faces I sometimes see floating
in the rain. Some were boys, some
were women with mouths like owls,
some spoke only in whispers
and code. How did he turn
off the path, stumble
into the meadow of a thousand flowers?
How did his voice scrape
the escarpment in that lonely place?
His white hair blinded us again
and again. Still, tearing and dazed,
we followed his footprints
in the soft grass. Surely he would wait,
build a fire and cook for us, hot dogs
on green sticks roasted almost black.
He would wait for us and laugh
and we would sit by the fire and eat.
We tramped until our feet were sore,
then sat down to rest by a small stream.
I made a little dam of sticks and rocks,
and watched the water pool up
by the pale green moss. We were hungry
and lost, with our hands trembling.
My mother held a basket filled with ash,
my aunt’s face washed away.
We searched in moonlight, calling out,
crows gathering at the crowns of swaying trees.
The Night My Brain Stopped Working
It was late, long after the evening meal,
when everything slowed, then stopped,
with a wrenching sound of metal tearing
metal, another object needing repair.
I had eaten too much, and now, curled
in my seat, snake-silent, I listened
as music leaked through the room.
It was ancient, nostalgic in a way that
bloodied the eyes of sense.
I might have been eleven when I heard
that song on the radio, and even then
it seemed to hang in the air like a rope
ladder I couldn’t reach, predictable,
and frayed, but so convincing
I would have slipped out my window
on a moonbeam or sung from the tree tops,
ready to surrender, prepared to pack my brain in ice.
© 2017 Steve Klepetar
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