Note: I was born in Shanghai in February 1949. It’s a long story, but the short version is that my parents were refugees from the Nazis and ended up there. They came to the U.S. right after I was born (another long story). While you wouldn’t know it to look at me or hear me speak, I am an immigrant, as are many people in our country. You don’t need me to tell you how horrible it has been for new immigrants lately, and I’m sure it hurts and enrages you, as it does me. I’ve been thinking about my father, how he struggled to make a life here. He loved America, or the idea of it, though he never felt at home here. He would have been horrified by our current situation, but that too goes without saying.
My father was a mystery, born in a country far away.
His only brother ate at his heart.
He wrote two books and he sat in the living room
reading every night, smoking his one cigar.
He read Virginia Woolf, said “I’m afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Said “the father gives to the son, both laugh,
the son gives to the father, both cry.”
He was a mystery, lost in America.
He rode the subway with the Times folded in his hands.
At work they called him Herr Doktor, but I don’t know why.
They all spoke German, as if they came from another country in another time.
He told me about Achilles, how his mother dipped him in the River Styx.
His mother died at Auschwitz, his father too.
When he came home, he treated his eye with heat,
drank one martini, listened to opera on the radio.
He called me Stefan Harriovitch, told me the Latin for “bang bang”
was bangum bangum, which, because I was so little, I believed.
I came to this land by sea, stopping at an island
where they asked my name.
I told them I was named for a star,
and they blessed me as if I had come from the desert,
as if my feet were ragged and sore.
They sent me on my way with a bag of winds.
They pointed me North, toward cooler waters and a wider sea.
All night I sailed through darkness.
I dreamed of rocks in shallow waters off the coast.
I dreamed of sharks and whales.
In the morning I floated beneath a blue sky dotted with clouds.
The winds rattled and tore at the cords.
Then the storm burst.
I lived behind a curtain of rain.
I was hungry and ate shadows for sixteen days.
I came to this land carrying nothing, not even a history or a voice.
I had no language but the one I learned on these wild streets.
I came to this land with my fists and my blood.
I came with people who had no home,
who were torn from their lives, who were broken and sad.
We didn’t know it yet, but we had sunk our roots into this earth.
Here we stayed, with our black eyes, and our ears ringing with foreign sounds.
My Father Was Here
walking by the pond
where rushes have grown thick.
He was here when the blue heron
erupted from the grass.
I could have sworn it was him,
his lined face raised to wing and beak.
Across the mountain I saw rain
streaming from black clouds.
My father waited by water’s edge
as wind bent the trees.
I could have touched his arm,
held him around the shoulders.
I could have given him form
and substance and weight.
I could have basked in his smile,
the shine of his green eyes.
We could have eaten together,
knives and forks clinking
against our plates.
We could have spilled red wine
into our glasses in a ceremony of mirth.
It could have happened that way,
in the interval before the storm,
frogs croaking through the heavy scent of air.
© 2018 Steve Klepetar
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