Author's Note: Earlier Mrs. Podolski declarations elicited some positive responses, so I thought I’d submit another from the cycle. Here, an irritated and lubricated Mrs. P. rattles on at length, very much her own woman.
After Three Glasses of Slivovitz Mrs. Podolski Explains
What She Believes In
I wonder why so many people want
to know what I believe in. Do you get
asked that too, dear? I’m never sure what they
mean, even when it’s patently about
On Tuesday, Mrs. Whitmarsh had me
over for coffee and cinnamon buns.
Well, the woman asked me straight out, Do you
believe in religion? So I said I
can hardly help it, what with that Gothic
pile you Episcopalians put up
on Abbott Street and that airplane hangar
the Assembly of God erected by
the mall so as to use the parking. Do
I believe in religion? She wanted
to know if I believed what she believed,
of course. That’s what the question usually
signifies, not always. Do you believe
in me is just about as common. Do
I credit your existence as one might,
say, God’s, I ask as politely as I
can. No, no, they say, fearful of blasphemy
and Nemesis, rushing to underscore
the ontological humility twixt
themselves and the Deity. To be frank,
it’s much easier to believe in Mrs.
O’Brien’s existence than God’s when she’s
right up in your face; and, though believing
in Mrs. O’Brien does little harm—
I’ve nothing against the woman—it holds
small promise of metaphysical balm.
But that’s not what I meant, Mrs. O’Brien
now blushes; for I am to understand
this is an intimate matter that she
now regrets bringing up. I imagine
what she meant was could I validate
her dearest hopes, her sweet dreams of winning
the lottery, good health, growing old with
a man who’ll look ever more like Jimmy
Stewart, her certainty that being Mrs.
O’Brien isn’t just the result of countless
contingencies but part of a Divine Plan
that includes world wars, flood, famine, and
her three cats.
Belief, belief. Isn’t it what
the confidence man and the Sunday School
teacher are both after? Oh, I guess
belief is enlarging and a comfort
to those who manage it; still, I seem to
find it most among the gullible and
The fact is belief’s not one thing
at all. For most, it makes life easier;
for others, perhaps the finest, only harder.
People want to know what you believe in
as if the answer were going to rip
open the bag of skin in which we’re all
sewn at conception.
Why have I got to believe,
I’ll ask, and Mrs. This-or-That will come
back with Everybody has to believe
in something and then rehearse at length what
she believes. Credo: one hygienic
God, the Republican Party, plenty of
roughage. Mostly folks seem proud of their beliefs
and repeat them with a complacency
that’s practically ceremonial.
And should I demur or make a face it’s
once again, But, dear, you must believe
in something. It’s a hortatory axiom,
a rhetorical question gone rancid.
Something you must believe. And if I should
say nothing they’re shocked; I see pity and terror,
as if I were Medea. . . or Hamlet.
What did the Prince believe in? Not even
his father’s ghost apparently, or why
say from whose bourne no traveler returns
just two acts after chatting with the wraith?
Horatio, his friendship? No, not that either.
Camaraderie requires no belief;
it’s either there or it isn’t. And romance?
Believing Ophelia’s not spying on
him might be something, I suppose, but he
doesn’t even manage that. The poor girl
didn’t stand a chance, did she, given the
men in her life. A fragile teenager—
used, abused, confused—what did she believe?
Way too much: a father’s sagacity, a
brother’s protection, a lover’s love.
Belief can kill simply by being wrong.
So is Hamlet our maximal skeptic,
loath to believe anything at all,
more consistent than Montaigne? Maybe, but
he’s skeptical of his skepticism too.
I like that about him. To me, the great
example of belief in that play—I
mean cleaving to something without proof—
is Fortinbras’ conviction that Hamlet
would have made a good king. Franz Kafka
couldn’t make that one out, you know. And, by the
way, where statecraft’s concerned it’s Claudius
who takes the prize. Unlike his nephew,
he’s decisive, and unlike his bellicose
brother, he spares Denmark from war.
He copes deftly with the Norwegian crisis,
though fratricide, the bottle, sex, and guilt
soon bring him low.
Excuse me, my dear.
I’m just rambling now. What led me into
the tired game of Hamleting? Oh yes,
that question about belief. It’s an old
wives’ question, what do you believe in?
And what do the old wives say? Mrs. Debeque
believes, so she claims, in People while
Mrs. Susovsky puts her faith in
chamomile tea with honey. My friend
Mrs. Ardekian believes in the
unique virtues of her impeccable
grandchildren, all three of them.
—I think it was an Italian, but I
can’t recall—said reality’s merely
that illusion you choose to believe.
That’s clever, shallow skepticism yet
one might choose to believe it and make truth
as fickle as appetite. No, delusion’s
not belief’s more honest name. I’d say
it’s belief misplaced.
Still, I will agree
delusion can be elevating. Cervantes
started out to mock his Don’s mania but
ended up esteeming it, sending him
back into a world raring to validate
Can’t you just picture
how one sunny Spanish day it struck him:
that good fiction is rational delusion?
My dear, maybe that’s what I believe in.
An earlier (though not shorter) version of this poem appeared in Chiron Review
© 2018 Robert Wexelblatt
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