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Good Letters

I eat a pretzel in the presence of my enemies. (They have assembled in Charlottesville.) To be a man of men, I sip my whiskey neat in the presence of my enemies. (They march on the nightly news.)

I present my failed masterpiece in the presence of my enemies. (The other painters in the juried show.)

I submit to an enema. In the privacy of my home, haunted by my enemies.

I pledge allegiance. I proclaim, YHVH is One. The presence of my enemies: Roman flames that devour the sacred scroll in which I am wrapped.

I know the psalm. I know the still waters. I know the rising to recite the mourner’s prayer. I know the history of a despised, dispossessed people. I am of them.

In the presence of my enemies: biblical, historical, political, personal.

Rather than speak, rather than plead my pathetic case, I defer to the wind, the robin, the squealing brakes of aging vehicles on Kings Highway, to say what can be said in the presence of my enemies.

My mother, in the presence of my enemies, unzips a can of string beans. She shakes paprika onto the flounder and slides the Pyrex dish into the broiler. She places the fork on the left, the knife and spoon on the right, setting a table for us and our enemies.

In the presence of my enemies, my father listens, one night, as I describe my hallucinations to the psychiatrist. The acid kicked in an hour into the party, the panic moments after that. My high school friends put me in a car that deposited me at my shrink’s office, after hours. Eventually, they dissolve, the weapons aimed. My head is anointed with oil. My cup runs over. Good vibes for the rest of the trip.

In the presence of my enemies, I prostrate myself three times, once to honor God, once to honor the soul which will go on after ego has decomposed. I prostrate a third time. I’m not honoring them, my enemies. I’m not surrendering. My forehead kisses the earth, softening it to receive whoever succumbs during the coming encounter.

Actually, the only place I encounter my enemies is in synagogue. They’re all over the prayer book, the psalms, and in not a few verses of Torah: Pharaoh, Amalek, Korach, Haman…. Frustrate the designs, I pray at the end of the standing, silent prayer, of those who plot evil against me; nullify their schemes.

Once, on erev Pesach, visiting family in Beit El, a Samarian city, a settlement in the territories, I joined the men for mincha-maariv in synagogue, before the Passover seder was to begin back in the house. The other worshippers leaned their automatic weapons against the back of the pew in front of them as they prayed. They were not phantoms then, they were not metaphors, inner demons: my enemies. They were on their side of the fortified fence, in Ramallah, preparing their evening meal. The weapons’ sights: they held only the sanctuary’s ceiling in view for that moment.

Mostly, I come into the presence of my enemies only when I sit on my meditation bench. Anxiety, insomnia, self-doubt, lust, fear: a few of my enemies. Will I ever defeat them, once and for all, that I may simply be? Perhaps I should surrender and turn over my life to them. How would anxiety grow in the garden? What song would insomnia compose and sing?

All the stories that have stuck to me, all the stories out of which my appearance has been woven, all the endearing qualities—humility (authentic and feigned), curiosity, and a warehouse of apologies for the inadequacies of my being—is it to too late to shed them, to be liberated from them? Thank god for my enemies! In the presence of my enemies, my “I” shrinks to “i” which collapses to “.” Thank you, enemies, for restoring me to my essence, simply soul. Period.

Green meadow I am in the presence of my enemies. A hawk overhead draws a shadow around loafing me in the meadow.

Fear follows me everywhere. No, that’s not exactly right. My enemies have not set up camp, on the night of the new moon, at the border, where they will review their strategy to attack and conquer me. They’ve already infiltrated. When I stand before you, alone on stage or in front of the classroom or with a glass of Pinot Noir at the cocktail party, you are standing in the presence of my enemies and me. I am the house in which fear dwells forever. Fear of embarrassing myself in front of you. Fear of being unloved.

My head is filled with the voice of Matt Berninger (The National). When a friend interrupts, asking how I am, I answer, “I am.”

My enemy Cain is jealous of the ease with which I offer my best fruits (My deferential attitude? My gentle temperament? My eternal smile?) to God and the readiness with which God receives them. The shadow of death is cast upon me, shielded only by innocence.

When you and I meet for a drink, my enemies stoke my yearning to come closer to you, to let the evening linger beyond the hour of reason. (I shall not want.)

Though I fear no evil, in the presence of those who would slander me I tremble, my voice drops, a deep, lugubrious note trembling out of a cello.

I know the songs, the ritual objects, the cycle of the year. The repentance, the return, the renewal. The resistance, futile yet necessary. The sweet ridicule and taunt of hamentashen. I know the mystical lox. And with everything I know, I know that wherever I go, in whatever century, nation, state of being, I am a moving target in the presence of my steadfast enemies.

Let me be, in the presence of my enemies, still water.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at

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