Please give me the watches, Mother.
A gold Gruen and bracelet Bulova
retired to a worn reliquary,
a remote shelf, hall closet ripe:
serial cakes of soap, tissue boxes, toothpaste on sale
in case of another Depression.
I’m surprised there are no smokes in there
though Dad dragged on his last too late
and you bought yours at the Edmonton PX
in 1944, for the Babad family, who let you a room—poor Jews
more generous than the rich—
to ancient rebbe, no news.
Ma, please, the watches.
Of little value, if money is the measure.
Is time the measure? No one wants them
save me, the family excavator and architect,
digging for clues to dangle
from our scaffolding (an ancient mangle)—
occupations for which I’m poorly equipped,
me and my imbalanced sense of justice,
me and my skittish hands, the grudges I
inherited—some blessed; some dismissed.
I would have been atop someone’s shoulders at Babel
shouting, higher! higher!
passing up impossible bricks.
And for this I am punished—shown the Old Country
but forbidden to enter—with little material,
the equivalent of straw underfoot
and mud made from dust and spit
with which to build a lineage.
You and yours wanted to strand the past
in Jersey City. The year Rose Belle was born,
101 Negro men were lynched in these United States.
The Ferris Wheel debuted at the World’s Fair
and people died of fits, dropsy, delirium, cause
named for symptom. The year your brother
died of scarlet fever was the last
Rose smiled in a picture.
So stern in sepia; zaftig women and wiry men
posed in conflagration with after and before.
No photographer could induce
an expression of joy—this, their first
recording of existence, determined as Descartes
to prove their presence—nothing more.
No proof preceded their likenesses: no narrative
of crossing, no village, no vision. Nothing that fit
in the palm, no talisman, and why would you
keep a battered kettle, cheap teacup?
Saving things is for big machers who think
themselves important, or those who didn’t raise
their children to do better.
You taught one child to be public, one private, and one
to gather up stray sheaves dropped
behind the gleaners, arms never full.
My children—what will they glean?
From their father, inherit a legion:
honor, ignominy, documented clans of the fair and redheaded:
sheriff, cantatrice, traitor.
And from me, they’ll learn
to live without history.
They’ll disperse the dead, stray revenants, never
glancing back to wonder who they resemble,
to seek a feature, a trait.
How modern they’ll be.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.