I watch them enter, lined up, ark-like, two by two, chatting quietly,
and after the teacher, counting, passes, one pushes and the one pushed
begins the chase. This is how the orphans marched through Warsaw in 1942,
I tell the behaved ones, orderly and under orders, and I’m just about to start
that terrible story, the one they don’t yet know, when I pause to open the door,
as I always do, for a little air. And there they are again, arms akimbo,
like two stooges, the Angel of Death and the Angel of Forgetfulness,
those vaudeville comics, those incorrigible face-making kids,
stuck forever—you first—no you—in the undersized doorframe
of the museum I will, for lack of a better word, call childhood.
Did I say angels? Clearly I meant my great aunts whom you haven’t
yet met. My sister called them Aunt From-This-You-Shouldn’t-Know
and Aunt May-You-Never-Forget. I preferred, at Pesach, Horseradish
and Charoset, that bittersweet matzoh sandwich I munched between prayers.
Everyone I knew was still alive, and no one cared that in Venice,
that very summer, Ginsberg, in the name of the Jews, forgave Pound.
Hadn’t I forgone my own bar mitzvah for a weekend in Miami Beach
where that borscht-belt-south social director and shuffleboard champ
first shticked There’s Noah business like Shoah business, soon after
Lillian Hellman ushered her de-judaicized Anne Frank onto the stage?
Are you writing another Holocaust poem, my son asks?
He’s gauging my anger level at this interruption—a love sonnet, less so?—
but it takes eight dollars of gas just to get to his summer job.
To hell with the poem, I need me some shekels, he sings,
misquoting both Ravikovitch and Snoop Dogg. Poetry was nowhere
in my father’s house, nor money either, our doorposts marked, pass-over,
red rover; and yet in a pinch Dad could still recite Kipling’s “Gunga Din.”
Make fun if you must, my mother says, but look in the mirror
and I’m here to tell you that your father was a better man
than all those anti-Semitic Pounds and Eliots rolled up into one.
That was twenty-three years ago, before my mother, cradling his neck
and not yet crying, waited, while outside in East New York
the ambulance raced and the Angel of Death loitered. Are you comfortable?
she asks, adjusting my father’s pillow, while he, ever the emcee,
his shoulders shrugging, mimicked Henny Youngman’s I make a living.
Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden would have repeated, were he there,
and what wouldn’t I give, at this moment, for his stiff British upper lip.
What’s one more death in the family, Otto Frank might have argued,
expunging not grief but sex from his daughter’s diary,
and what father, I wonder, would dare today to play jury or judge?
Are you writing another Holocaust poem, the Angel of Consciousness
who sits, while I muse, on my right shoulder, and whom I sometimes still
confuse with her errant two-headed twin, the Angel of Conscience, asks?
I’m thinking now of my own children, remembering my home office,
the Akeidah etching above the desk, that angel, what’s her name,
holding Abraham’s straining arm, the knife blade pointing downward.
And when my son was born, I, exiled to the basement, books re-shelved,
forgot that picture which hung, my wide-eyed boy staring, ten months
above the crib. I feel wicked sleeping in this warm bed, my daughter says,
rehearsing her Anne Frank and pausing only occasionally for applause.
Burn everything after I’m dead, Kafka says, poking his pre-war Jewish head
into yet one more of my poems. He’s trying to explain the fatherland
to the fatherless. No one reads poetry anymore, anyway,
my mother, quoting from her own unpublished diary, writes.
And who doesn’t want to go on living even after death? my daughter recites.
I’m at my desk, buried again in this moldy basement, begging for quiet,
while upstairs, I can hear my great uncles Abbott and Costello arguing,
and now they’re chasing each other around the kitchen like two Keystone Cops,
and now they’re singing each other’s praises like Eliot and Pound, and now
they’re comforting each other like the Angels of Death and Forgetfulness.
Quiet, I call out, castigating the offenders brought back buddy-style,
heads bowed and hand-in-hand, two pretty pre-teens caught hiding
behind stacks of spectacles, confiscated suitcases, and desecrated scrolls.
I want to face them towards this tearful Tower of Faces and teach them
proper museum protocol. But they are still unapologetic, giggling
and trading one-liners, these entertaining angels in training. I’d planned
to quote Kafka or even Kipling, but it’s clear I’ve lost control and suddenly
I can’t recall a single thing I came here to say. I am simply a young girl
badly in need of some rollicking fun, Anne whispers as I open the door
for a little air, letting her play, at least for today, out in the sun.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.