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Poetry

Chagall, you must have known my grandfather
who lived in the same province, perhaps
a few shtetls away, and who peddled fruit

and scrap with his one-eyed horse and so must
have shouted out his wares on the dirt road of Vitebsk,
your village, and you must have, turning aside

from the blank canvas looking out the window above
the town, listened to his hawking Yiddish and noticed
his pauper’s cap and rabbinical rhythms then turned

to your brushes and pallet and begun, this time
with gusto, your Jew in Green. You invited him
to sit his weary overcoated slouched body down

on a couch of shadowed sacred texts, his face
lowering, as if in mourning, into his yellow beard,
his eyes distracted—such sadness you painted!—

He came, sat down, and at once fell asleep,
you said, exhausted as he must have been from hours
floating above the town, his enormous figure

lifted beyond the snow-covered roofs
and blue-tiled churches and empty streets,
leaning forward as if navigating the wind

with cane in hand and yellow sack slung
back over a shoulder—yes, that was him,
Yussel, my grandfather you painted—

Did you get his permission?—the one, who,
in the thumbed photo, is dressed like a rabbi
with black cap and white garment shawled

the length of his body so he could, as it
was written, touch the blue fringes and remember
God and the commandments? Did you put him

on the canvas to get one more Jew out
of harm’s way? Did you want my grandfather
to represent the holy one the whole village awaited,

a symbol for the drunkard for whom everyone poured
a glass of wine, the hunchback slouching
throughout their dreams of poverty and miracles?

I want to know more about that green Jew,
and the Jew who sniffs the snuff, who stares
into an inward space, his eyes fixed above the text

laid open on the table, spread with yellow light.
I’d like to think that figure was Yussel, too, inhaling God,
his whole body sweetened by the habit—

and, especially, I want to know more about the Jew
whose feet are above ground in an impossible leap
and whose head is turned around to stare into the eyes

of the woman whose name means: beautiful,
a vase of roses in her hand, her feet a few inches
above the red carpet. Because here is mid-February,

zero to the bone, the workday world about to begin,
the air turning gray, then grayer, then dark—so
mostly, I want to lie down beside the reclining Jew

at dusk, patches of light splashed through the grass,
the spruce trees, horse, pig, house, lilac sky beyond,
his thin arms crossed over soft blue smock, hatless, musing

on love, of course, and beauty—Yussel, Yussel—
did this insatiable artist paint you into the immortality
you deserve? Did he imagine you a dreaming poet, too?

 

 


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

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