Thursday, July 31, 2014


An unfinished play; spirits are visiting
The ghost of the deposed Chinese Emperor.
There is a new dynasty but some men,
Friends and enemies of the old ruler,
Could never reconcile themselves to it.
Now they too are dead and come
To keep the Emperor’s ghost company.

My father was writing this play when he died
And asked me to try to finish it.
Among the ghosts was – oddly – a rabbi
Come from a remote flood-devastated village
To beg the Emperor for help. (I believe,
Though my father never said, that the rabbi
Does not know that he died on the road ).

My father was a kind and courteous man.
The Emperor and his visitors were real once
(Except, perhaps the rabbi; my father’s shelves
Held several books on the Jews of China)
What more natural than that my father,
Making his leisurely way towards Heaven,
Should stop to see the Emperor?

See the hand of fate in things! My father
Knew languages, but not Chinese;
(Latin he knew, and Hebrew, and some German;
In 1943 he won a medal
As New York’s second-best Spanish student)
Had he failed to invite the rabbi
Who at the Court would translate for him?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


As I understand it, Valentine is one of the more dour saints, and he probably does not much look forward to his day. He gets up and can barely push his door open; every one of the eleven thousand virgins who attend St. Ursula has left a piece of chocolate outside his room. (This happens every year; St. Christopher will come by later and carry the chocolates away). St. Sebastian will leave him an arrow, on which he’ll cut his finger; St. Apollonia will pass him in the hall; gaze at him wordlessly, and then press a tooth into his hand. He will be besieged by prayers, which he will conscientiously try to answer, although he is fairly clueless on the mysteries of human love. This explains the number of puzzled looks one sees as the day goes on, as people find Valentine’s answers popping into their heads. “I find speaking about the martyrdom of St. Gelasius is generally a good way to break the ice;” “I believe you mean ‘inamorata’ – ‘inamaretto’ refers to someone who loves almond liqueurs, which is probably a sin and is, anyway, fattening;” “I asked St. Barbara and she said a howitzer is a small, light cannon used to deliver shells with a curved trajectory while a bazooka is a portable electrically-fired rocket launcher. Do your parents know about your interest in artillery?”

(For those who were thinking of asking, St. Crescentia is still the patron of this blog. If you run into her on an elevated subway, try discussing the martyrdom of St. Gelasius.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


In November’s uncertain light
Ishmael joins the procession.
What matter whose corpse he follows?
Even odds he’ll absent-mindedly
Mosey along past the cemetery
Until he’s companied the soul
Beyond the border. Its long home waits;
He, though, must find employment
Though his skills all have rust on them.
By the gates the other storytellers
Crowd closer, making space for him.

Monday, July 28, 2014


        There was a time when I grew uncomfortable in the constant presence of the ghosts who were living, so to speak, with me, though they were soft-spoken and well-mannered. Perhaps that was part of what bothered me – they had far better manners than I did, and any competent exorcist entering my apartment would confidently have lit upon me as the unquiet spirit in need of expulsion. I began taking long walks and then longer walks. The cats who are possibly the original builders of the dark city grew fond of me, and would occasionally give me small gifts – a few marbles, half a surprised mouse, a streaked stone which muttered to itself. I carried the stone with me for a few days but stopped because the coins in my pocket were picking up bad habits from it.

        This was a good while ago; my ghosts and I eventually worked out our problems and they were taken over by one of my younger sisters, Greta. (It is no good asking how many sisters I have; they are like the columns at Stonehenge; it brings ill-luck to try to count them and you’ll never get the same number twice). I saw them when I visited her, but rarely thought of them otherwise. They seemed content, in their bloodless and well-bred way.

Friday, July 25, 2014


Full fathom five my Uncle Moshe lies
I can fashion him almost as I will,
Who will deny my words? Dead at twelve;
Scarce spoken of for many years ;
A name to make his mother cry.
A tall, kind boy, my toddler father thought,
Always, in memory, wearing a sweater.

My oldest aunt thinks I look like him;
She sighs. “He was a handsome fatty”.
My father, grown, did his best, gathering
The meagre anecdotes, finding one picture,
Now lost again. I find receipts for gifts
“Given in memory of Moshe Silver.”

What has Moshe done since he died?
Is he still twelve? Is he old? Is he both?
Or perhaps he is nothing now at all.
Lacking proof, I will picture him
An experienced ghost but still
Moses, the kind older brother,
Smiling to see young Nate pretending
To have died a bearded old man.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Eleven thousand and one is an awful lot of virgins, even if we are all dead. Worse, we all look almost exactly the same, with long blonde ringlets and high foreheads and almond-shaped eyes which never seem quite focused, as if we’d be deep in thought but for the fact that we’re, obviously, none of us terribly bright. And, except for the painters, hardly anyone ever calls on us, except for Ursula, of course. Too, it’s embarrassing to be 1/11000th of an attribute. When Ursula goes to a party we’re likely to be left with the coats and the glories and the other attributes. Not much conversation to be had from St. Lucy’s eyes on that silly dish of hers, or Appolonia’s pliers. And, after so many years, the lot of us have nothing much left to say to each other.

I’ve never run into Undecimilla’s parents. I expect they’re in Hell, for giving their daughter a silly name like that, so when she died with Ursula (killed by Huns; Ursula would never consent to just ordinary robbers; nothing but the Scourge of God for her! And for her poor maid Undecimilla, who I’m sure would rather have not become a martyr, but who can argue with a Saxon princess?) their joint gravestone said “HERE LIE URSULA AND UNDECIMILLA VIRGINS.” I don’t know who was putting up such things with the Huns in the neighborhood, but if they’d only thought to put in a comma Undecimilla would’ve been a saint too, and none of the rest of us would exist. That is, assuming we do exist, about which no one seems sure any more.

If you want to stand out as a saint, it helps to have a hook. Saint Jerome may have written the Bible, or translated it, or whatever he did, but it’s that lion of his which makes him so popular with the icon-makers and the painters and the tapestry weavers and the strange little men who make the stained glass windows. St. Catherine is a dear thing, but who’d pray to her if she’d died from a bad cough, instead of being tied to a burning wheel and rolled down a hill? Eleven thousand virgins is an arresting thought. Stand us in a row and we’d go on for miles. What’s more, it was early decided that we all looked the same, as if we’d been stamped out by a cookie-cutter. It sounds desperately boring to me, but there are those who, apparently, are entranced by the notion of identical virgins as far as the eye can see.

At first, I dimly remember, we were rather unformed. Someone would pray to Ursula, and she’d appear, in a dream or a vision, alone or with a crowd of saints, and some blurry virgins with her. They never spoke in those days; just stood around her looking demure and small-mouthed. A dozen or two virgins; 50 or so at the utmost. Really, when you’re having a vision, who’s going to spend it counting virgins? Over time, though, we all got imagined by a very lonely shepherd called Cynewulf. He was young and pious and fought terribly against his attraction to sheep. He spent an entire winter – a very long winter – thinking about each one of us. Unluckily, he was a man of very limited ideas. He’d seen a picture of Mary painted on a church wall, and that was good enough for him. That was what a holy virgin looked like, right enough. She had brown, straight hair in the picture, but he confused it with the rather uncertainly drawn golden glory behind her, and – as he thought of each one of us, repeating the same thought eleven thousand times, we came out blonde as anything, with curls, and looking like Mary’s dim younger sisters.

Well, after that, there we were, trailing through the streets of Heaven, singing praises like anything. I think we sometimes embarrassed Ursula, but she was stuck with us. Everyone knows you can’t change your attribute; it’s terribly bad luck. When St. Lucy tried using her little plate to carry a cup of tea around you would have thought the stars would leap from the firmament in horror.

Each one of us had a number but no name back then. It became obvious that we couldn’t all go on every vision; there’d be no room for anyone else. We tried at least once, but St. Barbara complained that we’d blocked her right out of the picture, and – even in Heaven – they listen to the patron saint of artillery. After that, just enough of us went along to be a crowd. Someone would be doing a window in Prague (they love us in Prague) or a mosaic to Drbejniwcz and Ursula would call out numbers: “17! 907! 42! 46! 5003!” and so on, until she thought she had enough, and the rest of us would just hang around the edges of Heaven, watching the folk in Hell, and waving to those who looked up at us (It doesn’t hurt to be polite).

It was 9031, I think, who first decided to name herself. 9031, somehow, isn’t the sort of number which gets called much, and she amused herself by trying out names. It took some time for her to find one that fit “How does Grah the Destroyer sound to you?” she’d ask me (we had bunks next to each other) or “Don’t you think Drima Batsliver has a perfectly sweet sound?” and I’d say no, and she’d look disappointed. We had a real fight over Apteryx, which I told her might be suitable for a wingless bird with hairy feathers, but not for a holy beautiful virgin, even if she was dead. I finally agreed, out of exhaustion, that Candy Louise was okay. It was about the same time I began calling myself Sukey, for which I asked no one’s permission.

That was also when I tried, whenever I was posing with Ursula, to stand out, even if just a bit. If you go to Bruges of the Dead, there’s an altar to Ursula in what used to be a girls’ school the nuns ran. I’m in the third row, seventh from the left, and my eyes are slightly crossed. I used to visit there sometimes and listen to the classes, and haunt the dreams of the younger girls. There’s a window in St. Mary Aldegate; I’m the last in line, and poking a finger into the ribs of the virgin next to me.

For some time, Candy Louise and I were the only named virgins; I think we made the others feel uneasy. After a while, though, it became a fad, and everyone had to have a name. As I said, though, there are an awful lot of us, and not everyone asked me what I thought, which explains Gusnilda, Hanketta, and Crowbar. My friends.

According to the rules, every saint has unlimited access to the illimitable power of God. In theory, then, any saint can do anything but, being saints, they mostly don’t. St. Boniface spent three weeks once trying to explain to Gusnilda why you can keep dividing infinity as long as you like and every piece is still going to be infinite. For a while afterwards we amused ourselves by making smaller and smaller infinities until the seraphs got to complaining about stepping on them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


In Heaven, word quickly spread
That, in an alley in Rheims, a bear
Had found an old cracked pot
And turned it upside down.
Now, with a spoon he’d somewhere found
He was beating out a tune.
Nothing complicated, mind you;
But the rhythm was sly and pleading
And, the angels decided,
One could dance to it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


            One of the useful things about being sick is that it’s disconcerting. Routines are ignored, or at any rate sneered at. How dare you expect anything normal, anything useful from me? I’m sick, and alternately freezing cold or clammy hot, and my cough and aching back imperiously set me at a distance from the self I take to be normal. There is something ghostly about the state, and ghosts are notoriously casual about time. They wander at nights when sane folks are asleep, or at least in bed. They obsessively repeat actions which long ago lost meaning and consequence. As doppelgangers, they turn up before they died and startle their living selves.
            In this untuned, inharmonious state, I had spent several days and at last recovered enough that I could do such things as make soup for lunch. A sandwich would have been easier, but I had a sandwich every day at work, and surely non-work days call for something not easily put between two slices of bread.? A bowl of mushroom soup into which an egg has been tossed does  not usually make a good sandwich, so that is what I made. As I did so, I reflected that the person who taught me to beat an egg was my mother. Crack the shell just so on the side of the bowl and pour out the contents; tilt the bowl at an angle and thrash the egg viciously with a fork. (Because I am not the natural my mother was, I generally tap the shell with the fork to break it; she’d have scorned this).
            My next thought is about the book Madeline. A disappointing book, it has always seemed to me. It begins well enough, and I can remember how my mother read the first few pages, which tell of a horribly constrained method of child rearing – girls being raised in two straight lines, in uniforms, doing everything in order. Then – and my mother used a voice which left no doubt that we had reached the heroine who would do something about this dreadful situation – one of the girls has a name (none of the others do. The woman in charge of them who is clearly a nun in full habit in the illustrations, is called Miss Clavell, which seems strange; surely she would be Sister Something or Other?). “The smallest one was called,” and my mother would briefly pause, to underline that someone special was about to enter the scene, “Madeline.”
            But what does Madeline do? She shows very faint traces of individuality (saying “pooh pooh” to the lions in the zoo, and such like things). But her big adventure is that she gets appendicitis, (I think; it’s a long time since I’ve heard these books and she may have had tonsillitis) which calls for her to be rushed to the hospital. As a result of this, she is showered with gifts from her papa (who apparently doesn’t care enough to actually come see her), making the 11 other little girls wish they could have appendectomies (or tonsillectomies, as the case may be) too.
            The promise inherent in the book’s beginning is broken. There is to be no escape from the world of two straight lines, where everything is done communally.
            As a grownup, I’ve become fond of Bemelmans, who was himself something of a wild man, who left Austria because he shot a head waiter (this is always how I’ve heard about it. Apparently there are many things about which Middle Europeans are willing to be tolerant, and the young Ludwig could have shot any number of busboys, or even, perhaps, a sous-chef. But a head waiter? Off to New York, where headwaiters can  be shot with impunity!) His book on travelling in Central America is wonderful. I recently learned that his mother was raised by nuns who took their charges for walks in two straight lines. She must have been something of a rebel since Bemelmans’ father was an artist and a Belgian. That father later ran off, leaving his wife behind. As Bemelmans tells it, he ran off with Ludwig’s governess (the actuality is, I’ve read, a bit more complicated; he had gotten the governess pregnant but ran off with yet another woman, leading the despondent governess to attempt suicide). As Bemelmans laments, he wishes that his father had run off with his mother, leaving the governess behind to care for Ludwig. So perhaps he didn’t like his mother so very much? Or wishes she had wandered a bit further away from those two straight lines?
My father’s comment:
If you had read Madeline more closely you would have gotten your facts straight.  Bemelmans agreed to take the rap when the governess, attempting suicide, missed and shot the head waiter instead.  He fled to America not to avoid prosecution but to protect the honor of his governess whom he loved.  The key is Miss Clavell - surely Bemelmans, by naming her Clavell wished us to see a key - who indeed is wearing a nun's outfit.  Sopmewhere, I'm sure, there is mention of Miss Clavell doing something "as is her habit", a clear indication.  She is in fact the disguised governess, and is not nearly as innocent as Bemelmans portrays her.

Did this cure your cold?

Monday, July 21, 2014


There was no woman, I think, named Jane Cornman
Living in 1946 at my mother’s address
On Bristol Place. Still, she had a library card
From Brooklyn College (probably expired now).
My mother, no Cornman, had cousins of that large clan
Even now, years after she died, she occasionally
Springs a new one on me (Lemports too, and Perlows)
But surely I’d have heard of one who shared her house

(As did her cousin Sy when he went to the school
And my grandfather gave him a dime every day).

Jane Cornman signed her card in my mother’s handwriting
Agreeing to obey the rules of the College library,
She would  not run, chew gum or deface books
And would return them on or before the day they were due.
My mother (dead for eight years now)  has surely
Reconnnected with Jane Cornman (in the afterworld
No one cares if you’re fictional. This will be
A very great solace to me after I’ve died).
Brooklyn College librarians hear the noises made
By two ghosts, running through the stacks.

Friday, July 18, 2014


My Muse is off in Cincinnati so again
The very old one, who speaks mostly
In Linear B, has been coming by

My Greek is very bad. So bad, in fact,
That Great Athena herself warned me
To stop ever trying to speak it.

Still, I understand a little. We manage,
(For the most part) the old muse and I.

Lately, whatever music I put on she changes
To Johnny Dodds and His Black Bottom Stompers
Playing “Wild Man Blues” (Armstrong on trumpet)

“That’s what jazz should sound like,” she says
“That’s how we played it when I was young
And jazz came up the river to Knossos.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014



        Those who think they understand always speak to me with wonder that each year has exactly the right amount of minutes with none left over. I generally nod and agree, since they’re probably happier in thinking so. Really, of course, most years are either under or over-supplied. Astronomers and mathematicians can calculate with astonishing exactitude; the Powers, however, can barely count. When the year begins, they look at the barrels of hours, the bales of minutes and the casks of seconds (packed in linseed oil, usually, to keep them slippery) and are satisfied there’s no possibility of running low, or even out. In January, in April, even in September, they’ll casually dip Their hands in, giving a few extra hours to some poor student slaving at her thesis, or throwing in extra minutes for a team in double over-time. They’ll even use seconds on Their ice-cream when the colored sprinkles have been used up.

        Being Who They are, of course, they never think of 1806, when there was no December 29th. No one cares to remember that there was no genuine 1712 at all; just some stray days we found beneath the cushions and then cobbled together and used over and over, so that February 4th, 1611, for instance, came seventeen times that year, though we would generally slap a fresh coat of paint on it each time and give it a clean collar. The poor thing was paper-thin and trembling when it came on as December 13th and it collapsed around 10:30 so that nothing at all could happen for a space which would have held 90 minutes if we had had any minutes to spare. We simply jammed in some old dishes and rags we had lying around. (It’s a terrible thing that there were people who remembered those dishes and rags with great fondness, and counted them as golden memories).


Wednesday, July 16, 2014


The Athens, Amesville & Chauncey Railroad
Never reached Amesville or Chauncey
And stopped just north of
It hasn't operated since 1930.
For this reason it is much favored
By ghosts who have no desire
To see Amesville or Chauncey
But are mildly curious about

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


My poems seem to change in the summer
Ignoring me even more than usual.
Come winter, Raskalnikov and Little Nell

Will be after me to write something for them
Gloomy, deep; poems you can hit with a mallet
And leave no crack, no chip, no dent.

(You there – trying to recall where you left
Your mallet – put the thought aside.)

The hot weather wants airy poems, with holes
For the wind to blow through, and hinges
So they can be put away when it starts raining.

I assume Little Nell and Raskalnikov
Are on vacation now; talking on some beach
About  Daniel Quilp and Sonia Marmeladov.

Monday, July 14, 2014


A friend of mine says
She saw the Three Graces
In Grand Central Station.

They were on their way
To Cooperstown
For an exhibition game

Against the Nine Muses
Who had challenged them.

To fill the roster the Graces
Invited the Four Horseman
Of the Apocalypse.

Also, Fred Astaire
And the young Juan Marischal
(Whom Aglaia always liked).

Friday, July 11, 2014


This thick book of new American poetry
Has been to Syracuse, Agrigento, Noto
Palermo, Segesta and Cefalu. It moved
From the large suitcase to the small; one day
It rode in the shoulder bag. I wrote my name
On the first page (intruding myself among
My published betters).  I almost opened it
In Frankfort, where I stayed a night,
Among the business travellers in a hotel
Whose staff was frighteningly helpful,
Shimmering up suddenly to give directions
To the very best elevator bank. Home now,
I start reading it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014



Other words stood here.
Knowing that, surely
You are dissatisfied.
Nothing I can write
Will match what is lost.
The shadow I cast?
Faithful, but not mine.
Read this right now!
Your return may find
A map, a leaf, a will
Proving you the heir
Of some stranger saint.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


I was checking my email
When a message appeared
It said it came from No Sender
And had No Subject. It was sent
On the 44th day of some month
In 1969. It lingered
Just an instant and vanished

The poet Dowson saw Satan
Paris once. A medium
Called and he materialized but
Had really nothing much to say.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


When I seek out the sources of my thoughts, I find they had their beginnings in fragile Chance; they were born of little moments that shine for me curiously in the past. Slight the impulse that made me take this turning at the crossroads, trivial and fortuitous the meeting, and light as gossamer the thread that first knit me to my friend. These are full of wonder; more mysterious are the moments that must have brushed my evanescently with their wings and passed me by; when Fate beckoned and I did not see it, when a new Life trembled for a second on the threshold; but the word was not spoken, the hand was not held out, and the Might-have been shivered and vanished, dim as a dream, into the waste realms of non-existence.

So I never lose a sense of the whimsical and perilous charm of daily life, with its meetings and words and accidents. Why, today, perhaps, or next week, I may hear a voice and, packing up my Gladstone bag, follow it to the ends of the world.
Logan Pearsall Smith (a lovely, gusty, name; like a ship sailing before the wind):

Today’s lesson is to have a Gladstone bag
Always near at hand. When the voice calls
Come now to the ends of the world and beyond!
Can you answer: Just wait! With expedited shipping
And for only two hundred dollars
Amazon can deliver my bag tomorrow?

Monday, July 7, 2014


How calm the encyclopedia sounds!
“Virconium,” it says, is the Latin form
Of the Common Brittonic  uiroconion
Meaning  settlement of the werewolf.
It tells of the legions stationed there
The bath-houses, the forum, the bishops.
In the sixth century, for reasons unknown,
The old basilica was demolished
And “replaced with new timber-framed buildings
 On rubble platforms.” Though there has been
Some excavation most of the town
Remains buried. There is no word spared
For the werewolf or whether he became

A citizen of Rome and/or a bishop.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


If I were one who blesses I
Would bless the morning when I found
While looking for food, a bit of clay;
Not good to eat; interesting.

It wanted something I could tell
I poked it twice; it looked at me
I gave it a third eye, but then
Rubbed it out; it looked all wrong.

A bent stick drew its lipless mouth
Straight and stern but not unhappy
The ears I gave it rose too high;
I decided they were horns instead.

Do you think, friend, you’ll find your god
More pliant than this one of mine?