Friday, August 29, 2014


I went with her and stood outside. If I were a more pernickety sort, I’d have had acolytes and prophets and spearwomen and row upon row of servants for a visitor to negotiate before he got within distance of me, but I’d never seen much point to it. There was a dot far off on the horizon, which slowly grew nearer. Night had come before the dot turned into a burly god at our door; Merhut and I had had time to eat and freshen up and we had put on our full regalia. Merhut looked lovely in a well-cut gown which kept changing color and a chain of stars burning around her waist (some of her madmen had a nice sense of fashion). I looked like a skeleton on which someone had plonked bits of armor and a tall hat.

Our visitor was an impressive sort. He stood there for a moment or two, slightly glowing, so that I could drink him in. About 3 cubits and a half tall, I’d say, and quite wide. He looked young, but he had a long and magnificent beard, which he had curled and oiled. There was a dangerous looking battle-axe in his right hand, two swords in their scabbards slung over his back, and any number of daggers and throwing knives strapped about him. The effect was slightly spoiled – but only slightly – by the fact that his left hand was clutching the handles of a bulging carpet bag which looked sturdy but worn.

I would have been content to stand there admiring him, but Merhut came from a mannerly pantheon. “Welcome, stranger!” she said. “Long must have been the road which has led you here and gladly would we heard the stories you have learned along the way. But you must be tired and hungry; will you not eat with us, and bide the night?”

The stranger drew himself up. “I am Chubu! You have been expecting me!”

The correct answer, of course, was “Noble Lord and Lady of the castle, I am Chubu, a poor wayfarer, and right willing would I be to accept your gracious offer and rest here in the shadow of your hospitality.” Then everything would have gone as usual; we’d have eaten and drunk together for three days; I’d have heard what poor mortal was Ishtar’s lover at the moment, what Enki had invented lately and other bits and pieces of news from the greater world. Then – I didn’t take it personally, since  it was protocol – my visitor would try to kill me.

Men like their bits of theatre, and the death of the drought god is a crowd-pleaser. No one seemed bothered by the fact that no matter how many vegetation or rain or fertility gods killed me, drought always returned. Not that I was killed all that often; I don’t bleed, I’m fast, and Enlil himself taught me to use a sword. It’s preposterous to feel guilty about killing a fertility god, and I never did. They grew like weeds.

If this stranger wasn’t going to follow the script I knew, I’d have to improvise. “Chubu – would that be Great Chubu, Puissant Chubu or just Chubu?”

“Chubu of the Many Blades. Look, just call me Chubu.”

“Chubu, then. We haven’t been expecting you. I don’t know who you are or why you’re here.”

“Not that we aren’t glad to see you,” Merhut put in. “We don’t get a lot of visitors.”

“Typical,” Chubu said, “just typical. Can I come in?”

“Of course.”

(To Be Concluded Monday)

Thursday, August 28, 2014


From time to time, I’d hitch a ride with one of the winds who spent their days roaring about the place, and descend upon this village or that, or sometimes a whole region. The water gods were generally glad to see me; it meant a rest for them. For a time, there’d be no rain; the rivers would shrink or vanish in the sands. The farmers would get to rest too, for there would be little or no crop for them to bring in. They’d spend much of the time lying about; sometimes they would lie down for days and not rise again. Those who had the energy would hunt up a priest of mine (well, of course I had priests; I was a god, wasn’t I?) who would point out the dangers inherent in not worshipping Mot and the even greater dangers in not treating his priests with respect. “Mot is a mighty god,” I heard one of 0them say, “and how do you think He feels when he sees someone spilling the contents of a slop bucket on the High Priest of His temple?”

There would be ceremonies and prayers, and the odd sacrifice (one town tried sacrificing frogs, but I sent some really awful dreams until they stopped; I like frogs). Some very flattering things were said about me, but I couldn’t overlook the fact that most of the prayers were that I would go away. Sooner or later, I would show my beneficence by leaving, and people would go back to pouring out their slop buckets on my priests. (This was all right with me, actually. You don’t get a really superior class of men aspiring to be priests of the drought god.)

Quite a lot of Time went by (whatever you’ve been told, Time is not a god; he’s more a sort of complicated machine. He once told me that he didn’t actually hate Gods; he just didn’t see much point to them and reflexively swatted them if they buzzed too loudly when he was trying to think.) For a while, after my uncle Enlil took emeritus status, some of his orgiastic nuns took me as their patron, and droughts were much more fun for a few centuries. My priests started wearing much better robes, growing mustaches, and walking about with unpleasant leers on their faces. I was sorry when the nuns decided that Ishtar was a more appropriate patron than I was, though I couldn’t refute the logic. My priests shaved and went back to looking glum.

I was sitting in my palace one late afternoon, not doing much. There was a priest in a small town near the desert who kept sending me frantic prayers that I destroy the crop of the town about three parasangs down the road, and I was trying to tactfully explain that his town, which had no silos, would starve long before its neighbor, which did. (It would be easier, of course, if I could simply have sent him a note saying “Listen up! A drought next door means a drought at home, so you’re actually praying that I starve or kill you and everyone you know. Is this what you want? Let me know. Love, Your God, Mot.” Protocol, though, demanded a symbolic dream, and preferably one that could be easily misinterpreted. I was never much good at these; the famous one of mine about the cows eating each other was actually crafted by my brother Enki.) My consort came in (I haven’t mentioned her? I had a consort. Her name was Merhut; she was a very nice sort and had something to do with heat-induced delirium and a kind of reddish jadeite) and said there was a god she didn’t recognize coming down the road.

(To Be Continued Tomorrow)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


          Had I had much choice in the matter, I’d have been the god of small green frogs, or the mists that rise around twilight. I suppose my looks counted against me for such jobs; who would want a skeleton accepting his thanks for the relief the mist gave after the burning day? I was quick, though, and handy with a sword, so it was felt I would do well enough as the god of something bleak. There were any number of water gods in those days; three gods for the oceans and one each for lakes, rivers, ponds, streams and marshes. One of my sisters dispensed the rain, and a cousin looked after the ground water. Canals, wells, cisterns ... there was even an ambitious demon who called himself the lord of the water in the wash basin.

          But there hadn’t been a god for the dry things in quite some while. The desert rejected any god who tried to rule it, though it didn’t mind the large number or pretenders and aspirants who wandered about in it. The sand was willing enough, but the logistics defeated us there; each grain demanded its own god. I believe they wound up with each one worshipping its neighbor. Since their prayers were on the order of “O Lord, grant that I may remain a grain of sand!” this worked well enough.

My mother, though, remembered that when she had been very young there had been a god of drought. “He was quite handsome, in an austere sort of way – all basalt and hard lines to him. Not much sense of humor, sadly, and the only thing he seemed fond of was a stone lion that used to follow him about. No one’s seen him for ages, though I saw the lion a few years back, playing at being a statue in Nineveh. He had the most lovely palace, and the winds used to run about it howling and chucking stones at each other.”

“Why did a  lion have a palace?”

“Not the lion – the god, Inshul was his name, I think. Though I’m quite fond of you, Mot, no one would say you were swift on the uptake; it can be quite irritating.”

I don’t recall consenting, but I didn’t say no and found myself with a drafty palace in the most inaccessible part of the desert. There were few passersby – a djinn now and then, or an afrit who was hiding from the law. (Most gods won’t give an afrit the time of day, but I’ve always been fond of them. Apart from being thieves and their habit of leaving no survivors when they ambush a caravan, they are an engaging race, and they brought me news of the world, so I didn’t feel quite so alone).

(To Be Continued Tomorrow)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Only old ninjas throw their interbangs
After which they walk stiffly
And retire within parentheses.
Their hearts are folded steel but
Their semi-colons give out at last
Putting a period to their time on earth
And they walk amidst the asterisks.

The ghosts of my  parents came by last night
To assure me there was no life after death
Only surcease., absence, ending;
“Then why are you here and, for that matter,
          “You think long-held habits can be broken
As easily as that? You called and we came.”

Try to remember
That each day you are growing
More absent-minded

Monday, August 25, 2014


In some world where they do things better
Paradise Lost is a comedy, ending in a marriage
The evidence is all there: Eve and Satan
Were meant for each other. Milton could not
Conceal the strength of their attraction;
Satan softens when he sees her, almost forgetting
Who he is; she hears music when he speaks.
Adam means well, but is the fiance foisted on Eve –
The role Ralph Bellamy plays as he waits
For Cary Grant to cut him out again –
In Act Last, God would play out his role:
The Angry Father Who Finally Forgives
And blesses the errant lovers. Jesus, I think,
Would do well as the wily servant who sets things right.

After the climax, we might see Sin and Death
Performing their vaudeville routines
Which somehow never grow old.

Friday, August 22, 2014


Some certain hell hung, ready to strike
At enemies uncertain who would come if only
I would call them forth, but I had no will
To make or mar the resting day
Green undying in my hand.

Prince of Nothing, your subjects grow impenitent
The dead bawd in the market hawks her wares
The shards stir in the basket, planning
Revenge against the potter.


If the fountain howls what care I?
Or  if the water in the bowl trembles
And mirrors forth things unhappening
Why should my heart uneasy grow?
Of Lethe water I’ve not drunk
By the Styx I have sworn no oath;
There is a sixth river some say
And to it will I give answer.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


I had heard it might be; Heaven was cold last night.
Fortunately, when I rose from bed I had wrapped
A quilt about me and entered as a patchwork angel.
The place was filled with birds – rooks, for the most part;
I hope never to see a sight more miserable.
They huddled together, their black feathers puffed
Or flew in enormous clouds, trying to keep warm.
Two of them hopped to my shoulders and a third,
Larger than common, gripped the hair on my head.
“If, Stranger,,” he said, his  voice raw and grating,
“You should encounter God and fall into discourse
We ask this of you: tell Him he has been
Egregiously misled; we are not delighted.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Always it happens. Just when no one’s come by for years and I
Think to loose the boat and let it wander where it will
And use the pole for kindling, some soul comes bewildered by.
I find I have employment still.

So very thin this one; a shadow’s shadow, just a  bit more
Then two dark memories and a vow half-taken
Half forsworn; who thought to wake upon some other shore.
No use, I think, asking him to bail.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Put on the music so that
She may sing that she lives
On cigarettes and coffee,
Missing him. He enters
As a trumpet, pleading,
Soaring, dipping, fluttering;
He runs away, pivots,
Leaps in the air; floats down.


Monday, August 18, 2014


The wizard, tired at last of life, went looking for his heart
Thinking to be mortal once more. He crossed the desert
Long deemed uncrossable, climbed the glass mountain,
Tricked the faithsworn demon into leaving his post,
Coming at last to the ruins of the tower where --
An unimaginable number of years before --
He had been raised and beneath which was a cavern
Whose darkest corner hid his heart which adamantly
Refused to return to the hollow in his chest.

"Ever were you stubborn," said the wizard,
"Ever did you stand against me, keeping me awake
With your witless, steady beating. I have prospered
Well and more than well without you. Still, you are my heart
And I am weary and seek to die." "Selfish as ever!"
Said his heart. "Ages have passed since we were one.
 I have no wish to rejoin you, nor do I think
That it is even possible. This is not how the story goes.
Some youngest son, some clever girl, was meant to find me,
Against all odds and slay you by stilling me
With one shrewd thrust of an enchanted blade
Or the sound of three syllables not meant for human tongue.
Why, then, did no hero ever come nor heroine?"
"New stories replaced the old; desert sands concealed the way across;
Few got past the demons. The destined slayer
Was, I believe, slain by me in his cradle. At the time
I thought it a prudent bit of work. I regret it now."

Friday, August 15, 2014


Leaning forward, almost whispering,
The preacher said "This morning when
I prayed to God, there was No One there!
I could get no explanation;
Dark-winged angels would not meet my eye."

Beneath their hats, three church ladies stirred --
A sub-committee, prepared for this contingency --
But before they could rise, the preacher's cat
Had leapt into the altar. "Until God returns
We are in charge. Feed us; brush us
And you will find us not unkindly."

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Ever since William Blake praised them
The Tigers of Wrath have been insufferable
And sneer at the Horses of Instruction.
From his nutshell, the King of Infinite Space,
Urges moderation upon them:
“Where are the Velociraptors of Rage?
Who now fears the Protozoa of Vexation?”

At the rain the dead leaves jeer
“What need have we of you
Now that we're perfect, brown and sere?”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


In the seventeenth century
A statue of St. Peter
Was placed on Trajan's Column
Replacing the emperor's
Melted down long before.
In late 1959, St. Peter
Took his statue's place,
Setting it to watch
The gates of Heaven.
So far as we can tell
God has been pleased
With the statue's work.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014



Had you said her smile, her cheekbones
Could only belong to a priestess of the moon
I would have nodded yes, yes, surely this is so
Dogs must follow her but only cats may know
What words she speaks on moonless nights.

These days, though, are not kind to such priestesses
So on a day when the full moon was a ghostapple
Hanging in the sun's bright light she slipped off
Carrying from the world a measure of its grace.

Monday, August 11, 2014


Because she is a hundred and fifty feet tall
Boys never ask the Statue of Liberty to dance.
She is, then, surprised when a standing Buddha
Comes surfing into New York Harbor.
(Having perfect balance, every Buddha
Can surf wonderfully, even ones
Made of stone) and suggests that, after dinner
(Which he has brought with him in a basket
Strapped to his board), they go dancing.
He is one hundred sixty feet and some inches tall
(You could look it up); her head nestles comfortably
On his smooth granite shoulder. In the morning
The harbor police haven’t the heart to wake her
As she sleeps, her head in the Buddha’s lap.

Friday, August 8, 2014


If you seek his grave you’ll find it
In the wrong part of the cemetery
Not with the dead of the hometown
He never saw. His father glances
At the memory of the watch
Which lies in my dresser drawer.
His mother says “Look! It’s Natie!”
And there he is, come by starlight.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


Most powerful, I’ve heard, the spell left undone;
Just one gesture more and a new world
Spins in our place. The wizard drops his hand
And we go on, unknowing, unthankful.
But I do not think that this is so.

On the Holyhead train in 1933 two men sit,
They do not speak (they’ve not been introduced)
The elder is white-haired, word-haunted, lean;
His fingers are too long; he half-shuts his eyes
And asks himself if the moment’s come.

When the train makes its halt, near island’s edge,
The youth is ten seconds older than his years
And remembers two things he never saw
A curlew calls in the sun by the water’s edge;
A rook flies against the dark at day’s end.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014



If you know something of the world, then surely you are acquainted with the Oblast of Lvov in Galicia, and surely you know that in the Oblast of Lvov, on the banks of the Bug River, there was once a small village called Kamionka Strumilova. Sixty years ago they changed the name of the village to Kamienska Bugskaya, but they’re not fooling anyone; the whole world still knows it as Kamionka Strumilova.

For a long time, if I had to speak of an obscure minuscule place, almost too small or anyone to see, I would use as my measuring stick the village of Kamionka Strumilova. Later research told me that before the war it had about 8000 people, half of them Jews, a place big enough to be home to a Hasidic dynasty. Jews discovered Kamionka in 1456, thirty-six years before Columbus discovered America, and on the whole they liked it better. The renowned mystics Zvi Hersh of Kamionka and his grandson Samuel of Kamionka lived here – but where else would they live? My cousin Isak told me that our Kamionka family had been a Hasidic one, but our family history is not written down anywhere, certainly not in this world.

Citizens of Kamionka apparently swore an oath never to talk about their home town with anyone. There is a curse on those who do; the records of the first Kamionka Strumilova Benevolent Association in Brooklyn, together with its photographs, were all consumed by fire decades and decades ago, much like the collection of the ancient library at Alexandria and the lost plays of Sophocles. My father never spoke of his village, except once to explain how he developed certain skills that only a boyhood in Kamionka Strumilova would give a person.

For me, for a long time, Kamionka Strumilova was a place that existed only in the world of fantasy. My father came from there, but in that imaginary time before I was born. My mother and father both lived there in the early days of their marriage, when she was eighteen and he nineteen – but who can even imagine such a time? – and my grandmother presided there over a duck farm and twelve children, but I never saw her or her other children, or any of their photographs. It was a place of myth, a land that existed only so that my father could be born there, and it disappeared in 1910 when he left and there was no further need for it.

There is one Kamionka Strumilova that exists in the minds of rationalists and one in the minds of mystics. Neither place exists in the mind of realists, unfortunately; what had been the village was wiped out between 1941 and 1942, and replaced by something else.

There does still exist a drawing of the mural that was on a wall of the synagogue there, and a photograph of a carved and decorative gravestone in its cemetery. Perhaps you think that these show that Kamionka Strumilova had to be a real place, but they don’t. When Shabbos comes, even mythical people must pray, and when they die shall we leave them to lie in the streets where they’ve fallen?

My cousin once took me to an exhibit of replicas of wooden synagogues in the Tel Aviv Library. On one wall was a huge map of Eastern Europe with the names and locations of Jewish communities, among them, its name spelled out in Yiddish, Kamionka Strumilova. Perhaps the place is a concept that can exist in Yiddish but not in English. But then, Eastern Europe itself is a legendary place for us now.

We don’t have photos documenting our own existence there either. My sister Rose cut them all up when she was four. She says she did it simply out of idleness, but it was actually the hand of fate. A heavenly tribunal had decreed that we were never to lay eyes on likenesses of our grandparents and aunts and uncles who lived there, and we never have.

I am sometimes haunted by the notion that God’s first plan for me was to live my entire life in Kamionka Strumilova. I think I would have fit in better there than I have here.

I saw in a book the wooden synagogue, or anyway the replica, where I was supposed to have prayed. The description says that its painted murals – done in 1730, with the permission of Jan Prochnicki, Archbishop of Lvov – were never finished, and those that had been finished had deteriorated badly. That sounds just right for any synagogue of mine.

A drawing of one of the murals shows the Jerusalem Temple burning, and as a symbol of desolation wild animals roaming freely in the streets, devouring sheep. That seems right too, somehow.

Had I lived out my life in Kamionka Strumilova, I have seen the gravestone below which I would have been buried. The book in which I found its picture – an old book now, called A World Passed By – says that the gravestones in the cemetery of Kamionka Strumilova rival or surpass those in the cemeteries of Lvov. Imagine being famous for having gravestones that rival or surpass those of Lvov.

The stonecutter carves just deep enough so that the letters will remain clear and distinct for exactly one hundred years, when the last one who might ever have had a glimpse of the person below has himself died. Then the edges start to decay, just as people’s memories do, until finally only anonymous son of anonymous lies buried here.

The Soviet Union took over Kamionka Strumilova in 1939, Germany in 1941, the Ukraine in 1945. To soften the memory that it was once mainly a Polish village – the name means something like Strumilova’s Stone – the new owners renamed it Kamienska Bugskaya: the same village, but with different people and under new management.

Who are the people of Kamienska Bugskaya, I wonder? Are they ever haunted by the people of Kamionka Strumilova who still imagine they live here? While walking, do they ever have to step aside to let the people of Kamionka Strumilova pass, or long to rest on a bench only to find that someone from Kamionka Strumilova is sitting there already?

I tried to visit Kamionka Strumilova once, in 1989, when the Soviet Union still existed. Almost as its last official act, its apparatchiks wouldn’t let me go there, and wouldn’t say why. I realize now that as people who took materialism seriously they were embarrassed to admit that they ruled a place that did not exist in the real world but in some other world, especially in a society that did not recognize these distinctions.

On our way out of Lvov our bus passed a sign indicating the direction to Kamienska Bugskaya, twenty kilometers away. At the same time we spotted a small group of four or five ducks on the roadway, clearly descendants of the ducks my grandmother had once raised on her farm. They had come to pay their respects to her grandson, and to let us know that in better times they would have come in greater numbers and given me a more fitting greeting.

When my father died, two of his friends – as young boys, the three had grown up on the same street – accompanied us to the cemetery. On the gravestones that were already there were names of people my parents had sometimes mentioned but whom I had never seen. They were once the founding members of the First Kamionka Strumilova Benevolent Association, once more dwelling together as neighbors in the same village.

Judah Halevi, great poet of our Spanish years, wrote that his heart was in the east, but he himself in the farthermost west. If you should greet me when you see me walking in the street and I don’t reply, or should you try to stop me to ask directions and I just walk on, it’s not because I am unfriendly but because I am in the Village of Great Neck but my heart is in Kamionka Strumilova, a village that doesn’t even exist.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


It’s a hot high summer day, and why not write about my mother? She
knew vast amounts of poetry, for which she reserved a different, pleasure-filled, voice. What can I remember her reciting (usually a few lines, more or less apposite to the conversation)? “My candle burns at both ends/ It shall not last the night/ But oh my foes and ah my friends/ It gives such a lovely light!” (and you could hear how lovely that light was). “Out of the night that covers me/ Black as the pit from pole to pole/ I thank whatever gods there be/ For my unconquerable soul/ It matters not how strait the gate/ How charged with punishment the scroll/ I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul!” And “I am His Majesty’s dog at Kew/ Pray tell me sir; whose dog are you?” Again, (strangely, as part of a story about me when I was still in my crib), “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow/ Creeps at this petty pace from day to day/ And all our yesterdays are but candles/ Lighting fools the way to dusty death.”

Once in a great while: “My love is like a red, red rose/ That’s newly born in spring.”

More lines recite themselves for me. “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase!/ Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace.” “Jenny kissed me when we met/ Jumping from the chair she sat on/ Time, you thief, who love to get/ Sweets in your list; put that in!” (My father recited limericks, sang many songs, while she sang few and reluctantly. The only one I can recall her singing with any sureness is “The Lost Chord.”)

She had a gift for apt misquotation which I wished I’d valued more. I
remember only a few; one was the Black Pearl of Calcutta, plainly a rare and fabulous jewel. Another is bumbling along with the bumbling bumble bees, which is , I think, an improvement over the original tumbling along with the tumbling tumbleweeds, which sounds rather dreary. The bumbling bumble bees, on the other hand, sound like amusing, even lovable company. My brother and I, smart alecks both, would generally correct her, so that the wonderful gem became a horrible dungeon, the stingless, well-meaning bees rootless balls of vegetation.

Monday, August 4, 2014


In one of his letters Flaubert complains –
Or is he boasting? – that he spent the morning
Taking out a comma and the  afternoon
Putting it back in. The afternoon’s comma
Was, I have reason to believe, quite different
From the one removed in the morning.
Disgusted at Flaubert’s treatment,
It had crawled painfully across his desk
To hide in an ink-stain on the blotter.
Ever afterward, when he took inventory,
Flaubert was always one comma short;
It irritated him intensely. George Sand
Offered to give him one of hers;
He politely refused, not letting her see
That the thought of an alien comma
Had brought back his neurasthenia.

Friday, August 1, 2014


My muse does not take orders well; asked
For a poem about my childhood she refuses,
Claims I was the least poetic of children,
Offers, at last, a story about my father
Who had four older sisters to call on
When he wanted to be read to. (He knew 
Not to ask his brothers). One day Doris tired of this
Saying "Natie, you know how to read!" And,
To his amazement, he did. Some would say
He must have picked up words along the way
Watching the books while others read. 
Me, I think it may have been the sheer force
Of his sister's exasperation, telling the universe
That if it did not grant my father literacy
It would answer to her.