Those days I was much troubled by
So midnight often sent me down the midway
Of a fair closed before I was born.
On my way to Masaryk's statue I'd pass
The tower room from which you might be looking.
I would express regret to the statue that its subject
Had been thrown from a window in Prague.
Some nights he’d answer "Long ago it was,"
After Li Po died his shadow became
Living on a mountainside, practising austerities
And doing a good deed now and then
Until by mixing distilled holiness and a little dark magic
He felt he might conjure Li Po back into the world.
Sadly, he'd over-estimated his powers
Raising up only two jingle writers,
A weaver, three grey pheasants, a cook
And a horse who could do simple math.
If there was reason enough, I
Baba Yaga could make a rough figure
From dust and twigs. St. Anthony might find something
Very like my soul, perhaps caught in a hedge
Or loitering with La Golue and Boneless Valentin.
The Lvoviner would recite a nine syllabled name;
His wife would correct his pronunciation.
The mad king would provide music; Li Po
Would bring wine and amuse the cats.
The magician's wand -- not the ebony one
Chased with gold but the plain ash stick
That works -- would be tapped three times
And there I'd be.
Concerned he might
The Lvoviner turned to God
Who was also troubled.
"What choice have I, Lvoviner
But to show mercy, heal the sick,
Punish the joyfully evil?
How much harder this will be
If I don't even exist! Come along;
We will consult Bishop Berkeley
Perhaps he has found an answer."
Most of my prayers
Never make it out of the City
Sometimes I'll see them
Begging for change on the subway
Or wearily resting in the steam
Rising from a sidewalk grating.
One of them plays chess
With ghosts in Union Square.
If your stay must be short
The best way to see Heaven
Is from atop a mad elephant
Who stops for nothing.
As you race by, angels
Stop dancing on pins;
A few wave. Cats
(Your sister says there are
No cats in Heaven?
Tell her she's wrong. )
Leap from rooftops
Joining you for a bit.
(Though they won't admit it
They are secretly grateful
That you and your elephant
Have come to Heaven
To give them a ride.)
Bad enough is
that day in Spring when an hour is taken clean away from your life, and you can
start a sneeze at 3 of the clock and finish it at 4, but worse, I've always
felt, is that day in Fall when they purport to give it back. I don't know what
sort of system is used, or how the hours are stored between times, but it's a
right muddle. Not once have I gotten the right hour back. Nothing has helped;
I've tried writing letters and burning them by the light of a quarter moon when
the wind was towards the West; I've carefully written my name and address in
indelible ink on the edge of the poor hour (which wept when it was taken). For
all the good it's done I might as well have been trying to store light in a
Not many are so
tidy with time as I am, and I resent having to live through a strange hour
filled with the crumbs and detritus of some one else's life. Still, there's a
sort of fascination in sorting through each year and inventorying the contents
of a stranger's hour.
The hour is both
taken and returned at night in the hope, perhaps, that the transaction will
pass unnoticed. Accordingly, it's common to find a dream or two, disconsolately
kicking its heels at having been left like a bug in amber for half a year. I
once spent nearly the whole of the stranger's hour vainly trying to comfort a
prophetic dream which now found itself without purpose; the event which it was
to foretell in brilliantly illusive and ambiguous terms had taken place during
the late Summer. Worse, it was mostly in a language with which I am only
vaguely acquainted, so many of the most poetic thoughts and references shot
right past me.
Then there was
the nightmare which, released from long imprisonment leaped at me with a
gleeful roar, only to pull back in horror when it saw I wasn't it's intended
victim and - even worse - that I am rather fond than otherwise of poisonous
spiders. It took three shots of absinthe before it stopped shuddering.
than the misplaced dreams are the sudden insights which find themselves in the
wrong head. Some place in the world, I know, there is a person longing to
understand the meaning of creation, and another who desperately wishes to know what
Kathy sees in Jake. If I had their addresses I might write them; I would be
more than glad to let the mystery writer know how it is possible that Lord
Clutterbock was murdered while alone in the locked space station.
Most of my
experiences with these stray hours have been interesting, though not without
their distressing aspects. The hour passes, taking it's fading dreams or hopes
or despairs with it, and I'm back in my own time, with which I have always
maintained a relationship of formal politeness. The real problem comes when the
hour that was taken holds someone's Death in it. A man's death doesn't fade
wistfully away, or melt like a witch in soapy water. The hour goes and I'm left
with an unemployed Death sitting there.
forbids me to shoo it out into the hallway. What would it do there at 4 in the
morning? The three times I've confronted this situation, which is more common,
I suspect, than the authorities let on, I've wound up with some stranger's
Death sleeping in the spare bed. To be fair, they fold the sheets and clean up
the next day.
surprised at how limited their job skills are. Sure, they can appear
dramatically and extract a soul from it's mortal container and then lead it
past innumerable hazards (the bridge made of knife-blades, the caverns of fire,
the big sheep, and the like) to a realm of inutterable bliss or eternal woe, or
a dimly-lit arcade where the soul plays a sort of skittles until its karma
calls for it to be reborn, but none of these are much called for in the modern
world. At least a passing acquaintance with word-processing would do them all a
world of good.
I'll give them
that they're a resilient lot. Once they're over the initial shock of having
missed their intended target they're not afraid of a little hard work, and,
with some advice from me and perhaps a loan (scrupulously paid back), they soon
become hospital orderlies or prison guards or lunch room aides. I see them on
the street sometimes - they've settled in the neighborhood - and they're always
pleasant. I only hope if my death (which seems long overdue, though I'm not one
to complain about such things) has met the same fate that someone has done the
right thing by it. I hate to think of my poor death sitting somewhere, lost and
cold, with no friend to give it a kind word or a good meal.
My father's late for the rehearsal
So this poem's supporting cast -- a banshee,
Two cats, my grandmother, most
Of the 1939 Dodgers, Sts. Brigid and Jerome,
Jerome's lion and Hans Castorp --
Amuse themselves as best they can
Crowded into my grandmother's kitchen.
(It is 3 a.m., but she would've been awake
Even if I hadn't sent this crowd along)
The banshee tells a very involved joke
At which only my grandmother laughs
The cats debate proper ways to greet
The ghost of the last Ming Emperor
Who is said to be travelling with my father.
There is a noise outside, but it is only
Castor Oyl and J. Wellington Wimpy,
Players from Thimble Theater, hoping
For some work as extras in the poem.
The banshee is starting another joke:
"Nat Silver, the ghost of an emperor
And Li Po's shadow walk into a bar ..."
When Baba Yaga appeared among the
Her house -- the one with the chicken legs --
Determined to improve itself. Day after day
It does deep-knee bends for hours. The owls,
Who have colonized the rafters, complain
That they’re turning into doves;
Baba Yaga lets them keep their
And has added phosphorescent eyes and fangs.
The mice in the straw have discovered
I meant to type the phrase
But my machine, in its mechanical despair,
Conjured up St. Nerd. As a new saint,
And a rather clumsy one at that,
He solicits your prayers. Send him some;
We will sift through them. Who knows
What sort of miracles he may have
Up the sleeve of his misbuttoned shirt?
Lincoln, my father said, spoke of a tonic
Which would make a new man of you
And there'd be enough left over
To make a little yellow dog. I smiled --
Strange bits of information were always
Fluttering around my father, so at need
He could pluck one from the air. Now,
A bit late, I wonder. Who sells this tonic?
What would this new man be like?
Would the yellow dog live with him
Or make its own way in the world?
It is not really a matter of shame
That my family's banshee sets to wailing
When one of us is about to die
But I find it puzzling. Banshees are Irish
While my father's folk were Polish Jews.
Having a dybbuk would be more regular
(And, in fact, we do, it having replaced
One of my cousins years ago). We are,
Usually, long lived folk so the banshee
Often waits years between engagements.
When my father was dying it spent days
Wailing and washing clothes in the duck pond
Behind the town library; the ducks -- a surly lot --
Complained to the Library Board which,
Out of respect for the books my dad had read
And because banshees have talons, voted
Six to four to do nothing whatever.
I’ve read of a woman who believed
Was her first husband. When it was full
She would stand in the street and yell at it
Saying it had never loved her. As it waned
She grew kinder, called it pet names,
Urged it to come inside or, if it insisted
On braving the night air, to at least
Put on a scarf, a coat, some gloves.