Jun '02 [Home]


Robert Klein Engler, D. Nurkse, and Michael Graves

         Childhood and the Great Cities
The Velvet Cord
         Childhood and the Last War
What My Father Showed Me
         The Encounters of Adam and Cain (excerpt)


In Old Jerusalem there used to be The Stone of Losses. If you lost something, and another man found it, you would meet at the stone, one on each side. You would declare, I lost my father, I lost my house, or I lost my lover and my hope. He would say, describe it, and if you could, and he held it in his hands, then he would return it. But dear, tell me, what do you own to lose? This life from clotted salt is but a gift. Did you lose your life? Describe it for me? It was a melody you must hear. It was a river you must bathe in. It was a breath you must sleep next to. The world is crowded. Go tell your troubles to a stone, your neighbor will say. Wait, here is one. I have chewed on it for years. No, it was in my shoe and made me limp. Is it my heart? Father, on the other side, tell me what you hold.


~ . ~

Childhood and the Great Cities

In the dim room, my father
unpacks his books
and sets them on the dusty shelf
in order of weight.
Marx. The Bible. The Atlas.

He runs a finger
along his knife-edge crease
and coaxes his trousers
into the clasp hanger.
He will not wake me.

These sheets are stiff
from honeymoon come.
I turn to face the wall.
Lovers moan inside the plaster.

Now my father lies beside me
and folds his hands
over his pale belly.
In case I can read his mind,
he dreams in his own language.


We are still in the middle of the journey
from Alpha to Omega,
Petersburg to Los Angeles,
worker's state to Kingdom of God.

Each city is larger than the last,
each room smaller,
each keyhole more dazzling.

I tiptoe to the curtain
and see a general on a stone horse,
and moonlit slums--roofs crisscrossed
by immense names, massed laundry,
towers where every window is lit.

After midnight my father grunts
softly, not to wake me.
Soon he begins talking
in the old language,
haltingly at first,
then in a flood
as tears come back to him.

And I'll sit crosslegged until dawn
to guard him from that stranger
with whom he bargains
in a terrified voice.

(Prior publ.: The Rules of Paradise, a collection by the author.)

~ . ~

The Velvet Cord

It is heartrending, these red
maples, these yellow elms.
I feel them united with the sky,
tearing at my blood, cutting hard
with autumn's rusted rituals.

Look, with a gust of wind
the trees are made more bald.
With a gust of wind we turn
to this place of seasonal pain,
to a place where black velvet trees
stand magnet in the hazel air.
I can't take my eyes off them.

I recall now a glass pendant
my mother showed me once.
It was heart-shaped, like a leaf,
and hung upon a velvet cord, black
velvet, like the bark on balding trees.
It had a natural flaw too,
an air bubble at the center.
This made it rare and held
as any empty place the autumn sky.

Mother said it was a gift,
from a doctor, before he left
for China, never to come back.
That rusted autumn she worked
in a dime store, rode the red
streetcar home to her sister's,
the streetcar with yellow cane seats.
That autumn the balding trees
wailed their arms against the sky.

Each autumn pains
as many hearts as leaves.
Some are flawed glass,
or empty like a bubble of air.
Some are maple red by burning,
or dangle from a velvet cord.
Others are off wandering, falling,
drifting down and far with the wind.
One gone as this I call father.

(Prior publ.: The Windless Orchard, No. 33, Fall-Winter 1978)

~ . ~

Childhood and the Last War

It was being fought in another country,
perhaps another continent.
My father said it could not reach us
except as news—the days were headlines,
letters, telegrams, once a voice
crying in the stillness of the hall.

At twilight my father
ran his fingers through my hair
and told me the count of the dead
as if it were my right to know,
as if that knowledge conferred a power
he could not deny me.

How could I sleep?
The room seemed to swell with light
until I lay in a bed
tucked inside the eye.

My father sighed
and fetched me colder water
without being asked.

He shifted from foot to foot,
not daring to leave
while I faked sleep so coyly.

He whispered the great battles:
Verdun, Thermopylae, Cannae.
And the names of the heroes:
Patton, Achilles.

It would be forever until dark.
In the street, older children
were just beginning to play,
their voices raised in jubilant whoops.
A carousel was grinding out a melody
too slow even to be sad.

I peeked through my eyelashes:
the scallops in the wallpaper,
not just watched but watching back
with a harrowing attention.

My bear with four holes
in its button eyes.

The motes of dust orbiting
in the shaft between the curtains,
each more precious than a world.

(Prior publ.: The Rules of Paradise, a collection by the author.)

~ . ~

What My Father Showed Me

Hands that do the dirty work are my father's hands.
Passing up, letting go, stumbling into endless debts,
how to die unknown, these my father showed me.

Lilies drowning in a bowl of tears, the wealth
of words, the high office of the goose-stepping
rich, these and much more my father showed me.

He showed me an orphan has a borrowed childhood
and no pillow against the vacancy of cliffs and wells.
My father opened a jar of echoes and the empty

box of what could have been, he showed me
the map to go away, and why absence weighs
more than presence, he showed me there is no

rumor of love without blood and salt, without
the memory of rain and a widow's silver ring,
my father showed me this even when his lips

were sewn shut, and his eyes, too, my father showed
me how to burn, pale wax of a boy, and palm the snow.


~ . ~

The Encounters of Adam and Cain
Michael Graves


Now, the fumes of the wine
Gone from your head,
After the agon with Yahweh
And about to be banished,
Shaking and clear,
You ask me of fear?

I will tell you about fear,
In the waste outside of Eden,
So close we could still see and feel
The annihilating glory of the cherubıs face,
We sank exhausted to our knees in the dust:
Bone, brain, muscle, blood, flesh
Were one: ice.

At dawn,
Wakened by the prod of the sun,
I took your mother in my arms and said,
"The cobra curves up
Out of his nest,
And, with his narrow spine and neck,
"Lifts his face to light.
He knows no God."


The rest is scattered and cursed, Cain,
Cracked against rocks
In your rage of last night.

Look at the moon.
Pale, shaped like an ear,
It hides in the clouds.

Take what Iıve gathered.
Go to the gate and tell the angel
Abel deserves to sleep

Inside of Eden.


Naked, I went from the Maker,
Where the animals mated
In the grass of the garden.

I stepped on the skulls
Of the failed creations,
Returned to the Father

With a hand on my snake,
A corpse who was walking,
Mocked at by angels.

It was a sickness of self,
A hunger for love, Eve,
Ended by you.

I feel it again.

Contributor Notes