BATTLES & LULLABIES
First published in The Southern Review
Blessed is the Lord who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for warfare.
I. The Original Poem
My hands, French-braiding my daughter’s hair before her recital,
are suddenly my grandmother’s, kneading the ceremonial Friday night challah–
the same dark veins, the Tigris, the Euphrates, spreading life into each tributary.
Or turned palms up, eight trains arriving at the same station, at the same time,
two others already emptied and heading back out, boxcars with pet names
like the racing boats of the wealthy: Interior Affairs, Foreign Policy.
Or elbows held close to the body, ten escape routes, and two shtetls
–my great grandmother in one, my great grandfather in the other.
I’m holding them both in my hands; I’m like God in the old camp song,
when my daughter starts to play, and I, forgetting myself, clap
and keep clapping, and I think maybe this world is like God’s boat
and He calls it Genocide, and the next world is also His and ours to share.
II. Foreign Policy
Recital is the name of the poem I was reading at my first recital;
my voice strung tight as young David’s slingshot, his first war stretched
between his sinewy hands. This is the battle he would sing about, years later.
But first he had to learn to play the lyre, practice poetry and song,
love and prayer. So much work just to celebrate his victory.
Imagine him at the slaughterhouse, choosing the sheep, cutting its guts,
his grandmother working quickly beside him, keeping the casing fresh
to insure the sensuous quality of the sound. She separates the fat,
rinsing off the excrement and removing the membranes, except for the muscle fiber;
while David, his thick thumbs bleeding now,
dries, and braids the hanks. Music fit for a King.
Recital is the name of the poem I was reading at my first recital,
when, in the back, I heard somebody’s grandmother shuffling down the hallway,
her whole bridge game, Slavic barges, in tow, and suddenly
chairs were scraping all over the place. Speak up, she says, what are you saying?
I’m reading the numbers on her forearm, each numeral a poem written by God:
perfect, meaningless, and containing all meaning, just as you’d expect in a poem
by the Poet Laureate of all universes, of all religions, of all time.
IV. Interior Affairs
My wife’s already in the kitchen baking cookies for our daughter’s first recital
when I sit down for breakfast. Somewhere it’s nighttime: bombs are falling
and children are starving; but I’m pouring the milk and the sugar,
whistling a song and nibbling the nape of my lover’s neck
on my way back to the refrigerator;
and neither of us can guess who will eventually find the cunning enemy cancer
hiding like a secret code ring in the cereal box of the body.
All this, I’m remembering, was years ago, but years later I’m re-reading Recital
to my daughter who turned out to be a pianist after all
and is practicing for her own recital, at the same North Shore Jewish Nursing Home,
her grandmother mired in the mud of the waiting list and the whole family conspiring
to maneuver her to the front of the line. She’s the last soldier standing between me
and my death. She’s the pre-Columbus boat heading over the edge of the horizon,
and I’m the nameless little boat following. Her husband died in the war of the streets
and her brother died in the war to end all wars and her father died in the war before that.
And the personal war my wife and I have waged between us for so long
that it’s beginning to look like nostalgia, only seems never-ending. I want to die,
not like Saul, on the battlefield of my own sword, nor like Solomon, my house in disarray,
but like David, in his bed, reciting the psalms, at war only with his own soul.
I’m standing in the back of the room listening to my daughter’s recital,
her fingers furiously pumping up and down, and now, diminuendo toward the end,
controlling the strings and valves of my heart. Maybe I am the sheep,
sacrificing my inner life for the sake of her song. Or maybe her palms and fingers,
resting face down on the keys, are only her palms and fingers resting.
I’m alone in the back of the room, a sentry guarding the free cookies
which, according to policy, cannot be eaten except in the recreation hall
we call The Afterlife. Otherwise no one would sit still for the music,
half the audience deaf, and the rest already sailing home on the faint breath
of the small boats they’ve christened Battles and Lullabies. I want to die,
not like Goliath, a victim of modern warfare, nor like Uriah, turned love’s collateral damage,
but like David himself, a shepherd leading his flock to feed among the flowers.
VII. The Revision
Would you still love me, my daughter asks, if I had played all the wrong notes?
She’s wondering what it means to be her: Jewish, American, and upper middle class
in a time of war, when all she really wants to think about is poetry and song.
Would you still love me, my wife asks, if I were old, ugly, too thin, toothless.
She’s bombing her own body weekly, shrapnel embedded
in the roof and walls of the holy house where we prayed and made love.
Would you still love me, David asked his God, if I killed a man
for no better reason than to take his beautiful wife as my lover.
Would you still love me, I asked my father, if instead of fighting my own battles,
I deserted, conscientiously objected, sat on the sidelines, writing,
without even once harnessing the power to revise my life like words on a page.
Would you still love me, God asked my grandmother in the reception hall
before His grand recital, if I wiped out your entire family, let’s say all at once,
leaving one self-involved American tributary to tell the tale.
Life, my grandmother once explained to me, is not poetry, never was, and was
never meant to be. Now by way of answer I watch her wipe away the faint smudge
of chocolate still fresh on God’s lips. Your grandmother’s one tough cookie,
He whispers to me, while she rustles about, her chair scraping every which way.
What, she asks? Speak up, or no one will hear a word you are saying.
As for your certain and coming death, she adds,
I don’t know if you’re a religious man, but you might try praying.
Your steadfast love is eternal. Do not forsake the work of your hands.
UNDRESSING AUNT FRIEDA
Undressing Aunt Frieda, I think of how,
undressing me, she would tilt back her head
as if listening for footsteps, the faint marching
of the S.S. men whose one great dream
was her death. They must have feared
how her young Jewish fingers unbuttoned
and buttoned, as if they had continents
to cross, as if here, in East New York,
I was already tiring, and no one at home
to put me to bed.
Undressing Aunt Frieda, I try to imagine her
healthy, undressing herself, slowly at first,
as if for the love of a man, untying
her green-checkered apron with the secret pockets,
unwrapping the frail just-shy-of-five-feet body
whose scarred beauty Rubens would surely have missed,
but Rembrandt, in the loneliness of his dying days,
might have immortalized.
My daughter at my side grows restless.
She unties her shoes, tugs at each sock.
She has learned, recently, to undress herself,
and pausing occasionally for applause,
does so now. Naked, she shimmies up onto the bed,
curls her thin fingers around Frieda who,
as if she wished herself already dead,
doesn’t coo or even smile.
A dream of love, Frieda preached, is not love,
but a dream. And bad luck, I’d say, follows
the bitter heart. But undressing her now,
I remember the lightness of her hands
and their strength, which somehow lifted me
above the nightmares she had known.
I’ll care for you, she whispered once
as if you were my own. My daughter yawns.
I lift her gently, hoping she’ll sleep
the hour drive home.