[Much gratitude to my friend Brittany Newmark for making this powerful poem available to Robert Frost's Banjo.]
Ruchama In Her Worn Nightgown,
It has taken so long to arrive here, late,
the dust in my shoes
and my pockets
turned out like some clown in a silent film.
Sometimes it was like
Rowing across the lake where all the fish were named for saints
And feeling like you were not a tourist,
(in other words feeling smug)
and then being slighted
And at last knowing, how fragile it is to belong.
Ruchama you had a white dress, before white dresses.
Do you remember it?
on two counts,
1. it was so much more than I could have ever afforded, even now
and 2. It was braver than I have ever been, especially now.
Nu, your feet are bare,
The wells of your clavicle filled with indiscretion.
No need to worry the last bleeding cuticle
or to scour the teakettle at all hours of the night.
O you must be so cold,
Go, go back to bed. What is happening will go on without you.
It does not concern you.
Stay out of it. No good can come of it.
I am sorry to say that there is no one left to comfort
or to betray.
Whatever beauty was
She has picked another hill to die on.
They were good times though,
those parties you used to throw,
And how you served
entire meals of revenge, the sweet breads of ambition,
the small red fruits of petty resentment.
Really, what else can you offer to a room full of opportunists?
With their hands outstretched like ghouls in a B movie
They got what they deserved
and that is so rare in this life.
What did you tell me?
You had the salon repainted and the shutters opened wide
and even the workmen
yes especially the workmen thought
of bedding you,
it was hot repetitive work,
they all imagined you
naked. We all always imagined
you naked, with a pool of clothing at your feet.
That thought and those conversations
pure, like an American song on the green radio:
You don’t believe I love you,
Look at the fool I’ve been.
You don’t believe I’m sinkin
Look at the hole I’m in.
By that time, so many had abandoned their rituals, in the fields,
In the camps, in the gulags—
They understood oppression not as the boy in fawn colored pants
looking out of the French doors onto a garden,
but they knew it
from a hut, the inside of a latrine.
Then there was the man, in the army greens
he waded through the canal
choked with corpses, both theirs and ours.
And he told those stories over and over,
or the story was told around him
after he left.
Of course you know
He did not get separated from his unit
He walked away
at nineteen—armed to the teeth
We all know what happened from there, not pretty.
And he left behind a lesson that would serve.
But even he went on to marry and have a life,
(meaning a wife and children)
Alongside a beach and striped umbrellas.
But of course you know that,
How else could he have slipped so neatly
between you and what could have been?
How else was there always sand on your stone floors?
I am not sure if I fully understand the premise
But it interests me.
In each generation there are 36 righteous men.
I expect one or two must have been impulsive youths,
hellions in jaunty grey caps.
Or just boys playing chicken on a long dark stretch of highway,
They are not angels these men, who may be fewer than 36
they may not even be righteous
But they carry a generation.
I can’t say how to manage the darkness or the isotopes of faith
You can no longer manage even the red scarf or the sassy quip,
they seem sad and ridiculous—old woman, ugly woman.
Because even if they are silent—long gone
the ghosts of guests are well positioned around the room,
just where you placed them
one in the blue velvet chair,
the other just leaning by the bookshelf.
They are not listening they do not look up from the papers they hold out in front of them.
Ruchama, your hand,
you have a tremor.
In the hot wind of August
and in another century
somebody on the fourth floor throws open the door and steps out onto the porch,
Ruchama, you are lovely with a belly full of loquats
that you picked up under the tree, just outside the gates.
Was it stealing?
No more or less than the man,
what he took from you,
he carried back to her
I suppose everybody needs to eat.