Thursday, April 2, 2009

If meaning flows backward, why aren't we smarter?

To the Sister I Never Had

“Sleep quiet and smiling and do not hanker / For a perfection that can never come” – MacNeice

Sister that I never had, take the initiative, like Eve, against nature!

If kindness is its own reward then you have been paid, but not repaid

For your love, and because you were never born you are losing your mind

And I don’t know what the best escape for you is other than the gates

Smitten with destruction that lead away from our garden where, when

We played as children, you cradled the mallow – Gossypium, cotton –

In an uprooted case of the slows: I can’t help but think back, think

Back on your telling me that dry light is the best, the very best,

And your saying, When I’m gone, say I was fascinated the whole time!

You asked me about the mean streak in the goyim, about the faith

Of our faithless fathers, about the untranslatable doom of the Yiddish-

Speakers infausting us with their right-to-left letters and flames -

Sister, I respect the ambient and believe in the dove that lifts your eyes,

And I am old enough now to apologize to you for the lies I told

To survive you, and I remember you better than people who really

Lived, or those crows on the wire who taught us Hebrew, got drunk

As a drum on a pennyworth of settlebrain, and who pulled you

Out of the rolling waters so you could sit in the kitchen highchair

Kicking the legs like a little girl… and when you were older, which

You never were, you understood all the things I never said

And taught me a little about how to cook for myself; you made

Sure that there were always fresh flowers on the table no matter what,

And above all said grace before each meal in a strange language.

You showed me how to dress for success, gave me courage

When my haircuts and skin and nose and belly let me, inevitably,

Down, and you required that I be and remain a mensch, in exchange

For which you baked the black-and-white cookies I so adored.

But when the earth froze, making burial difficult, you saw to it

That Kaddish was still said by sons for their fathers, and so

The ritual washing continued, and so on, even though the war

Kept up in which those same sons did things that women could

Neither forgive nor understand, and so they repented giving us

Birth, in spite of which all the prayers got said, and on this same

Subject of the departed I thought it only a small sin to have held

You beautiful even when, especially when, you were angry. God

Why did you make off with the only sister I never had when

There was so much more I could have learned from her, including

How to stay human no matter what? Sister, you hugged me when you

Were mad even when the crust didn’t come out right and your joints

Really ached, and your heart, too, and it’s as if I interrupted

A dreamer saying all this now, and in such relative freedom:

Sooner or later even salamanders stop burning, so my dear,

I throw myself on your mercy now that I can’t get you

To speak! Once, the boy I was tried to explore some of your heart

Which was perched out on the black bowed tension wires running

Though our back yard, and you said Here, and I then and only then

Could comprehend your Bible and cookbook, left open forever

On the table – you were, well, so brutally practical, saying

Sometimes Many hands make light work and sometimes on the other

Hand, Too many cooks spoil the soup, and nothing made you more crazy

Than my being sick, which happened a lot, for which I am sorry.

There was a newspaper headline I saw on the train one day,

I couldn’t see the whole thing but it started out: Science

Uncovers Clue to Mystery of What was the mystery?

I never found out, which you thought was very funny.

But now that I try to remember you I realize how sad it was that

You spent almost every night teaching yourself how to knit

Impossible dilemmas together… You made yourself into a great

Cook of seething stews and heavy loaves, and above all you loved

To call the kettle black. And when you were tearfully hanging

The X-mas lights that last year we spent together you said

Honey, most Jews have had a longer journey than Odysseus

So put down that book, will you? Which made me laugh

Because our father was born in Detroit, and when you were a girl

You pronounced it Troy: where all the men fell, and somehow you

Tunneled from your nightmares all the way to theirs as well as mine

In successive choirs because you were never born but I was.

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