The Poetry Porch

A Yiddish Poet at the End of His Tethers
by Richard Fein

(His language)

I no longer fear your dying but think of you as already dead—
a ghost now—and we end up choosing each other once again—
Diminished, deprived, detached—I write out of you—
my private, useless speech dearer to me than the English
I cobble for the dentist, the teller, the super—
Breathless—pouring your breath into my throat—
you loved me when I was a child and when I was a young man
and now you have returned to love me again
as if all you want to do is make love—is all that you can do—
your throaty sounds and your sweet diminutiveness coming to me from another 
and that I hear because you are no longer busy in streets, in stores, in rooms—
because your abandonment brings you to me—your tongue for me alone—
Chambered in the world you made for me—a world you no longer live in—
I see you dead—ready to return—ready to speak to me:
“Know—my love—my words—your words—come out of my mouth—
No longer—Yankev—do you have to worry about my fading day by day—
and thus—now that I’m gone—you enter me more deeply than ever—
You—one of the last—now free to write out of my leaving—
your old fear changing into a poem that comes out of me—
the attachment in the harvesting—the earth having given what it had to give
and then falling back to itself—in my case giving you my last yield—
Conceiving of my death has ransomed you from your fear of my dying—
Kum neh-en-ter—dayn sameh oyfgang in mir iz a simen fun mayn
       untergang—Kum neh-en-ter—
Come closer—your very rise in me marking my fall—Come closer”


(His readers)

The unhappy few in New York.
Their speech passed on.
No more on the street
the cursing, gossiping, joking, selling, yelling,
voices like fishes flitting into my net.
My potential readers
became the actual readers of Eliot,
perhaps taking the long way around
to come back to me
for the first time,
like that jazz musician who played
Brazilian and Cuban melodies,
returning at 70 to klezmer sounds
of childhood, saying, “This is
finally me, for the first time really me.”
Yet why not
mix in Latin rhythms?
Our poetry has the provinces in its blood
and arrives astonished at the world. 


(His lover)

When we make love in our mother tongue,
my dear, we name each part we touch
and kiss, our mouths roving over
our bodies until we lie still, damp
and tired in our sheer breathing, my penis
like a dolphin beached in seaweed, your breasts
like jellyfish, and we fall asleep,
open-mouthed, having thus
read aloud the hornbook of our desires. 


(His life)

Here in the Museum of Natural History I walk under the rib cage
of a right whale and look up as if I’m both inside of it
and have escaped it—that bare whale no longer sounding,
rearing its flukes, spouting, staving in, breaking water,
swimming with its mouth open, catching krill in the baleen,
shutting its mouth and swallowing, a cloudy gleam
in the depths—but bones now hanging from metal hawsers threaded through eyes
      in the ceiling—
sallow leviathan strung up in its skeletal frame—
speech that comes from being stripped to its bones—
offering no consolation but the sound we make out of its bareness—
out from the ventilation between the bones—
out from the lyrate disks tapering down the back—
out from that suspended trellis—our entering it and leaving it—
as I and the schoolchildren and the tourists sporting their chrisom-caps
       gawk and point and gossip—
museum-safe below that clathrate frame slung above us and keeping its distance—
for now not lowered on its metal hawsers with its bony slats enclosing us—
On the way out I pick up a picture postcard with the skeleton on the front—
half of the blank side for a note—half for a name and address


(His dream)

I’m dead to the world,
my rocking chair carved to stillness,
my head under my head,
sculpted clays.
My translator on the stairs,
I listen to his steps.
The door opens. He
keeps his distance and comes close,
finds his way to where I rest,
his voice rising from my throat,
“The death of Yiddish has become the life of me.”


Copyright © 2004 by Richard Fein.