The smallest sewing scrap was stowed for later.
Astride her darning egg, my socks with holes
were patched with any thread on hand, no matter
the color. Such frugalities arose
from an immigrant past, her gaunt father,
a traveling junk man whose unblinking gaze
soon filled the gunny sack he shouldered,
the Jewish antonym of Santa Claus.
Thus handed down, his lessons were reborn
in me. Appraise with one quick glance and make
one offer, already counting the return.
Don’t muck around with bargaining. Walk
slowly away. The weak, they’ll flinch and bid
you back; the strong will honor what you did.
Plaster tablets in Ferrara’s Jewish
Archive once served as seals for Jewish tombs.
If medical students scavenged for fresh
corpses to dissect, families would assume
no remedy from the Catholic courts,
but could haggle with doctors for the scraps.
A broken seal meant go collect the parts.
For any absent bits, God must mend the lapse
at the end of days, or so the second seal
implores. Still missing, unabated grief,
suspended by the haste to strike a deal.
These exchanges compounded as beliefs—
to spurn the lesser offer; to hold fast
to whatever they could; to make things last.
Kensington Market, Christmas Eve
for Don Besco
A vendor tends her scree of oranges
and apples, a contrived avalanche
of plenty, her stall’s drab awning backlit
now by street lamp glow, like a lifted hand
near the bluster of flame. She arranges
what browsing fingers mar, the delicate
sleight of making less seem more. And I stand,
asserting elsewhere for one moment more—
half participant, half spectator
as electric light dazzles to a star.
Monolithic, my shadow looms before
me, a witness taller and more solemn
than I am, one of the Magi come
to this nativity ready-made to adore.
Walking With Umberto
in memoriam Umberto Saba
Dockside, hillside, we traverse Trieste,
way-station to everywhere, restless
city of half and half and half again,
none of which ever adds up. Part German,
part Slav, flying the Italian flag. No wonder
it took a half Christian, non-believer
Jew to peel back mask from mask. I loiter,
mouthing your canzoniere like prayers,
outside a chapel mid-way between
the hilltop forum’s Roman columns
and the synagogue’s cumulus dome
while the Adriatic ponders calm
or storm, an ecstatic turbulence
of sun-minted coins stamped on its expanse.
Mama’s boy, doting husband, brash suitor
of him and her alike—flitting from fervor
to fervor, you were the Wandering Jew.
Dante’s bastard heir, sojourning through
alleys teeming with the blessed and cursed,
staving off chaos with measured verse.
You found old books for Rilke, and rented
rooms to Joyce. Strolling with you, he invented
Leopold Bloom fitting Daedalus with wings.
You were driven by incessant cravings
to every dark corner the world concocts
for lovers of boys and antiquarian books.
Raised by your mother’s Jewish family,
you cursed the Gentile father who chose to flee.
Fop, scholar, cabin boy, and refugee.
Specialist in fugitive identities,
your invented surname may be Hebrew
or Slovene, or a mixture of the two.
I follow one lane, translating each bend
through details you described, until it ends
by a house wedged against the rising slope
like a cowering child or swamping boat.
Both shelter and cell, it raised a bulwark
against history’s assaults and any quirk
of fate. How many blows you warded off
with your Olivetti shield, though not aloof
from pain. On the wall, salamanders dart
between small gaps, plying their eternal art
of blending in. Below the bustling shops,
the port’s bright multitude of flags and ships,
the shifting tides of every Exodus
and arrival, ready to transform us
like seed pods wafted by a Bora wind
to put down roots in any soil we find.
I understand what it means to be born
half and half, one whole forever torn
between identities. Guile soon becomes
a second nature and the self sums
into a fraction. That calculation
factors into every interaction,
yielding what to hide. Even though you died
when I was four, I weigh your words and tread
beside you, letting the pregnant cobbles
of Trieste deliver all your troubles.
My counterpart, my counterpoint, I blend
my words with scraps of yours, my unmet friend.