May the Lord of Death pass over
this house. May the Lord of Envy
not curdle our whey. May the Lord
of Greed release us from craving.
Great Lord of Time, grant us a stay.
What I Dwell On
We never come to thoughts. They come to us. —Martin Heidegger
It has been months since a good
night’s sleep, that landing you come
to at the foot of the stairs. Instead,
two-hour catnaps before springing
awake as though what is required of me
is vigilance. I cannot tell you
what I think walking the long corridor
to the kitchen for a sip of juice, or
wandering into my son’s room to examine
his face, the radical purity of something
not quite formed. At night the face becomes
more like itself, bones make their minor
shifts and settle, like a house sinking
as it contracts, the pliant earth
rising up to receive it, even the windows,
the vanishing roof. When a man jumps
from a great height he dies of suffocation,
not impact. I fear those twin perils, and
falling, now falling asleep. Miser or thief,
I hold to what I know. No one sneaks up
from behind, pushes me over the balustrade.
And no one would claim me, breathless
and shattered, from the depths of sleep.
Three can keep a secret if two are corpses.
—Yiddish folk saying
Even the dead can’t keep
a secret. They barge in,
sit at your table, demanding
to be served. They bang
their spoons like children
crying, Feed me! Feed me!
And you have never prepared
Once you would have welcomed
the dead, begged Mother to set out
extra plates. But now they consume
what was promised to the living.
They climb into the marriage bed
with their own unearthly linen,
whispering old secrets you wish
they would keep to themselves.
We all live in dread of our teeth
falling out into our cupped palms.
We pray for our teeth, clattering
in the bone chamber of the skull.
And when the little insanities
creep up from our throat, our teeth,
good soldiers holding their ground,
grind them down in our sleep. And praise
to the wolf with his sharp incisors,
the better to eat. And the ice-maiden’s
teeth, sheathed in enamel, biting clean
through the bone. Oh we would never
depart from our eyeteeth, rooted dependably
above our unremarkable necks. And who
is not awed by the white buds of milkteeth
that sprout from red plushness and become
the cutting edge.
What We Shall Become
From these heights the war
blazes in primary colors, banners
magnificent. From here the scale
of human suffering is inconsequential.
Down there, under the hooves, clumps
of dirt churn and fly, bodies fall.
What alters if the gods pity or mock us?
Once there was a great Lord who sired three
sons—one foolish, one bloodthirsty,
one noble and true. They turn on each other
like wild dogs. When reconciliation seems
almost impossible, a musket misfires, picks off
the noble son. He drops to the ground,
stone dead. His father learns the meaning
of random universe, clutches his throat
and chokes. This story repeats itself
generation after generation. Our hearts
will always go out to a man at the brink
of lunacy, since we seem to fear losing
our wits even more than our lives. Is there
salt in the castle strongroom? There is
always salt. Salt for the preservation
of meat, a rival’s severed head, to remind us
of what we once were, what we have replaced.
Some bodies are washed and wrapped in white linen
then placed, coffinless, underground. Others fall
into ditches, heaped over layers of bone. No matter
how, spirits do not settle down, but rise in our throats
speaking in voices we know: Beware the dark one.
Collect what is owed. Keep the knives honed. We are
as one transfixed, chin tilted skyward, traces of salt
on forehead and cheek. They could depart from
window or door or the little toe of the left foot, if
they wished. They do not wish. They poke and prod,
insist. We call in the troops, the exorcists. Somewhere
to the east pocked walls reek of holy oil and garlic, troughs
overflow with that which must not be eaten. It is April
and nothing is growing. Generation unto generation
we are riven. By the dead grinding their grief. Let us
prepare for them an offering: broth of brine and sprig
of laurel. Perhaps then they will rest easy, won’t
raise such a ruckus and pillage the larder, mad for feed.
There for the Grace
there for the grace of god there
for the grace there for the window
the housekeeper carelessly left
ajar for the five-year-old boy
who fell from the fifty-third
floor there for the musician his
father and his guitar there for
the mother the mother and there
for the cruise ship out for a cruise
for the cripple whose wheelchair
was pushed and tumbled down into
the Mediterranean there for the blue
of the sea of the starling and finch
and the hyacinth there for the lover
who follows the script who touches
the lips and within the mystère
there for the sweet inhalation of breath
for the arm casually raised to brush
back the hair there for the grace
of god for the grace of earth we go
War Doesn’t Want
War doesn’t want to be
an arcade game, doesn’t
want an enemy a blip
on the radar screen.
It doesn’t want a victor
with the best eye-hand
coordination. It wants
the thrill of killing
at intimate range, wants
the torch, the stench
of singed flesh (the skin
tastes best). It hates
dining alone, making death
with strangers. It wants
to know what it’s eating.
Honeybees and frogs are fast disappearing. What
will become of little green apples, the loneliness
of lily pads? Some species of moths no longer pollinate
Arizonan yuccas. Askance, askew, something is
amiss. A tsunami one hundred feet high washes away
three thousand souls in Papua New Guinea. It’s hard
to know when disasters are natural. Once I was stung
by a bee and my arm swelled like a melon. In college
a date slipped a frog down my blouse and I couldn’t
stop screaming, those frantic hind legs. In high school
I pithed a toad. Later I saw a half-carved cadaver, head
and feet wrapped in soaked cloth, the yellow jelly we
call fat. The leaner they are, the harder to cut. Blandings’
turtles don’t deteriorate with age. Our brain is the size
of two clenched fists. The hand is the most complicated
of organs. Which, as is written on a card I carry
in my wallet, I will donate to others — eyes, liver, lungs,
heart, whatever can be salvaged, should all else fail.
Barbara Goldberg, raised in Forest Hills, New York, graduated Phi Beta Kappa in philosophy from Mount Holyoke College. She received an MEd from Columbia University and an MFA from American University, Washington, DC. She is the author of 6 prizewinning poetry books, including the Valentin Krustev Award in translation for Transformation: The Poetry of Translation and the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize through the University of Wisconsin Press, for The Royal Baker's Daughter. Goldberg’s most recent book of translations is Scorched by the Sun: Poems by Moshe Dor, supported by the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. Goldberg's include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her own work appears in the Harvard Review, Poetry, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Goldberg has taught poetry, translation and speechwriting and presented readings/panels at the American Literary Translators Assocaion (ALTA), Associated Writing Programs (AWP) the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Folger Shakespeare Library and The Jimmy Carter Center for Inernational Peace. A former senior speechwriter for a large nonprofit organization and executive editor of Poet Lore magazine, she is currently Series Editor of the Word Works' International Editions. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.