YOU NEVER KNOW
for Maxine Simon
Ivan’s talking with his mother
when he says she wants to speak with me
and he hands me the phone although he’s warned me
that her dementia makes her unpredictable
and I haven’t spoken with her in a number of years
though we once kept in regular touch.
We are unsure how she will respond
in her state to my voice at this time
following the familiar voice of her son
and the pause from the handoff,
but there’s nothing in our conversation
that suggests dementia or alarm.
She seems normal, calm, even talkative
as I give her time to talk and the cues to continue.
But then she blurts out a phrase that shoves me
to the wall of my heart—“You never know”—
repeating it for effect—the same phrase my mother used
when we visited her in the nursing home, she too
with dementia, hers advancing unabated
until her very presence became as faint
as the stars before dawn and she didn’t speak at all,
so you had to read the meaning in her eyes
and whether she let you hold her hand,
and if she muttered your name,
it was the wrong name, so when she looked
intently at your face, she was seeing
a face from a time before your own—
what could be more unsettling than this
silence, standing at the gates of separation
before the entrance to the next world?—
when all she needed was some reassurance,
a longer timeline too if it could be.
But no—one never knows.
RUNNING INTO A FORMER PROFESSOR ON THE STREET IN NEW YORK
It’s been thirty-five years, but as he steps off the curb
swept along by the crowd, I recognize his wild crown of hair, now gray,
and unruly beard. Approaching him, I extend my hand,
taking in the whole man: wrinkled sweatshirt, baggy pants,
a toothless gap punctuating his smile—looking more homeless than professorial
and not quite at ease on these streets; one-time champion of the alienated;
denizen of all-night diners. Our talk shifts quickly from the personal—
little common ground to be found there—he the aging Marxist eyeing my kippah
while we stand in the gutter suddenly debating the fate of Israel,
dodging each other’s claims as if they were cars speeding by in opposite directions.
One car veers too close and I pull him back toward the curb.
When I walk him to the bus stop where he’ll catch his ride downtown,
our debate intensifies. Although a Jew, he is as critical of the Jewish state
as he was of American intervention in Vietnam and Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala.
Like these places his life has undergone unimaginable upheaval
and sadness—you can see it in the sigh that weighs heavily upon his eyes
as if revisiting that night his wife threw their five-year-old son
to his death out their sixth-floor window and then jumped too,
not content to watch, without looking back, embracing the air as she fell.
Someone at the subway kiosk
stops me for change as I turn the corner
onto Broadway. He’s a hulking sullen man
maybe half my age, dressed as if he’s slept on the street,
if he’s even slept at all. Before I saw him,
he had checked me out from yarmulke to beard.
“Rabbi, can you spare some change?”
On the next block, one of the regulars,
an old loud woman with a man’s down coat and watch cap
stands outside the entrance to a deli.
“I want a ham and cheese sandwich today,”
she shouts in my general direction,
“with ranch dressing.” When I say I don’t have change,
she suggests I use my credit card.
Another block, another panhandler
with a vacant stare and nervous shifting side to side
holds open the door to the grocery store,
expecting something in return. “Tzedakah,”
he demands when I attempt to pass
and I look his way amazed he knows
no Jew can refuse a hungry man.
on the NYC subway
They launch into song
before the doors close and the train
departs. Hardened riders avert eyes;
others numbly stare.
Their lively mariachi is no match
for our roaring forward along tracks,
the dash to drown competing sound.
As we approach another station,
they end their song and pass a hat,
rush off to board the car ahead
like men at night in flight
crossing the border.
THE EVOLUTION OF CRAZY
It used to be when a man talked to himself
walking down the street, we’d step aside
and shake our heads to let him pass
and never answer back. But now
it’s hard to say who’s crazy.
Couples on these crowded streets
walk side by side engaged
in separate conversations,
cell phones pressed to ears
like ice packs to bruised egos.
And rather than confront
the muggers knocking someone
to the gutter—the isolated target
pummeled to a bloody pulp—
those standing by will post his plight.
Nights In The Catskills, 1965
Stretch did the best lindy,
but Lucy was more fluid,
lots of hip and pouty lip.
When the tempo changed
to something slow, the boys
got up to dance—a good thing
someone left the casino
windows open wide, cooling
our passions and tempering
the steady pounding in our chest
that would have grown
if we had let it until the heart
just burst. Dancing close,
we imagined love, a caress
of one’s flushed cheek,
and its fits of intimacy,
hungered for another touch.
“Hot lips” at fifteen,
what did we know of love?
But the clusters of stars
beyond the swaying trees
and the whispers breathing
in our ear reassured us.
Stretch kissed the best,
a perfect ten, but only
Maddy meant it.
ADLAI STEVENSON’S SHOES
When the holes in the soles
of my shoes wore through,
I cut patches of cardboard
and fit them inside.
But when it rained, my socks
got soaked. For awhile
I replaced each soggy patch
rather than ask my parents
for another pair. People
had just gotten back on their feet
after the war, starting families,
scraping by, and many admired
Adlai because of the holes
in the soles of his shoes—
how he must have ached
after pounding the pavement
over two campaigns
and the pounding
he took at the polls.
STEPPING OUT, FARRAGUT ROAD
She emerges in a black skin-fitting dress,
sheer stockings and stiletto heels
past after-dinner yentas on the benches
measuring her every step.
Within moments, she’s sitting on the hood
of a parked car. It’s still a little early,
but she can’t stand to wait inside.
She swings one leg over the other knee
and lights a cigarette. A shawl and handbag
hang from her wrist against her hip.
Shaking her head to free her face of hair,
she comes around to the side of the car
to check herself in the window.
Someone floors it down the street.
With a flick of her hand, her hair behaves.
She flips the cigarette, still lit, beyond the curb.
A PHARAOH IN EVERY GENERATION
remembering the 26 Yiddish poets shot by Stalin, August 1952
Take the words out of our mouths and we shall live
on silence; like a shadow, drink from light.
Squeeze the hope from our hearts
and we will flee into the waiting arms of faith.
Crush us and we promise—what do millennia matter?—
that you will free us from our bondage.
In time the mob will come to topple all you built, burn the palace,
knock your statue to the ground with crushing ease.
The guards will throw down arms and run. O pharaoh,
with your own cursed words you seal your nation’s fate.
Steven Sher Bio:
Brooklyn-born, Steven Sher now lives in Jerusalem. His latest book of poems, Contestable Truths, Incontestable Lies, was published by Dos Madres Press in November 2019. Cyberwit (India) will soon publish a collection of new and selected poems: What Comes From The Heart: Poems In The Jewish Tradition. His writing (poetry, short fiction, essays, satire, original folktales, features, reviews) has appeared since the 1970s in hundreds of publications and anthologies worldwide. Recent appearances include Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women (featured in TheScreamOnline); The Second Genesis: an Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry; and New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting The Holocaust (due in 2020 from Vallentine Mitchell, London).