My life, or career, in poetry began when Harry Borg left the Ukraine for America in 1910.
Life is not the exact word. Nor is career, since Harry was born in Chorny Ostrov in the Pale of Settlement in 1879, and I was born in Oklahoma in 1964. Between us is his eldest son and that son’s eldest daughter and that daughter’s youngest son, me.
Harry and I left Chorny Ostov by train for Lviv—he was going on ahead of his wife and their two small sons. From Lviv we found passage to the States. Then we went by train again to Iowa. We were looking for a place we could afford. There was a young fellow near Elma, 160 miles north of Des Moines, who offered us something. Later there was a cart and a mule and then peddling rags and pots everyday except Friday nights and Saturdays when, even if on the road and miles from Elma, Harry would take shelter in a customer’s barn to make shabbat.
Riding the trains across the heartland was really in vogue in those days. The cornfields were like a green ocean with shoals and shallows and waves. You could see humpback whales in the wind through the stalks, whales shivering in the underside of the Midwestern air. Then suddenly, like a lighthouse, there’d be a silo. The wind was soft as flannel, too. The oaks longed for the sparrows and the sparrows longed for the sky and the sky longed for a wife. Days of rain blushing with passion and a quivery blessing. Me and Harry would stare and stare, smearing our eyes against the windows of the train. We were travelers who “notice this town for its brick / (warehouse and mill) sun-and snow weathered,” so Eve Triem says looking once at Dubuque. She says—
And then that is a port,
the streets in waves winding from a river
and flying the side of a hill, like gulls.
They will climb the stair-sprayed hill —
the hill, a ball-player’s arm swung up for a catch
lost in the sun.
The townsmen below as small as bees,
and as bright as bees in their summer clothes.
steering their cars by elm-showered stoplights
That summer the Iowa rivers receded under the trestles from the spring floods that had blossomed in July. The headstones in the cemeteries long ago had taken to peeling. At night the moon bristled over the open porches with the wicker chairs empty of their celibate lovers. The crossroads were like sideburns turned to gravel. We tumbled along the tracks, a little stoic, a little proud, a couple of puzzles needing to be solved. The dappled rows of shaggy corn sloping toward us plunged back into the velvet, green, windy distances. The rattle of the train faded again and again to the muffle of our sleep.
This was a time when polio was raging. There were 186 cases in Iowa that year. This was the summer of Halley’s Comet, too. Me and Harry could see it all right even from the train. It was no apparition. It was an eyeless orphan, a match struck against eternity. If only I knew then what Stanley Kunitz would find out in Miss Murphy’s first grade when she—
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.
In 1986 I would look for Halley’s Comet again. I was living in the expressionistic haze of cheap weed in Boston on Glenville Ave. near Ringer Park. In Elma, though, Harry found Elma to have the kind of personality that was its own avant-garde. You couldn’t erase Elma. Year after year the population decreases, but still the town remains. In 1910 Elma was 800 people and about to be redesigned with an orthodox Jew. Harry arrived like new foliage. Back then Elma was a town of aching look-a-likes. There was the aroma of wood burn and laundry on the line. White farmhouses and neat fences. It was a place you could live in all your life but if you’re weren’t born there you were always an outsider. Every stranger could be a murderer.
I don’t know the first thing about Elma really. The house me and Harry found had no broom and no locks, and the old siding clung to the building like a child to his mother’s leg. We were like a work of art, Harry and me. When we were naked, you’d have thought the bottom of us was trying to escape the top. Our legs were deliberate, pointed, meager. Our chest was stout as a fire hydrant. It was tough to make us smile. This was so long ago. I can see one small room, that’s it. It was a room where you could hear voices but no one was there. There was a chair and table and a rug. The silence of Iowa could fill that room, too, from floor to ceiling, every hour. The silence was an unmentionable smudge. Only the habit of Harry’s voice talking Yiddish would deflate the room’s silence. And the distant bark of dogs.
This room became the walls of every stanza I’ve ever known. Harry talked to himself in those days in phrases like little sketches of poetry, without dropping his chin into his hands in contemplation. He’d assemble each syllable into a chant, an intonation. He’d talk to himself in the kitchen at morning and on his mattress at night. He’d talk to himself in the stairwell and on the way back from the market. He’d talk to himself while standing alone in the room, I remember that. What a time in America, he would say to himself. No war beginning or ending. Look at these simple pleasures of light and wind and stars, he’d say. What could be more attractive than Elma, he’d ask, that God in his wisdom saw to building it up around the new train depot. He’d want to smile but it was a smile of cheap rent and cheap joy. There was dirt all right in 1910. Reams of it. What is dirt but life, he’d say.
Once I asked Harry, why, or maybe it was how could you leave your wife, Rose, and your sons, Joseph and Irving, for America and how long are you willing to wait to reunite? He turned to talk to the bathroom mirror then about the encryptions in his face that revealed nothing about how it was all going to turn out. Was your marriage, I asked, happy or unhappy? Were there disappointments? Let’s talk not of dreams, he said, but of life in broad daylight. Let’s talk of being a father but without sons in the house to listen. About duty. About right and wrong. Unruffled faith and limitless God.
There was so much praying alongside the talking, too. Gerald Stern could hear it even decades later while visiting his old house in Iowa City. He knew—
of the damned and forgotten, ice
covering my eyeballs, for example,
rainwater engorging my heart
All this talking to himself Harry did in a language no one understood. This was the first pure poetry I ever knew. Sung out loud more or less to no one on a theme of longing. Wife. Sons. Rags. Snow. Stalks of corn. The unrepeatable finitude of sex and mute caresses of the mind. And of the shemah spoken to the Iowa dust. “Hear, O, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” — spoken to the Iowa birds pecking on the ground.
For ten years he talked and prayed to himself, talked and prayed to the empty rooms.
Prayer was his beauty-utterance. He prayed about the lessons life could teach and about going along for the ride. He prayed about being wrong and feeling alive and then feeling lucky. When he heard the flies sing to him, he prayed about how easy life had become. When he heard the rain on the roof, he prayed about how hard life had become. He prayed about envy and jealousy and corruption and success. He prayed about the endlessness of truth and the endlessness of lies. Those Friday nights miles from home, cloudy or sunny or snowy or in blistering heat, there was Harry making shabbat alone but for the rats in a customer’s hay barn where he would quietly rest in the presence of God, opening his soul as a man does, concerned only with the moments of time and his momentary sharing of the eternal. The hay bales would go dark as the night left him powerless to the forces of circumstance. Next day he’d gather his belongings into his rag cart and return to Elma.
Even in sleep he had dreams in the form of prayers about nerves and worries over money. There were prayers about gathering stones and breaking stones, about towns with no houses but a sheriff returning alone. One of his dream-prayers he had again and again was a rabbi telling him, “Look, young fellow, I’m going tell you a few things about your reputation.” But then he never did. The dream-prayers would fade and return. He’d awake weary and resigned. And resume his talking. He talked to himself every waking minute he was alone, talked to himself alone for ten years like that, talked to himself and talked to me in something resembling poems no one can remember—before at last by train in the winter of 1920 with a flowering white snow falling, a snow falling like stars filling the air, his wife Rose and sons Joseph, now 13, and Irving, now 10, arrive at the depot in Elma with a featherbed and two silver candlesticks. The older one had the sharp eyes of a boxer, the younger was tender, his hands like the soft leather on a baseball.
And Harry says to me, now my poetry belongs to America.
The first night Joseph Borg spent in Elma, Iowa, he woke up before dawn because he had to pee. He shook his silent father awake. For a moment he stared into the face of that strange man who he had not seen in ten years. Joseph didn’t know a lick of English—he stared at his father’s face the way a poet stares at a blank piece of paper where mostly the soul is at stake. He stared at the face like diving underwater against all odds of survival and finding there coincidences and after-thoughts, confessions of the weak who have little to say, finding smells and sounds and the passions of the body.
Pee in the snow, Harry said.
From the eaves of the house I could see 13-year-old Joseph tiptoe out the front door and lean over the edge of the porch to pee—
I attach tags, carve initials, pee on fireplugs
outlining my territory
—so says Philip Whalen about peeing outside the dorms at Reed College thirty years later when he is the roommate of my cousin, Moshe, who is a first cousin of Ruth—who, in 1935, fifteen years after that night on the Iowa porch, would elope with Joseph and become his wife. That night, watching Joseph’s limber body above the snow, seeing his strong-willed teenage face with its sharp nose like something out of a folktale, I understand I could never take a dispassionate view of memory.
Perhaps the hardest thing about my education as a poet is watching the past reverse itself instead of assert itself. It’s like undressing. First you remove the jacket, then the shirt, the undershirt, and then you stand bare-chested in the cold air. Then you step out of the trousers but no underwear or socks. Memory torments you like that. And when memory looks down the street of a small town in America—a Midwest shtetl is what Elma was—before dawn with the eyes of a 13-year-old boy who is standing half-dressed on the porch, and the stars grin at the secrets of the world, memory zips up its pants against the wind and carries on.
Then Joseph slipped. He was turning to go back into the house and lost his footing and nearly collapsed on the wood porch before he caught hold of the frozen railing. He hadn’t meant to be in a rush. Besides the cold air was pleasurable against his bare skin. But he understood that the earth and everything around him was so different now. Even his gait seemed messed up. Hurrying into the dark house with its fantasia of squat rooms, he began to float instead of walk. He floated backwards and stretched his neck to see his way. He floated as in a painting by Chagall into the small kitchen above the countertops and sink and didn’t stop to think about how strange it was to be in the air. A little blood was coming out of his hand where he’d cut it catching his fall. But he didn’t find that strange either. Being hurt was the same as being humorous, he knew that already, same as being fatherless. Or nearly fatherless, he reminded himself, as he floated now down the hallway past his sleeping father and mother, his hair touching the ceiling, his arms sprawled. He began to float even lighter now, his fingers loose and the night air swelling around his body. He could see the footprints in the floors where his father had been walking for ten years. Those footprints and the frightening sounds they had made came up the stairs, padded through the halls, stumbled and straightened up. Joseph floated, powdery and white, bobbing up and down, his heart un-destroyed. He wanted to babble and sing but instead smiled. And then he floated over to the narrow bed he was sharing with his little brother—
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell
—says Jack Gilbert
but just coming to the end of his triumph
Joseph would always remember this night as a kind of improvised awakening. He would think of it when he had nothing else on his mind, the way one thinks of sex, always believing that it clarifies things for him, that he could understand other people through the filter of the night he flew in the house in Elma. Sometimes he saw it as a dream or a memory. Other times he heard it as a song, a prayer. He’d be flying monotonously and then there’d be a variation—he’d sprout wings! he’d become an angel—and then he’d hear the melody again. He could hear the song building and building in him, mounting and then descending, collapsing as he collapsed into bed.
Other times the memory was a question and answer routine. He would ask about simultaneity and answer about despair. He would ask about sadness and answer with proverbs. The questions and the answers synced up into a kind of rhythm—
All those days we could keep
Your mind a landscape of new snow
Where the chilled tenant-farmer finds, below
His fields asleep
In their smooth covering, white
As quilts to warm the resting bed
Of birth or pain, spotless as paper spread
For me to write—
So W. D. Snodgrass would write to Joseph and me in a language neither of us understood back then. This new English would sound like a chime to Joseph, a loud chime in a silent house. The chiming had a clear beat that sounded like, “Why should things be easy to understand?” It had a rhythm that meant, “Not every puzzle is intended to be solved.” Joseph would hum and hum the passages of the chiming labyrinths of syllables. Once he reached the end, he would turn that into the beginning. He could hear the locks of words unlock like a truth to be grappled with. He would go on hearing the chime and the patterns they made in the mind, his and mine, and—on his knees, straining his neck—he would try to work them out into his new words but they didn’t always match the design. He’d try to connect the points of sound like yearning for morning.
From that, I discovered, a writer will find his own voice in the distortions and discolorations of the mouth.
“A Couple of Puzzles” is the first in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my early education as a poet.