David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Not That Town
From the time he arrived in America at the age of thirteen, my grandfather Joe Borg had wanted to start to live. So far his life had been a series of endings, and he hoped—he kept telling me, at least, for there can be no memory without one’s own presence—that this time he could have a new quiet and new beginning all to himself and then make some money. He says this to me about the time he leaves northern Iowa by train to live in Brooklyn near his father’s sister, our Aunt Esther, for a few months when he was, in my memory, around the age of twenty. This would be about 1927. He was built like a fire hydrant, low to the ground—I know that much. I can see us heading out into Williamsburg together to find an apartment. We were taking a look at this tenement or that one, each of them narrow and shabby, and the rooms about the size of postage stamps. When we found one not far from Aunt Esther’s apartment it was a fifth-floor walk-up but we didn’t care. We didn’t intend to turn it into a home. After handing over the first month’s payment to the landlord and putting a few towels on the floor for bedding, we moved in.
Joe believed he was too restless and ambitious for bucolic Elma, Iowa, anyway. The dark intervals of silence of Elma’s days and nights had taken their toll. New York City was to be his rebirth. But after a few days in his fifth-floor walk-up he felt lonely. And just as his own father Harry Borg had done when he first lived alone in America in Elma back in 1910—for ten years alone while his wife and sons were back in Russia—Joe began to talk to himself for company. He talked to himself about how this loneliness was something to overcome. His voice at first had come forward softly as if the sounds were afraid to be touched by light. Then his words would find the Yiddish-built guttural winds of his voice. The words would break apart like ice on a river in springtime. So Osip Mandelstam goes—
Live quiet and consoled
In gaudy poverty, in powerful destitution.
Blessed are those days and nights.
The work of this sweet voice is without sin.
He would speak of the shadows and windows and stairwells. His voice would bounce off the walls of the small flat not in images but in spirits of the past. It was like his voice was drawing the paintings of Chagall into the room’s air. He would speak to avoid his own confusion. The words of his sentences would cover the floor not with Elma but Cherno Ostrov back in Russia. He would talk of wheat fields on a summer afternoon, autumn in a village with a big sun above a house, a bridge, a butcher, a cemetery gate where those who had once lived together would finally flee together. Like Adam and Eve, he’d say, they’d departed the garden.
He would stop sometimes, suddenly, as if he heard footsteps approaching the door. Quietly he would whisper about the moon through the curtains. And then go on with his talking—he would tell stories about clowns at night and a fisherman’s family. He would hum a song about fruits and flowers and King David with a smile spreading across his face. Often he would talk of peasant life. He would make portraits of his father and brother, of his mother whose realness could not be shattered. Late at night, before drifting to sleep on the floor, while he could still hear the family below moving about in their late evening business, he would speak of a single blue face he’d seen once in hedgerow on Broadway on his way home returning from work. It was evening, and the sun was beginning to set. A voice spoke to him from the hedgerow—a woman’s voice, he said, that sounded like wind through the small leaves of bushes. He had noticed that the woman with the blue face’s eyes were closed. The woman spoke of willow trees and abandoned towns. She described a hobo who called her Mother. Joe smiled. Mother, he’d say, imitating the hobo. And then he spoke of the hobo returning to his tent on the edge of town. Joe’s voice would play with things like that. And then he’d return home inside his head, and he’d drift to sleep.
After all his trials and travels, he’d say, after slipping across the Russian border by boxcar with his mother and younger brother, after arriving in America without a lick of English and meeting his father and starting school in Elma in the first grade at the age of thirteen, and while holding down small jobs in town—lighting the fire in the school’s furnace before hours, sweeping the floor at the grocer’s at night, peddling rags and pieces of scrap iron on the narrow Iowa blacktops—he now would have to confront his loneliness. Life, he’d say, was a series of broken rhythms, and all you could do was try to put the rhythms back together again. No matter what had shattered before you, he’d say to me in the little room, all you can do is overcome it. What other choice do you have? He had a writer’s sense of persistence.
He was on the outs with his father about that time, too. It wasn’t over one thing. But Joe wondered, with all the trouble he’d given his father in Iowa—he’d lived with him for less than half his life, that’s right, Joe would say, stabbing the air—perhaps even that was better than feeling lonely. But Elma was lonely too, he said out loud. Then stopped as if he could hear footsteps again at the door.
That loneliness was different, I said to him. It was a spring night, and we were walking up Union Avenue in a pleasant breeze as the Brooklyn houses and streets exhaled down to the river. Back there in Elma, I said, the world was so small. I had to fill it, he says. No distractions there, I said. But, he says, it just tempted you to disobey. We would bicker like that. He didn’t give you any quarter. I suggested we paint the walls of the apartment green like the color of new corn stalks. He gave me a look. Blue, he says, a dark blue like the color of the Tallit bag where he kept his prayer shawl. With a couple of white stripes, he says. I wasn’t having any of it. That would have been a disappointment to me, I said, as if the Old World could never be escaped from. This is America, I said, you could paint it pink and gray and yellow and black and brown. Blue, he says. We will paint it blue.
But we didn’t paint the room, and the loneliness remained white as a sheet of paper. From living with Joe in New York I knew the first time I read William Carlos Williams’s “Danse Russe” what Williams meant by the climactic dance in the middle of his poem—
If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
But that poem is more of a celebration of solitude than a retreat into loneliness. The difference matters for a writer, and learning to determine and manage the difference between solitude and loneliness began for me in that little Brooklyn walk-up Joe Borg lived in during the 1920s. When I began to write, I was able to sense which was which, and I could go back to his fifth-floor flat anytime and not be shocked. That room without pretense or a bed was a place for me to think. No matter how far ago now in time it was that we lived there I can always stand in front of the kitchen sink and can hear Joe as if he might be coming up the stairs from a day working at the warehouse or coming in from the gym where he’d been in the boxing ring. The dishes would be in the sink but there was no food in the cupboards. Even now I can see our blankets sunk in the corner of the room, the corners of the unfolded towels askew, a small indentation sculptured into the pillow. Years can go by when I’ve forgotten that room. The dream of that time won’t open up, and I assume the dream is broken. Then I reach up to the memory’s handle and pull at it. Just like that, I pull on it, and it comes out like a Murphy bed easily enough. And I can write again.
Joe disliked that kind of musing, and he’d say so. He’d say, Bub, why are you making the past so intermingled? I came to America, I met my father, I worked as a rag peddler. Now I’m in New York. Next I’ll leave New York, I’ll meet your grandmother, and that’ll be that. Life wasn’t some kind of art form for him. It was a truth he’d already caught. He felt looking back at it wasn’t going to change anything except make you feel tired. Even in his loneliness he didn’t dwell on the past.
But his disinterest fueled my own. As Robert Duncan says in “Childhood Retreat”—
to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar
all voices and scenes come back
— the barking of a dog, autumnal burnings,
for calls, close calls— the boy I was
calls out to me
here the man where I am “Look!”
I’ve been where you
most fear to be…
Thinking of his past and the way he might have looked at an Iowa sky of mounting clouds or a New York skyscraper or lifted a barrel of grease into a wagon helped me. It made my imagination more elastic. It lightened my conception of metaphor. It rescued me from the riddles of my own life. Seeing him in the boxing ring those afternoons in New York—the key, he says, is to hit the other guy first—taught me to be curious, to pry into time that’s always in motion, to get up from my own life and look into how you got here. Not only that, but to see fantasies and memories and dreams and projection in the same way. It was to discover that the world exists in time and across time. And that the patterns of our lives’ existences are what exist.
And so Joe’s life was like a dedication to the future. His hours became a part of my own. Some winter nights in our room in Brooklyn, we’d be huddled in the middle of the floor trying to stay warm. The air above us hovered too—but, no, he says to me, stop with describing the air. What’s the use, he says, why do you do that? A man doesn’t live looking for explanations, he says. He was getting up now and gathering his Tallit bag for the weeknight service at the schul. He changed into a threadbare dress shirt, blue tie, and a double-breasted blue jacket. Outside the afternoon light was waning. It might have been November. What about death, I said—we were walking fast now on the sidewalk. It needs explanation, no? Not so lonely as living here, he says. Don’t you want to be understood, I asked. And then what, he says. The cold air was dismantling our senses. But death won’t forgive, I said. We’d stopped at a corner, and his expression reminded me not to press. He had that kind of look. And when he looked at you with it—a look that says there’s a door right in front of you but you’ll never learn how to open it, Bub—you knew to stop. It was time for us to go anyway. As Robert Duncan says—
And solitude, a wild solitude
’s revealed, fearfully, high I’d climb
into the shaking uncertainties,
part out of longing, part daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world
We arrived at the schul and settled in. The Ma’ariv service opened as always with some warm-up prayers and Joe was saying them absent-mindedly. Once we got to the Shema I seemed to disappear from his consciousness as he reimagined our creation by God who had created the world and gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai. I could hear in his voice a desire for future redemption. It was hard to know where his faith in creation and revelation resided most of the time. But here, in schul, he sang it into identity. For the Amidah, I was gone from him entirely. He knew the service from heart. He could be called up for the haftorah and chant it cold. But now his eyes were closed, rocking back on his heels, one hand shoved into his trousers pocket, the other holding up the prayer book. Watching him alone among a handful of other men whose pilgrimages had begun in places in Eastern Europe where the synagogues would one day be makeshift, where all that remains there would be a water stain form the mikvah bath or the echo of dying animals that underwent ritual slaughter, or some smashed relics with Hebrew inscriptions, abandoned gravestones, and who now, these men of New York, were chanting their praises and gratitudes in a grave mumble and daring themselves to be surprised with living. Watching them, I realized then that we never invited anyone back to our room. Instead we would meet them only at the schul where a body stood and sat and stood again like a heartbeat.
I’d had the same thought once the summer before. It was July 4 and we’d gone up to Yankee Stadium for a double-header against the Senators. The first game was a wipeout. Washington’s pitcher, Sloppy Thurston, was easy pickings for the Yankees’s hitters for the opening four innings. And so old Walter Johnson had to hobble out in the fourth. The Senators’s trouble-maker in the first game was Goose Goslin. He troubled Yankees hurler George Pipgras with three hits. The Yankees’s pitcher, Pipgras, whipped ball after ball past the other Senators—it was all swing and a miss at their end, a lot of called strike threes or weak tappers to first. We’d come especially to watch this rookie kid, Pipgras, because he was from Ida Grove, Iowa. The Yanks scored eight runs by the bottom of the fourth and then four more in the eighth, and won 12-1. Yankees third-baseman Joe Dugan went 4-4. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig each had two hits; one of Gehrig’s was a lollipop to the deepest part of center field. That home run pitch to Gehrig had arrived middle in and fat. He belted the white cowhide with so much backspin it seemed to peel right off the ball and then what was left of the ball departed the world out of sight behind the fence when we—all of us—seemed returned briefly to who we actually were.
The second game went worse for the Senators, who lost 21-1. Gehrig blasted another home run, and the Babe, who was 3 for 3 in the second game before being taken out midway to get some rest, chopped a triple down the right field line. The way he hacked the ball you would’ve thought he was cutting down a tree. It ricochetted off his bat and rolling deep into the outfield and got tangled up in the corner there. You could not have loved a smile so big as the one Joe Borg had on his face as he watched the Bambino huffing around 2nd base like a bathtub on two rooster-thin legs to beat out the throw to third. When Ruth finally chugged into third base he belly-flopped onto the dirt and smothered the bag and held onto it like a boy with a puppy.
Around that time we struck up a conversation with a man who was a fireman. He’d been staring at Joe since earlier in the first game. The fireman had been staring at Joe with that lopsided grin people get when they think they know you but aren’t sure. He asked if Joe was from a town in Russia and said the town’s name. I didn’t recognize it. No, Joe says, not that town. They talked some about a crossroads, a river. They shook hands. And then we all went back to watching the game again. Ruth on 3rd, Gehrig at the plate, and William Carlos Williams watching the crowd—
The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—
all the exciting detail
of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—
all to no end save beauty
So in detail they, the crowd,
to be warned against
saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous
it smiles grimly
its words cut—
The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—
The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—
It is the Inquisition, the
It is beauty itself
day by day in them
the power of their faces
It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing
Times like those lead you to believe that writing is, before it’s anything else, about simply getting it straight. Leaving the stadium together was like leaving the synagogue together. Our little room waited for Joe to return. Ahead were other kinds of promises.
“Not That Town” is the twelfth in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.