. .

from Knowledge

by Michael Heller




(from a book of old pictures)


The scene filled with photographer's light

This sparsely furnished room
In the corner of which
A china-closet Ark

The old men
Under green shaded bulbs
Reading Torah

The prayers are simple,
To what they think larger
Than themselves
--the place almost bare,
Utterly plain

The flat white light
Adds no increment
But attention


He sits in the armchair
Beside his bed

In his hands
A Yiddish paper

On his head
A high black
Pointed yarmulka

The room's things
Furnished by donation
Reads a small brass plaque
Above the headboard of the bed

A bed, a hat upon his head

A yiskor glass, the candle for the dead
Burnt down, the wax scraped out

He uses it for drinking


Shiny linoleum
You can almost
Smell the pine oil

The beds
A few feet apart

So the old men
Tired of the world
In the evening
Can face each other
And talk

But now the shades are half pulled up
Sun streams in the windows

The room almost empty
But for the two directors
Sitting stiffly on chairs
Who, like the white painted beds,
Seem supremely

At one side
Two grey bedridden men
Finished too with dignity
Are giggling


The old bind with phylacteries
--between the leather turns
The pinched flesh bulges, the old
Skin, the hairs burn

As if to do this is also
For the pain
--to explain
To Him of what it is
They are made

Thus, why they fail


This one and that one
Look like madmen
With their long wisps of hair

They scream: I chant, I dance
Like a crab

In the room the women wail
A plangent erotic note
Their loins itch with double fire
As he in topcoat-who-is-blessed
Bestirs them
Screams their demons back

Until their innocence
Stands naked as desire

Oy, Oy
He whirls, he spins
Till the beard is out
From his face like a flag

And in wild wisdom
Throws her to the boards

She, who would
That next instant
Have pulled him down to her
But for the trick
Of the ritual



There was one fireman none knew
Neither his family nor friends
He had good eyes, though they looked
A little wild. He was sent
To the watchtower

One day, almost at once,
Two fires broke out in town
The hasid grocer's
And a gentile butcher

The fireman warned
Of the butcher's blaze
But said nothing about the grocer
Whose place burned to the ground

When what he had failed to do
Was discovered and explanation demanded
He said: those who do not
Follow our God's way
Must be helped
And those who do
Must accept his justice

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

This one joined
So the young ladies
Should see him in uniform

They did
And flattered the brass and the leather
But not him

Finally, he charmed a farm girl
Of pious family into the fields
And the manner of the orthodox
Threw his cap to the hay
Where he thought to take her

To his delight, she bent toward
The straw, raising her skirt
As she kneeled. Suddenly,
She whisked the cap up
Tucked it in her girdle and ran away

So ashamed was he
The next day he left for Warsaw

Years later, the farm girl
Place the cap on her first-born's head



Page 147

A group of people
Awkwardly caught

They have just discovered
The photographer, and he, them

The old man with the sack
Who has turned
Shrugs his disbelief into the lens

No sense of emergency
In the pose
Could be as real

Page 153

They lie closely packed
Upon each other
In the mass grave

Looking now
Like figures of saints
Carved across cathedral doors

--but beyond image or irony,
The empty wrongness.

Here, all death
Was made untimely

Page 163, Caption:

"fought in the streets to the very end
and perished by his own hand
with the last remaining bullet"

Page 164, Caption:

"died in the ghetto"

Page 166, Caption:

"fell in battle...1944"

Page 168, Caption:


Page 157, Burnt Synagogue

This light--
A river through which
Another life poured

Figure and ground
Of how the dark
Informs the light

Brings forth bodies, faces
Brings forth
The things of the earth
That we see to completion
--beloved, hated--

But that life was broken forever
Here, look, look, this is but
Its mirror

Only the mirror remains

And gone--
Whole peoples are gone
To horror beyond remonstrance--

Consumed in those fires

Words can add nothing
That flame itself was without a light

The Yiddish names above were those given by the citizens of Bialystok to the victims of three mass executions: "the Friday dead," "the Thursday dead," "the Saturday dead."



The blue light
        having devoured
All beneath it:
        the priests,
The Levites, etc...
        Now the prayerful ones
        at the flame's base
Singing and meditating
        while above the lamp glows,
The lights, in unity, are merged
Illumined world
        in which above and below
Are blessed

9 (Coda)


One God. One boiled egg.
Thirty dy-yanus, and the Paradise
Not yet given a number.

Eight nights, eight lights
Which break the dark
Like a cat's wink.

I think the boot is not gone--
Whose boot? I ask
Do you wear the boot?
Or does he who wears the boot
Wear you?

Coat of my pain, cloth
Of pain, winding sheet of
My horror. Just a rag,
Just a shmata. You
Are not my pain, not you.
My pain is me: I am the Jew.



I think we have lost
The theme which is recovery

But the source
Is followed out

The trace of branched duct
To flowerbed and pool

To seek the thing
Which forced this shape
Which feeds so much
And determines so much

To find it inconsequential
--some pebble
At the gate of a sluice

There, the water whirls
And discord lashes in the channel,
In the beveled stone

And what is lovely plays against,
Against even the discord
And the discord imparts to it
The hidden harmony
Thought better

Yet this is still
Not the wonder
Which annuls
The iron ring in the wall
Or the shine on the Guardia's leather

And here the stone rests on stone
And we want to note that this thing matters:
How the builder's art has made this place

So the sea wind blows back
And mixes salt with the tree's fragrance
Along the flagged walk which runs the rim
Above the city

Down there, the bull dies, I suppose,
That the bull-god may live on

Yet we have found it hard
To picture dungeons pitched in stone,

To imagine for the unbeliever
The gilded Allahs of that page
Were heavier than the sun...

The music of the caged birds,
Of the water's purl
Is both sad and joyful

As is the burnished handiwork
Of the chambers of the King
Before whose doors, power withers love

Above is the frieze, the running lattice
Of the grille,

The trapped energy of image

Fearful nuance--by this
Are we lulled from terrors and greeds--

These acts
Which would supplant their beginnings
With their consequence--

Yet in time one is trapped
Between the beauty and the fault

Evil is victorious
The wheel does not stop

The quarry's stone
Shows even in the chisel work
The unmeant markings


to J.A.



Sun on the begrimed windows,
Light and dust curiously arrayed.

Infused with each other, falling
On the bed, on ourselves where we lie.

Finite life in the pattern's
Verge and shift, in the hovering dust.

In the beam's slant,
Designs almost infinite.

I know, in my heart,
This nature is all aesthetic.
Each, resolved, being something like a story.

Story of ourselves
In these curves and tangles,

In the half-light.
What I wanted to say

Was that in truth, we each
Could have picked, could have
Found ourselves

Among any of these.


Many years given
In belief of the body's sadness

A thickness, as of the throat,
In the world.

From there, the voice telling
Into its knotted web
Of glints and darknesses.

Perhaps you are moved as I am,
Lifted in some strange way
By the plunge into sorrows.

Facing each other, these recognitions:
Two small animals, quiverers,

Aware they can be hurt.
And sometimes, nothing,

Not even the severe lines
Of your body, which wildly delight

Bring me this close to you.
For all that is different,

How each in our life
Is alike.


We agreed. No one's quite written out
A philosophy of affluence, least of all
This affluence I'm feeling today.

What strikes in the world.
A curious kind of comfort

Where bug and leaf, or better, bug
And garbage in the street, are joined.

The broken hydrant almost sings a warble.
The undersides of clouds, sulphurous green and red.

Crossing the Bowery to your place,
"marks of weakness, marks of woe".

Strange, ugliness and loveliness
Both slash the heart.

No shelter: we are exposed
Like the weed shooting through the rubble,

Like the tree's small roots
Which curl at the stone, at the broken pipework.

Almost part of, and not against.

To imagine this
Is what is workable.

That the spring did not come
To enrage the tree...

And I think now of the open bow of your back,
Tremor which ends, which does not end.

The gesture sears.
The cursive graves its line in me.

This remains the one gift.
This alone is unconfused.

IV. Above Westcliffe

All this living, dying.
The town lights seem barely pinched
Out of the folds of darkness

And the moon, so lovely, so far,
Fullblown tonight into a dream's indifference
Riding solitary above the black pines

The skunk waddles and the deer
Comes to lick at the salt block
Ghastly in the whiteness, perversely

They move with the rest
Through the eye's frame of
This beautiful pointlessness

I too arrive without exactly having
Taken myself--my self, whatever,
In this moment, that is.

Where, that depth?

And the chart and the starbook
Are strange counsel. The fixities themselves
Are caught in their slow turn
And go under the world
Like human time, like human death

The candle sputters, dies in the room
Burning all chair, bed, bodies into shadow
--breast, thigh, you, me
And the light and dark pour their grainy liquid
Into that wave that bears up love, succor, pity
In a transmigratory arc

Copyright © 1979 by Michael Heller.

From Knowledge, published by Sun Books.

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