Selections from
As If Free

by Burt Kimmelman


Taking Dinner to My Mother

My mother sits on the edge of her bed,
a scarf on her head to hide the gray hair
she can no longer manage to dye black,
her flesh falling away from the frame of
her face and shoulders, loosened by the loss
of weight when the body betrays the soul,
when the body's pain forbids all desire.
But tonight she is hungry, and I have

come bearing corned beef and pastrami, bread,
sour pickles and a kasha knish.
I help her to the table in slow, small

steps, a pas de deux we have carried on,
I realize, for almost sixty years, and
I think of how, some time before, I held
my daughter's hands, bent over, as she learned
how to walk — the fact of balance, which we
live with until it abandons us — and
how my mother, in a photograph, held
me in the same way. Earlier today,

I had stopped at a café and, sitting
still for a moment, looking up from my
book, I watched how, at a nearby table,

a new mother fed her infant daughter,
who sat up in her baby carriage, some
bits of crustless bread held between thumb and
forefinger, while her grandfather talked on,
the smell of her mother's hand mingled with
this first food, a small bird in her nest. At
my mother's table I fix her sandwich
and tell her about her granddaughter who

met a boy for a moment in a flea
market, who is now a first love, but my
mother's eyelids are starting to lower,
her head nodding forward slightly, so I
gather her up and walk her back to her
bed, sit her down and swing her swollen legs
up and then under the covers, turn off
all the lights but one, close and lock the door.

Blackeyed Susan

Blackeyed Susan, bright flower
in the sun, yellow petals
of late summer and your dark
heart of winter to come, you
bow ever so gracefully

over the edge of the trim,
newly cut grass, and let go,
in the breeze, your wild seed so
that, next year, there will be more
of you, and yet when you first

blossom we come to know the
dusk, how it settles in a
bit sooner each day, and how
you glow in the light you seem
to have stolen from the moon.


He leans across the table,
smiling as she speaks, listens
carefully to what she has
to say, and stirs his coffee,
leaving the spoon to stick out

of the cup before him. His
chin juts out at her. His eyes
watch her lips move. She sits up
tall when she talks and opens
her palms on either side of

her to make herself plain. She
explains her plan — what they will
do in the coming days, what
they have to buy for the new
apartment, what they do not

yet own, what will make sense, since
they will live together. It
is at this moment the food
arrives — the waiter, standing
over them patiently, a

plate in each hand, places the
morsels of their life between
them to seal their pact. They start
to eat, lost, for a moment,
in a sudden, new silence.


After the hard, steady rain, a dank day
in early November, we walk along
a path full of leaves — though the trees' branches

above us are not yet bare, the thin rays
of the afternoon sun, still enough red
and gold to comfort us, to keep us from
admitting the dark and cold into our

hearts. It is strange how, year after year, each
season slowly makes itself felt — one day,
the next, without our notice — until, all

at once, we are surprised at how we knew
the time would come, how the past is quite far
away. Yet today we still recall warmth

and light, even in this first chill, though now
I almost ache for the long darknesses
and the wild, unkempt winds in which my
griefs, grievances and grudges will find their

long sought home, even while we are homeless —
as we look toward the winter solstice, the
turn of the night, and then the startling spring.

Washing My Brother's Hair

He leans forward on his knees,
offering himself to me
to wash, turned around to the
foot of his hospital bed.

I think there is much to say,
since he has come here to die
and I have come for one last
visit — this time together.

But what there is to be done
is really quite simple, to
do for him what he cannot —
what comfort there still might be.

I set up a basin of
warm water and wet his head,
and anoint it with shampoo,
my hands swirling in his hair.

My fingers rub his scalp and
feel the odd bumps and hollows
of the skull his hair hides as
if they were embarassments.

He seems like that helpless child
who crawled into my bed at
night, afraid of the dark — two
young boys left alone and frail.

Some days later, when I kiss
his cold forehead and hold his
stiff body to me, I think
of the man he had become.

Café in Maplewood

He sits tall in his highchair, arms above
his head, kicking his feet, smiling at us
as we pass him. A waiter stops clearing
a nearby, abandoned table of its
dishes and cups to wave hello, calling
him away from the spoonful of food his
mother proffers and the napkin in his
father's hand meant to wipe his mouth — and when
he laughs we all laugh with him, as if the
day has turned out to be a grand success
although it is just past noon. And I guess
it has, the room filled with people at lunch.

We hover about our young. We welcome
them into their world, as wonderful or
terrible as it can be. Even those
who outlived the camps (on their arms those blue,
simple numbers) would smile at me as they
turned away from their conversation, a
boy seated in the warm kitchen of his
grandmother, where above the stove on the
wall a framed doily read, "If contentment
is the theme, life's melody is sweet." She
had set out from Russia, a girl alone.

She landed at Ellis Island and made
her way to Chicago and then returned
to New York with a sick husband and four
children, to the shtetl of Brownsville
in Brooklyn, to Herzl Street named for the great
Zionist. So her dream and destiny
became this neighborhood of people-filled streets,
three shuls on her block, gangsters among
them from Murder, Inc. Now here I am in
a café in Maplewood, New Jersey,
full of hope, trying to write this poem.

Edvard Munch's Despair, 1892
          Museum of Modern Art, 2006


He is looking over the rail
of the promenade, but he sees
nothing, caught in the thought of the
helpless — no, not even a thought —

despair itself, as undefined
as the dark, thick brushstrokes, the stabs
of green paint below his blank face.
People walk and talk together,

out of earshot, making plans, while
the red sky, its long cloudless arcs,
surges above blue hills hugging
the sea, its ships making their way.

After Robert Creeley


          can I say to
          you — words, words
          as if all
          worlds were there.

                              — Robert Creeley

The embrace
is all there
is — what can

be said, all
the things of
this world, are

left behind,
And yet there

are words, words,
which we love.
You wrote a

poem for
the doctor,
your father

poet, whose
name was not
the point, yet

there were words
between you.
You praised the

smallest of
them. Even
and became

just so. These
things are what
we hold to

us. Then let
us embrace
them — because

we would hold
each other.
The body,

the body
can give way
to our words —

to which we
must cling. The
things of this

world, let us
the littlest

of them — the,
by, upon,
you, me, us.



          "Don't you know that lovers
          like to imagine eternity

          while a sparrow pecks at candy wrappers . . . ."
                                     — D. Nurske

Frenzy of fluttering wings, the flock
of sparrows floats near the birdfeeder,

two or three at a time alighting
as best they can on the small perches,

poking their beaks through the apertures,
seeking the sweet food in the see-through

cylinder (amber, yellow, mixed with
the odd black seeds of wildflowers) —

the whole apparatus, its cluster
of birds, swaying slowly below the

eave of the tool shed — summer's end,
what is left in memory. It has

become the business of all creatures
to search for sustenance where they might

— I among them, in the morning light,
though sitting apart at my table,

reading the newspaper, who, like them,
knows the coming evening will arrive

suddenly and the cold quite soon. The
birds gather tentatively — until,

all at once, with a flurry, they fly
off in a sure knot. The squirrel close

by claws up the maple tree beside
me — which still casts some shade — up to its

highest branch, posing there, ready to
leap. Below, the cat from next door makes

her steady way from behind a bush
and onto the newly trimmed grass — her

careful prancing a pure grace. We all
want to live, but I alone will mourn

the relentless passing of the days.

The Seeds of the Red Maple

Overnight, the red maple in our backyard,
provider of shade when leaves are full and days
are hot, and of majesty even when bare
in winter, has let go of its seeds, now at
mid summer, in the joy of light and
grief of time taking its inevitable
shape, the season giving in to its own pulse,
the maple's colors soon to turn once again.

The tree's fruit keys * are everywhere, in grass and
shrubs and covering the patio flagstones
and table at which I write this poem, their
strange green casings joined to one another as
if in an eternal kiss, their oddly shaped
wings, whose reticulate filaments emerge
out of a leathery spine, mimicking the
half moon, its glow doing the dark's secret work.

Children, splitting the husks open to find the
sticky pith within (which squirrels love to eat
raised up on haunches, forepaws in a flurry,
their frantic chewing the hint of an autumn
recklessness when winter food must be stored), fix
the wings to their noses so they are marked as
people of the tree, yet other seeds will fly
free, taking their tenacious hold in the soil.

Variation of Green
Ellsworth Kelly at the Met 3.16.06

                   The idea of green. That there are verities.
                              — William Bronk

A new, bright sun, the first of
spring's signals, in a brisk breeze,

might make us think of the grand
landscape whose wind in the trees

startles mythical creatures
awake, the hills, the sweep of

a cloudy, furious sky.
Yet there is a purer form,

a sure possibility,
the simple color, at once

dependable and filled with
our dearest ghosts, whose fable

of the unknown beckons — the
shock of red or gradations

of green in which the world, a
world beyond green, has never

been known — for what is there to
know? What is there is just there,

and we stand alongside it,
in astonishment, taking

shelter in its glow, against
the insistence of winter.

Laocoön and His Sons, Museo Vaticani
          12 August 2005


The ancient Greeks knew the way
of muscle, the way of bone,
the torque of desire, the

look of pain, of yearning for
release, the ecstasy of

sinuous bodies as they
enfold one another and

the cold animal thrown up
from the sea — how tightly it
winds itself about them, the

agony of belief and
their shock of recognition

in the serpent's grasp. Standing
before my mirror, I run

my hands over my shoulders
and chest, the musculature

of an aging man thinking
about athletic love but
also your simple touch, your

hand. What swirling flesh would then
enfold me? We will lie down

together, having made a
peace with the world, its lost time.

"I Feel a Song Comin' On"
          After viewing Let's Get Lost


When Chet Baker sings, the wind waves
the trees' branches as if, with their
caresses, they soften the fears
of creatures, and in his wince of
ecstasy, as he holds a note

longer than he should, the evening
breeze can be forgiven for its
gentle ministrations of the
lost souls who will never keep their
word. And when he picks up his horn

and plays, the rivers overflow
their banks and flood the fields, and the
sea off Malibu runs up the
beach and carries it away, a
thief in the night. And by the time

Chet Baker's song is through a mist
has settled on a dark road and
a hitchhiker walking into
the hills beyond. No wonder that
women loved him, even when he

left them to their children, and dope
pushers knocked out his front teeth. The
truth is that music can make the
weather and make us all crazy,
even now that he is long gone.

The Waves

When you told me, "I'm dying — it's
all right," I dreamt I was treading
water in the ocean, no land

in sight, and a great ship, its sails
jutting into the night sky, was

making its slow way toward the far
horizon. The world of the dead
must be like that realm where dreams hold

the living, where we come and go,
breathing stars. If I could rouse you

from that place I would tell you how
I swam, swam to shore, exhausted,
where I hear your voice in the waves.

Monet's Garden
          Giverny, 20 August 2005

The lily's charm is not
its colors but how it
floats, as if free, upon

the pond's dark surface. We
make our way over his

wooden bridge and then pass
the shrubs and flowers he
planted, arranged just so

to paint. How carefully
the pigment would be placed,

how gradually the world —
its daily businesses —
would become still and deep.


from As If Free, Talisman Books
© 2009 by Burt Kimmelman

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