ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Poems by Michael Schiffman

Outside Wallace Stevens' House in Reading, Pennsylvania

The flag beside the mortuary flutters
in the summer breeze. Everywhere brick
and mortar are crumbling. In the distance
Mount Penn's long, green flank hovers above the town.      

Though the other features of this hill
scarcely receive a nod, a pagoda,               
perched incongruously on the eastern
rim, is famous far and wide. A few doors

away one reaches the poet's childhood 
home. A brass plaque sums up his life
in rough detail: Harvard lawyer,
insurance man, lauded poet, Reading native.

This house has passed from one MD on to
the next. Presently a chiropractor's
office. A few men tie up the front steps.    
Clients? Loiterers? Tenants? No need to inquire.     

Nearby a slender alley separates
the community garden from a teeming
playground. Tomatoes, peppers, melons
are wedged between neglected yards.

Across the alley fathers sit, children play,
while boisterous teens run up and down  
and launch their bouncing balls at netless rims.
A block away the shelter persists in its abiding labors.

Corporeal poet, I have read
your rootless poems, admired
their deft evasion of circumstance.
You left this town as if it had never been.

But the mountain remains.
The Oley Valley stays put.
Under the aging bridge the brightly hued
graffiti simply reads, not once, but twice:

"Let it burn...Let it burn."             

A Jew Attends Mass

A childhood spent in the shtetl's shadow.
Goyim, a word for an alien world.
My mother's vigilance was well ingrained—
you're not to enter those churches, where you will feel

squeamish, rejected, under surveillance.
But when the monsignor from a block away
invited me to an ecumenical mass,
I unhesitatingly consented.

Holy Thursday. Our feet to be washed
as in The Last Supper. Five from diverse
faiths were gathered in the rectory for a chaste
and convivial meal. Lutheran, Muslim,

Mennonite, Greek Orthodox and Jew.
We shared a bit of our lives, then got up
to be arrayed at the front of the church.
Presented by name and by religion,

we removed one shoe and one sock
for the monsignor to move down our row
gently washing and kissing each foot.
Soon we were free to go.

Outside, a feeling of wholeness, quite new,
swept over me. The next day on my walk
I came across a nun who had always
declined to meet my gaze; She granted me

an unambiguous smile. The other nuns
now do the same, and I in turn greet all
my neighbors, mainly black or Hispanic, as
our paths converge. One shtetl so like another.

Seven blocks to the east a synagogue
has been sold. It was here I learned the prayers,
the rituals, fulfilled Bar Mitzvah, and
later chanted services, still more haftorahs.

In that shul's demise I see myself, and
know why I sat in that church. Is it loss
or gain? Am I better off or am I the same?
They say that Jesus loves us all,

But, the Jewish skeptic thinks:
the ghettos, this one and that, the old and the new,
the ghettos—they have not changed.


In a Nut Shell

The middle of the night,
a shaky jaunt to take a piss,
fearful of encountering
epistemological grief.

God help me, I mumble, before
sliding back into a haze
of disconcerting angst or
simple maxillary pressure,

lazy regret, sometimes
virulent self-loathing. Words
appear as burning swords or
maggots swarming in a carcass

just off the highway. The mind-
body problem absorbs, deters,
befuddles me. I am not
alone and still I am. Oh, I          

promised myself not to sink
into this modicum of sense.
I don't want to be understood.
Duplicitous old age is my lot,

my so-called future. May I still
redeem myself? be brash like a crow?
transparent as a harlot? sarcastic
like a big-time comic? I am tied

to this urban place, though it's sunk
so far the best remedy may be
to pretend it never existed.
Sound reason to pack up and move

away. The time will come when syntax,
sentence structure, and grammar
will bother no one. And ideation
will give up its place at the table.


I live in Reading, Pennsylvania, one of America's poorest cities. That fact colors much of what I write so that there is an underlying protest, but not always an overt one. My poems have appeared in Stepaway  Magazine, These Fragile Lilacs, and "Rise," an anthology of work about labor and protest from Vagabond Books. I have a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A. from Columbia, where I worked on a dissertation on Mark Twain's Humor without ever finishing (in itself a joke). I've also appeared in two anthologies (one upcoming) from Studio B in Boyertown, Pa. 

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