There was a hum, once, in my childhood,
a muffled recitative, a trembling—foregrounded
against my city’s steady din—the sound
of praying twice a day in the Orthodox
synagogue we never attended, just next door.
I imagined the aleph bet my grandpa
tried to teach me (when I was four,
before he died): those Hebrew letters of fire
rising into the air, becoming white vapor, curling under
the raised window sash into my fifth floor bedroom,
and into my ears. I learned most of the tunes,
as if by osmosis, without trying.
Now—a lifetime and a continent away—
at home alone during the Days of Awe,
I listen over and over as Barbra Streisand
sings Avinu Malkeinu—climbing the cage
of notes, settling back in sorrow
and hope, ascending again, higher,
even higher, until my spine shivers
with the pleading the music speaks,
and the tones, about to self-transcend,
to burst on soundless wings, hush,
fold into themselves. I could learn to long
for anything encoded in such sounds.
We haven’t really spoken for a year.
Thinking of that I feel oddly dispossessed,
like those Paris bridges quite suddenly stripped
of tens of tons of engraved padlocks—
standing in for steadfast attachments (keys tossed
into the Seine)—that threatened the collapse
of the structures they hung on.
Friendship, like love, can crest, then flail,
then fail. For forty years, we were locked
by the accidents of common circumstance.
For twenty-five years or more, our posse
of kids hung out together like siblings,
for almost forty, our husbands shot
the workday breeze, our calendars were dotted
with joint dinners, campouts, holidays, trips.
Is there an inventory somewhere of the confidences
that poured from us, fueled—before we quit—
by cigarettes and brandy? My heart spilled out
in conversation, lost its melancholy, was refreshed
as spring-cleaned rooms, thoroughly dusted, swept,
Gradually, our weaknesses became less mutually
off-limits; our trust thinned, and turned, almost, to distaste.
Our friendship began to feel like too close weather,
impeding airflow and easy breathing.
I haven’t collapsed from the freight of my late affection,
or from affection’s absence in my sometime friend.
Perhaps, after all, we weren’t a great match.
Yet, here I am, with all my tired furniture, reviewing
what seemed like connecting—and being revived.
Green and Easy in the Ancient City
We lived in three or four huddled rooms
with window-views onto
fire-escapes, alleys, or “vacant lots.”
Our parents snored at night
on spine-bending hide-a-beds
in living rooms hard to keep
picked up—having gifted us
After school, we kids from the block,
played jump rope, jacks, or hopscotch,
or bounced pink Spaldeens
against brick walls, or rang doorbells
and ran away for the thrill of it
through tarnished art deco lobbies
from tenement to tenement.
On weekends, we were the city
cousins, hats in hand, who visited
our richer kin—in “garden apartments”
or “private homes” on Long Island
or in Westchester—then returned
from that foreign culture
to greenhouse-muggy heat,
or ice-glazed sidewalks
bermed with dog-piss-yellow snow—
and were dropped off by our fathers
to ride up to our rentals, while they drove
the circuits of our neighborhoods seeking
the redemption of a parking spot,
and came back sweaty or wind-chapped,
but lucky and heroic.
And the light filtered through
the dusty leaves of the trees on the streets
that had them, and their shadows tossed
on pavement and walls as they tossed
on the forest floors we rarely, or never saw.
And the morning sun was caught and flung
from window to window, and on winter afternoons
the dull bricks glowed with pale yellow warmth
as if from within, and all day,
in the drugstore window, the tall vials
of sapphire, emerald, and ruby richly sang.