Commentary Magazine


In My Beginnings

My language must be right
To clear shadows long frightening
Lives rooted deep in mine.
Where is the beginning?

Of my father’s father there is little I have.
I recall a dying old man in bed
Laughing with a four-year boy;
With I felt no rage or dread.
One aunt says he was a kind, gracious man
Who never struck a child;
Anger showed only in his eyes,
While voice and manner were always mild.

My mother’s father, religious man
Sternly raised nine sons and daughters.
All rejected his Jewish God
But believed feared wonders
Might still be done.
I see my grandfather on the ship,
Brought across the ocean, alone
And dreaming, in the grip
Of his bitter will that would concede
Only ignorance of ways.
Children with forgotten desires, frightened
    of tears,
A son in an evil cause; so he pays
The costs of an austere pride.
What strength had he
So devoted to his God?
Eleven years dead, his family trade
Habits of meeting, talk, and aid.

Both my parents born in Europe
But came to the city young,
To East Side streets unprepared
And crushed by the Babel of tongue.

Marriage of my parents made on earth.
The rages and indifference of their home
Where neither could easily give or take
Spoiled their lives and the life to come.
My mother’s fury and contempt
Restrained by shyness, succeeded,
Exploded on my father—
Dulled, childlike in what he needed
—And drove him from the house.
My mother loved me and I assumed her
    hate.
Only now have I ceased cursing;
My father ten years dead, it is too late.

Childhood of depression and shame.
We lived with my mother’s sisters,
Two, unmarried, impatient at mean work,
A jealous house; I soothed my blisters
By dreaming brilliant joys.

None knew or cared what I wished to caress;
Fearful, I failed to mark the nearby streets,
But found a city of my own,
    though fatherless.

These rooted images have curious power.
They gather in my memory’s dance
Unwitting of beginning or end.
Their movement brings life and chance.

_____________

 

About the Author




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