for Louise Glück
Hartford, the city that never succeeded like Boston.
City of gun shots, where Hartford Hospital on Jefferson Street employed my mother, a nurse, dressed in her white uniform with pearl buttons, and now employs me, forty five years later, a chaplain with a black shirt and a white clerical collar. Some nights when I sleep in the on-call room, I think I hear them page my mother’s elegant name, Loretta. “Trouble,” a nurse says, “Why is the city so troubled?” The nurse checks her patients, each in his or her starched crèche. Observing how the nurses run this place, how they hold much of it together, I have come to criticize my mother less.
The mother walks unsteadily, holds onto her son’s arm, afraid of the ice. “I can’t wear heels anymore,” she says as their liturgy begins. Wallace Stevens is the verger, disappearing behind his poems—silent parents not spoken to and a wife in misery. For a thurifer, a chain-smoking grandmother. Towards the end of our procession of ghosts, the apostle Paul a Jew, a Benjamite, a maker of tents, who sent his letter, eager to convert, angry when people were not listening to him. “You are not listening to me,” my mother says. I spoke to my mother with love, then with anger when she was not listening. “Spencer, is there anything you regret?” “Now that I am older, I would have been kinder to my mother.”
Hartford, city of my birth, to you I return and turn to with love. The mother and her son drive by houses they know but do not touch. When they arrive at the cemetery they move among the graves to show love; they look as if they’ve come to solve something. But love, love, can it ever be solved? What happens when I say our love may require ignorance? What happens then?
On the day I was born, Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed his dream—103-year-old Ada Copeland, the last slave surviving, listened. 9 o’clock on Sunday for the Lithuanian Mass at Holy Trinity on 53 Capitol Avenue. O Mary, mother of Christ, guard me with maternal care. My grandmother listened to the black man’s dream beside my basinet, painting her nails fire-engine red on Seymour Street. I weighed ten pounds, the largest baby in the nursery, so large, that after I was born, my grandmother came to the hospital and said to my mother: “Loretta, did you have the baby yet?” Years pass. My grandmother settles into her dementia, one last white woman in a black neighborhood, retrieving her past, she grew so familiar with her past that it replaced everything else. Jamaicans moved in, playing Bob Marley. My grandmother chain-smoked, a factory of herself, until the smoke obscured her. When I could see her, her cloud of white hair receding, my grandmother resembled George Washington with lipstick.
Keep awake! Out of Egypt and on into Canaan the Jews went. So, too, with us, this long nervous dislocation. Mary, Mary, my grandmother, where have you gone? We ask your prayers for the following persons who have died: Mary, James, Richard, John. Pray for those who have died. Paul, a Jew, who did not like Jews, came to a people divided; those who were with Christ were with him; those who were not were not. But who can be so certain in this world? Edith Stein becoming a Carmelite nun angered her Jewish family. After she converted, her family stopped speaking to her. During the war, the family was separated and Stein became the guardian of her sister, Rosa, who had the mind of a small child. In August of 1942, a deportation to Auschwitz took place from Westerbork. The two sisters were selected for deportation. They passed through landscapes they had known as children. The train stopped in their hometown of Breslau. Stein stood there as the door slid open wishing to see the view one last time. She pointed out familiar details to Rosa. The Red Cross reported that the transport had no survivors. Among the names on the transport list was Edith Stein.
In the graveyard we cannot find our dead. Snow erases the names. How ridiculous do we look, not knowing where our dead are? Maybe some of the black families are here? They, who moved up from the South, where four thousand were lynched, who put their coins in the hands of the bus drivers. Mary McLeod Bethune walks here with us, for the longer we walk the more ghosts we collect, she who walked into the White House for tea, invited by Mrs. Roosevelt, and did not see one black face: a call can be a lonely thing.
Round and round Pulaski Circle we went. Can you hear the displaced sing? Under their satin ceilings, the dead repeat their endings in their plush basements, their tongues flat as old wallets. The Puritans said there was no fire to be found under the ice, but I find that to be wrong: where I have found ice I have found fire. In her diary Bethune wrote: “My life has been a spiritual thing.” In the church on Faneuil Street, the dark women are singing: Glory, glory, hallelujah! Since I laid my burdens down. Glory, glory, hallelujah! Since I laid my burdens down. The gold-leaf Roman dome of the Gothic capitol, confused by styles, asks: “Why were my former days better than these?” Quietly, a certain people scatter and disperse with secrets.
Do you believe, you and I, in the death of our Egyptians? Stevens, you do not talk about yourself in your poems, and yet you tell us everything. You slept in Hartford while my grandmother wept on the other side of town, her husband and son dead within months of each other. As you wrote your poem about the jar, my mother went to work as a mail girl at the Fuller Brush Company. As you opened your mind for us my mother went to visit her father on Mulberry Street. She says: “If you write of my father, do it with respect.”
The Connecticut River bounds, gushes, sears the freshets, grays the banks of a garbage-filled birch thicket. The sun is a coin rolling across the ice-floes. We drive past Wilson, Windsor, Paquonik Avenue. Long ago, missionaries tore down the sacred lodges of the Mohegans, now their casinos brighten the land like comic strips. They have healed the wounds of my people lightly, saying: “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Birds’ claws clamp onto the wires. Together we watch blue jays erupt in a dash of blue wings, blurring my grandmother’s backyard to blue. My mother says: “When I was young we would say, ‘That’s my wedding.’”
Passing beneath the sign, “The Dead Shall Be Raised,” erected upon faux-Egyptian, granite columns, here is my mother, visiting the graves in their snowy ruins. Regard her, for she, like the city, was young once. “Do not say that I was beautiful once and now am old,” the mother says to the poet, “Do not say that.” And so the poem changes like the snow: the snow is white and black like the universe it came from. Hartford listens down the cemetery’s long corridors. How lonely sits the city that once was full of people. Below the coffins are thick with facts like filing cabinets, some of the facts are correct, some misplaced, as the dead settle into their final category of aging, becoming a repository of mystery.
Perhaps the city waits for a missionary of some sort? The city has been waiting so long for a voice it is no longer certain whose voice it is waiting for.
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? A Puerto Rican mother weeps, her stabbed son intubated before us. Florescence illuminates their pieta of pumps and wires. “Help us, Father,” someone says to me in the confusion of EMTs and doctors administering CPR. How brave my mother must have been attending to those about to die. The pink dawn sky bruises the dilapidated Federalist steeples. They work on the boy all night long. My mother said: “Do you believe Christ really rose from the dead? Church every Sunday, don’t you think that’s a bit excessive?” When I travel to Jerusalem I send a postcard from Yad Vashem. “Dear Mom,” it begins, “I am here.” A forgiving snow falls on the mother and the son. By the end of my shift, I write in the chart: “The boy died this morning at 6 AM.”
In the cemetery, my mother asks: “And what will you put in your book?”
Smoke-colored, my grandmother’s house has stucco embedded with ground glass like in a kaleidoscope. Inside there was a crucifix above each door, each Christ jaundiced from my grandmother’s Viceroys. My mother says: “Do not rush your mother, these are my memories, one day you will be old too.” The mother and son understand each other well and not so well.
Maybe here? No. Over here. Where? Bless James Witkins, the father, who parked his car on Pearl Street with his crutch, not yet adjusted to his stump, dying before they cut the second leg off. Bless Richard Witkins, the twenty-four year old son, who died in a car accident weeks later, identified through dental records. Bless Richard’s baby, Laura-Lynn, left behind, screaming and teething in my mother’s arms. Mourners delivered gladioli. My mother says: “I hate that flower.” Bless my grandmother who would not get out of bed. Do you work wonders for the dead? Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks? “I cannot remember that year,” says my mother. But who forgets a year?
“You do not understand your mother,” my mother says. Wasn’t there an argument under the pull-chain in the kitchen? Isn’t that what my mother has said for years? Didn’t Mr. and Mrs. Witkins emphatically shutter the Venetian blinds? Isn’t that how my mother described it? Their children were in the field, yes, there were fields. They were immigrants who came over on boats counting coins and speaking in their dying language. I have heard the story a hundred times. Didn’t my grandmother turn to her husband and say: “Are you a Jew?” They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
We move towards the thrift of the dead. Hours accrue in their closed teeth. We walk towards an economy of subtraction. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen leave one body for another. In Sage Allen’s collections department, my grandmother worked with a bank of ladies tallying the sum of things and on their hands were wedding rings. The house where my mother was born is a hair salon. Above the door, the sign reads: “African Braiding & African Movies.” Around the windows, Christmas lights blink. I was not here to bury my grandmother. Anger divided my mother and me and we were not speaking. It seems foolish now. Still, the city welcomes me even though I have been a fool. Once again the mother says something about the Jews, unkind it seems to the son, given her father‘s mysterious history, but as the son knows, it is not easy to love what you might be. My mother’s father died when she was twenty. “Too young,” she says, “Too young.” All her life she has searched for her father. How to find a man when all the records have been misplaced?
“Cold, cold. It’s cold,” says the son. Where is the Royal Typewriter, the American Rifle, the bicycle and piano factories? Tobacco sheds lean, abandoned. Egyptians will lie dead upon the shore. Beyond the plot, in the city, the priests have no people. What of the last name, “Witkins”? When I travel to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, the records show every “Vitkin” and “Witkin” shot in a ditch outside Vilnius. When I call my mother from Jerusalem, to speak of what I have found, she says: “I have often thought… I have often thought…”
“Fire! Fire!” the citizens screamed under the Big Top. It was 1944, the war was not over and my mother was a young girl. A cool breeze blew across her face as it does in summer evenings in Jerusalem. She said: “You could smell the burning flesh all over the city.” The tent, dipped in paraffin, went up in seconds from a cigarette tossed. Adults passed children over their heads until they were overcome. People were trampled to death at the exits. The camels were silent as they burned. Some graves belong to the fire: Baby Thelma, The Fat Girl. Stevens never mentioned the fire, instead he wrote: “This has always been the toughest time of year for me. I want to give the office a kick.” Our presence is no nuisance to the dead. The dead know disappointment beyond remedy. My grandmother listened to King as she rocked me: “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, tonight, that we as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Mrs. Stevens stood behind the soup tureen, lonely, waiting to take a second nap. Although her newly-baptized husband lay dying at Hartford Hospital, Mrs. Stevens refused to visit him in his last days. Maybe Mrs. Stevens is here in the graveyard? She who posed for the dime? Although it is a large cemetery, it is hard to tell who is important.
Hartford, come and see the graves overrun as doormats. Hartford, follow them like a Shakespearean fool. Often now, my mother speaks to the dead, the parade that has marched since heaven and hell began. Snow flocks the windshield of our car, the wipers scrape the shield like a finger searching a text or a hand pulling the morgue sheet back.
“What will your mother think now that the poem is done?” The light makes a daguerreotype of Hartford Hospital. Snow falls over the mother and her son, cloaking them in dark whites. The moon rises, sheets Bushnell Park. Stevens wrote that the poet does not yield to the priest. But religion and poetry, can they ever be divided? Then he ignored his daughter once more, preferring thought to people. Hartford, where have you gone? Have you disappeared like Palestine? “Hartford,” someone says on the train, “Who lives there now?” In its history, no one has ever taken a vacation to Hartford. I work the Christmas shift. A black grandfather, Moses, dies in the Red Pod. The family is large, twenty, or thirty strong. “Pray for us, Father,” someone says. What ignites the passion for worship like disappearance?
“Tell me the story about your father,” says the son. The mother tells the story the son has heard many times: “Once, in Lithuania, I traveled to the square in Vilnius. I was looking for a sign of my father. The Russians had changed all the names of the streets so it was hard to find things. For days I saw nothing to remind me of my father. A Russian soldier escorted me around quickly. Then, in the square, above a tailor shop, I saw a flower-box, and on the flower-box, written in chalk, was my name, ‘Loretta.’ It was a sign I knew my father was there. I took a picture of it with my camera. My name could not be seen with the naked eye. Only the camera picked it up. See. See. Here is my name.”
Who can know the story of the one they love most? I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart. Paul wanted to be bound to the good and the pure, where it would lead him he could not be sure. Paul was depending on the story of a Jew he hardly knew. “O, you fools,” he said to those not listening. Wallace Stevens, stand here with us, whisper something to us now about angels. Distract us on your flute. Mary McLeod Bethune, record something about hope in your diary. My mother says: “I forgot to tell you something. When you were born your grandmother came to the hospital and she looked at you and said to me she thought you would be a priest. I forgot to tell you that before. I just remembered it. Your grandmother was Catholic, you know.“ A poet, like a priest, works with facts and mysteries: the facts mysterious, the mysteries factual. The ER doors fly open with gurneys, X-rays, paperwork, syringes, body-maps, intercoms, wallets to find next of kin. In the parking lot, after my shift, a nurse named Janet who likes to joke with me, says: “Hey there, Sugar, you alright?”
For thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Before I finish this poem I travel to Vilnius, the city so many fled and when they fled they kept no record for they were afraid. In my hand I carry a name for my grandfather. The Lithuanian Historical Archives found a name, but it is not the name I know from the grave, and the dates seem off. It is a Jewish name. The lady in the records department said: “Names changed. It was very common. But perhaps he’s not a Jew. Why must he be a Jew? A Jew marrying a Christian would be very rare.” Vilnius flickers before the son with vanishing muteness from the church bells to the forest. In 1941, within six months, they killed two hundred thousand Jews here, they fell in a ditch in the woods. There were no transports. I go to the synagogue and the rabbi says: “I, too, was ashamed to say I was a Jew.” The mother says: “He never went to church, spoke Yiddish, said his records went down in a fire. He was seventeen, he got on a boat, he never saw his mother again.” She tells the story of the flower-box once more. I promise her to search for more names. Her confusion has defined me the way confusion defines Jerusalem and my love has required confusion as religion requires poetry.
Mother, love requires that we do not separate. Death has made us earnest. Much of what we love we no longer touch. Yet, still we come to love. “Let us go to the cemetery and find our dead,” the son had said to his mother. Snow falls over the hospital where the son was born. The snow obscures the city, falls in plumes, like smoke. The son follows his mother into the snow.