Selections by Philip Terman
Swimming in the Rain
Swaddled and sleeved in water,
I dive to the rocky bottom and rise
as the first drops of sky
find the ocean. The waters above
meet the waters below,
the sweet and the salt,
and I’m swimming back to the beginning.
The forecasts were wrong.
Half the sky is dark
but it keeps changing. Half the stories
I used to believe are false. Thank God
I’ve got the good sense at last
not to come in out of the rain.
The waves open
to take in the rain, and sunlight
falls from the clouds
onto the face of the deep as it did
on the first day
before the dividing began.
Rain over Berkeley! The birds are all out
delivering the news.
The evening is wet and happy tonight.
“Is there more to happiness than feeling happy?”
the moral philosophers inquire.
Research has shown
if you spot a dime on the sidewalk
you’re more likely to tell the professor your life
is fine, thank you. The effect
generally lasts about twenty minutes.
Scientists are closing in on
the crowded quarter of the brain
where happiness lives. They like to think
it’s hunkered down
in the left prefrontal cortex.
“Even in the slums of Calcutta
people on the street describe themselves
as reasonably happy.” Why not be
reasonable? Why not in Berkeley? Why not
right now, sweetheart, while the rain
is stroking the roof?
The split-leaf philodendron is happy
to be watered and fed.
The dress I unbuttoned is more than glad
to be draped on the chair.
My grandmother never did learn to write.
“Making love” was not in her lexicon;
I wonder if she ever took off her clothes
when her husband performed his conjugal duties.
She said God was watching,
reciting Psalms was dependable medicine,
a woman in pants an abomination.
In their hut on the Dniester
six children scraped the daily potatoes from a single plate;
each one held a bare spoon.
Five years from the shtetl her daughters
in lisle stockings and flapper dresses.
The boys slick their hair with pomade.
What do they remember of Russia? “Mud.”
That’s grandma in the center. At ease in owl glasses.
Don’t run, you’ll fall.
Mostly she keeps her mouth shut; the children
would rather not hear.
What does a full stomach know
of an empty stomach?
It’s time you opened your mouth, bobbe;
I’m old enough now to ask you a thing or two
and you’re too dead to be annoyed.
You’ll know where to find me,
I’m the daughter of your second son.
I have the spoons.
When I was the Baba Yaga of the house
on my terrible chicken legs,
the children sat close on the sofa as I read,
both of them together
determined to be scared.
Careful! I cackled, stalking them
among the pillows:
You bad Russian boy,
I eat you up!
They shivered and squirmed, my delicious sons,
waiting for a mighty arm
to seize them.
I chased them screeching down the hall,
I catch you, I eat you!
my witch-blade hungry for the spurt
What stopped me
even as I lifted my hand?
The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!
Eat my brother.
Happy Families Are All Alike
Flash of truck, blaze of
steel bearing down
burn of rubber on asphalt two tons
thundering to a stop. I can smell it,
can see that trucker
stunned, head down in his hands,
St. Christopher swinging in the window
and across the street on Colusa
in front of the school door,
hands face skinny knees, every part of him
sharply visible, outlined
in yellow light—
my son. His high voice
more plaintive than blaming:
You told me to run.
Who told him to run? My fault
forever. A family of before
and after. Why did you why
did I tell him? But look,
he’s going into the classroom.
He’s eating the soggy triangles
of his tuna sandwich. Nothing’s
happened to us! Nothing
yet. Once upon a time, we’ll say
at the family campfire,
we came that close.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending
precious pottery with gold.
What’s between us
seems flexible as the webbing
between forefinger and thumb.
Seems flexible but isn’t;
what’s between us
is made of clay
like any cup on the shelf.
It shatters easily. Repair
becomes the task.
We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history
and the cup is precious to us
we saved it.
In the art of kintsugi
a potter repairing a broken cup
would sprinkle the resin
with powdered gold.
Sometimes the joins
are so exquisite
they say the potter
may have broken the cup
just so he could mend it.
The Messiah of Harvard Square
Every year some student would claim to be the Messiah.
It was the rabbi who had to deal with them.
He had jumped, years ago, from a moving boxcar
on the way to a death camp. That leap
left him ready for anything.
This year at Pesach, a Jewish student proclaimed
Armageddon. “Burn the books! Burn the textbooks!”
he shouted to a cheerful crowd,
sang Hebrew songs to confuse the Gentiles,
dressed for the end like Belshazzar.
People stopped to whisper and laugh.
“I have a noble task,” the boy explained.
“I must prepare myself to endure
the laughter of fools.”
The rabbi was a skeptic.
Years ago he’d been taught, If you’re planting a tree
and someone cries out, The Messiah has come!
finish planting the tree. Then
go see if it’s true.
Still, he took the boy into his study
and questioned him meticulously,
as if the poor soul before him might be,
God help us, the Messiah.
On the holiest day we fast till sundown.
I watch the sun stand still
as the horizon edges toward it. Four hours to go.
The rabbi’s mouth opens and closes and opens.
I think fish
and little steaming potatoes,
parsley clinging to them like an ancient script.
Only the converts, six of them in the corner,
in their prayer shawls and feathery beards,
sing every syllable.
are they savoring now?
If they go on loving that way, we’ll be here all night.
Why did they follow us here, did they think
we were happier?
Did someone tell them we knew
the lost words
to open God’s mouth?
The converts sway in white silk,
their necks bent forward in yearning
and I covet
what they think we’ve got.
in memory of Amichai Kronfeld
Apprehended and held without trial,
our friend was sentenced:
brain tumor, malignant.
Condemned each day
to wake and remember.
Overnight a wall sprang up around him
leaving the rest of us
Death passed over us this time.
We’re still at large. We’re free
to get out of bed, start the coffee,
open the blinds.
The first of the human freedoms.
If he’s guilty
we must be guilty; we’re all made of
the same cup of dust—
It’s a blessing, isn’t it? To be able,
days at a time,
to forget what we are.
Today we have brunch at Chester’s,
poached egg on toast,
orange juice foaming in frosted glasses.
He remembers the summer he packed blood oranges,
stripped to the waist,
drinking the fresh-squeezed juice in the factory
straight from the tap.
He cups his left hand under his chin
as if to a faucet, laughing.
He is scooping sweetness from the belly of death
—honey from the lion’s carcass.
What is it, this blood honey?
A shadow is eating the sun.
It can blind you
but he’s looking right at it,
he won’t turn away.
Already his gaze is marked
by such hard looking.
Day after day breaks
and gives him
back to us
Soon the husk of his knowing
won’t know even that.
A man lies alone in his body in a world
he can still desire.
Another slice of pie? he asks.
As long as he’s hungry
he’s still one of us.
Oh Lord, not yet.
He drums out a jazz beat on the bedrail
with his one good hand
when the words stumble.
See? he says. I can trick the tumor.
He can still taste and see.
The world is good.
He hauls himself up in bed,
squinting his one good eye at the kingdom
through a keyhole
that keeps getting smaller
It is good. It is very good.
These poems were selected by Philip Terman from Chana Bloch’s Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015. Click here to read Terman’s review of Swimming in the Rain.