So Many Sleeps
"The so many deaths during the one whole life,
from beginning of evolution of consciousness
to the end of evolution of consciousness,
are like so many sleeps during one lifetime."9
—Avatar Meher Baba
He went out of his life on one breath and into the next on another;
he slept and then awoke, nestled in a new pair of arms.
The arms that only a few days before had held him as he expired
were even now consigning him to the earth, while a new pair of arms,
so soft and cool, held him in a sweet scented embrace.
He dangled, a fleshy apostrophe, from a swollen breast.
His mother's slow, steady breathing barely raised the thinnest of hairs
on his small, moist forehead.
And this waking was but one in a multitude of wakings into other forms,
other rooms, other arms, suspiring and expiring, a bridge of sighs across
Longing and wanting the bow, desire the arrow, anxiously awaiting parents
Imagine if these two could somehow see, hear, and feel the well-trodden years
in the eyes of their newborn, could hear the roar of voices that had so recently filled the eighty-some-odd years of a just-passed lifetime,
with all its cries and clamor, which even now is fading
like the end of a dream, drowned out by the uninhibited wailings of infancy.
Past mother, past father, past wife and children, forever severed by a little sleep,
now a brand new set of parents, their proud beaming smiles
bright suns and moons rising to forever extinguish the previous night's darkness; funeral dirges turning into lullabies.
Sleep, my old-young heart, sleep until the next sleep between wakings.
A simple sleep between lifetimes, so short a rest before restlessness
of impressions impels the individual soul to indwell once again,
each last breath an arc of memory and flooding desire.
Memory and desire fuel the fire, the hot breath of craving the driving wind,
propelling us forward into one body after another, smoke of impressions
clouding our heart-skies, until one day a new kind of longing and desire
turns our smoke into incense.
There, all around us, can't you see?
The souls are streaming toward their next birth,
personality projectiles aimed at marks a street or a continent away.
Can't you see them?
Like radio and television waves, they are all around us:
there, as we exit a theater into the teeming city streets;
there in the restaurant as we order our salad with dressing on the side, please.
The souls whiz by, asleep, the memory of their passed lives sleeping too,
like a tightly curled infant who every so often cries out,
and we, no matter where we are, hear the echo,
and reasonlessly sigh.
He was born into a room thoughtfully darkened by heavy shades
and thick blinds and appointed with furniture as old and heavy as time.
The furniture, a chiffonier with heavy brass pulls and a bed fit to die in,
stands heavily upon old loomed carpets woven by hands more than
a century ago.
Outside the window, fifteen floors below, the traffic wends its way
across the expanding city of New York, past Saks Fifth Avenue
and Bonwit Teller and that new building on Fifth Avenue
called Rockefeller Center and on up to Harlem and down to Times Square
and the Bowery with its sunken lives, but he does not hear it,
he is sleeping the first sleep of this, his next birth,
and all the voices that had crowded his last life are now merely
the ends of dreams, far faint echoes of another life, another time.
The siege and substance of another day, silenced by a sleep.
And he lay sleeping in his new infant crib, while carefully composed photographs of his last self with wife and children and parents and relations
lie fading in old boxes tied with twine or faded ribbon and in wallets
shut away in drawers that he will never open again.
And the remnants of still yet other selves lie scattered around the world,
in photo albums forever closed against wistful eyes, in storage trunks and attics
and in the air as incinerated paper and ink, ancient love letters
falling to earth as rain.
Across oceans, across time lie the relics of his former lifetimes, each life
a turned and forgotten page of an unremembered book, his hundreds of names
on so many tombs and gravestones, "In loving memory of..."
But who now is left to lovingly remember?
The very ones who swore to always remember are themselves forgotten.
His every lifetime a sort of library book taken out and returned by God
over and over again, but each time returned to a different place on the shelf,
or to another shelf entirely, the cover and the contents of the book
always changing, but the binding strong enough to last a thousand years.
What new lines would be written on the blank and waiting pages of this new volume would be determined by countless lifetimes of impressions,
forged in the furnace of action, one word, one thought, one deed a time.
And as he slept he did not notice the gathering dusk of a soft summer evening
which purpled the edges of the sky and lengthened the million city shadows
and dropped a curtain of rest over a tired island soon to be rattled awake
by el trains and thudded awake by nighttime jackhammers and jazzed awake
by Harlem hipsters.
And the darkness breathed life into some parts of the city that only
came alive by night: Tin Pan Alley and Times Square where thoughts
collide as songs and Greenwich Village where the most casual reply is poetry.
And in the air is the smell of Chesterfields and Camels and boiled chicken
and pastrami and rain-soaked gabardine and brilliantine and in the air too are
Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman as well as sudden oaths and grunted regrets
and ejaculated apologies and tragic laughter and ridiculous tears.
But he neither heard nor saw; he was sleeping the uncluttered sleep
of the newborn and only once thought he heard the gallop of former days,
the hoofbeat of ancient contests and elder uproar,
the canceled history of a million lives.
See how long I have been carrying the same baggage, he would have said if he could,
I pack it up oh so neatly and then carry it across the centuries.
Weary, weary soul, your arms so tired from the weight, the damned awful weight.
And he slept the empty sleep of the newborn, while old time, ancient time
sang sadly in his ears.
And the wind blew up and down the corridors of his lives, such a mournful,
And he turned and stirred in the darkness, this darkness woven of heavy drapes
and thick blinds, and thought he saw his mother sitting there beside him,
her head down, reading to him, but when he looked again, she was gone.
A ramp at Auschwitz.
A beach at Iwo Jima.
A cattle car in Poland.
A lifeboat in the Pacific.
A trench on the Marne.
A hospital bed in London.
A bunk in Treblinka.
A wood in Vilna.
A foxhole in Guam.
A crib in Brooklyn.
Falling in and out of this world in every imaginable condition and position…
some sitting, most lying down, asleep, awake, in a coma, dreaming,
waking from a dream in loving arms, alone, naked, clothed,
on fire, in the air, under water, under ground, under nourished,
fat, flatulent, full to bursting with dinner, brandy and cigars,
resigned, unresigned and mad as hell, the most casual remark or the name
of God on your lips, fleeing down the corridor of thought and desire,
trying to achieve balance for once, somehow never succeeding but trying
mightily anyway, returning, returning, remembering forgotten names,
songs, books, films, faces, most far faint echoes heard once in a dream
a long time ago but still remembered faintly, rising to fame, to obscurity,
to poverty, to affluence, to self in all its forms, to all the paraphernalia
of an incident-encrusted life, donning all the masks, loving and leaving,
fathering and mothering, brothering, befriending, belong to all parties,
embracing all causes, trying on beliefs like so many articles of clothing,
exchanging one when another has worn out, espousing them with
utter conviction, sometimes even dying for them, only to reject them all
out of hand next time around.
Next time, last time, this time, maybe there is no next or last time
but all time, everything happening not in some remote past or far away future
but all at once, NOW, in a single moment of God's dreaming,
perceived as past, present and future but really all
ONE GOD-BLESSED MOMENT.
And in his ears the sound of steam ships and freighters and ocean liners
and in his gut the roll of waves and the stomach-rumble of smokestacks
vomiting thick black smoke into skies the color of gray wool and the eye-tug
of streaming faces on the shore waving goodbye, farewell, take good care
of yourself! don't forget to write!
And as taut streamers snap in the cold and steaming air your ship steams
out of the crowded harbor on its way to Tripoli and Constantinople and Bombay you grasp the woodsplintered rail tightly with your hands weapon-callused
and cold and you feel the heave and roll of a few hundred tons of bolted steel beneath your army regulation booted feet and there's the smell of damp khaki under your nose and what feels like a hundred pounds of metal on your back
and the heart-weight of memories of left-behind mother, father, wife and child
and the million and one comforts of home that already feels like a dream
you will never recapture like waking on a cold winter morning to the sound
of the radiator hissing and your bedroom windows frosted over
and the smell of baking biscuits from below stairs and Christmas mornings
on a hearth rug in front of a roaring fire and here you are steaming to some godforsaken place where savages perform unspeakable acts with horrifying casualness and worship devil-gods with eight arms and where it's never
nice 'n nippy but always steaming under a foreign sun where the 'eathens
eat animals we civilized folk keep as pets and wouldn't know a knife and fork from Adam and when they're finished shit where they eat for and for God's sake don't forget to take yer quinine and keep yer solar topee on yer 'ead
you bloomin' idiot!
It was a time once again when young men died with their eyes open and saw
the sky reflected in stagnant pools of water and cried out for their mothers
on bloody battlefields and went out of their lives on a Hail Mary an Our Father
a Hear O Israel the Lord is One.
Once again it was the time of oldness, when boys still in short pants
went off to war and came back old men, when mothers and fathers
on all sides prayed to the same God in their different tongues the same prayer: Please bring my boy back alive;
a time when newspapers spread sheets of sorrow and despair
over too many faces, and December 25th was the cruelest date in the year.
It was a time of grieving and comforting, of apathy and anger,
rage and resignation, of fighting and surrenderance, of sitting down to supper and becoming slowly accustomed to the empty place at the table,
of substituting missed voices with empty conversation,
of learning to grow comfortable with the deepest grief.
A Psalm for the Great War
Comes a soldier ‘cross the blackened earth,
Only eighteen years since his distant birth.
Gone over the top by sheer force of willSome stranger at fifty yards to kill.
Bayonet fixed (his resolve fixed, too)
Comes the soldier to die, or to do.
At fifty yards a man’s not a man;
‘Tis better to shoot him square if you can.
But come you close enough to smell his breath
What ye’ll then be smellin’ is eventual death:Either his or yours, only blind fate decides;
Just don’t, for God’s sake, look into his eyes.
Comes the soldier, his courage undone.
Did he look into the eyes of that other one?
Under the black and regimental skies
Two soldiers lie with opened eyes.
Showers of earth, showers of mud
Shoes slipping sideways in the rain and blood.
Slow death, quick pain, a quicker death still
Arrives the moment the bullet will.
Across No Man’s Land the figures come
Blue-grey smudges in the drowning dawn.
Crouched low against all-embracing earth,
The soldiers come singly, alone as birth.
Neither feeling nor thinking the soldiers advance
O’er the trembling earth of Verdun, France.
February 1st, 1916, 7:12 am
A rush of air not cold against exposed and broken bone,
a scream where a mouth should be.
A probing of tongue into vanishment of flesh.
The weight of sunlight on eyelids gravid with mud.
A press of fingers, not his.
Still alive, this one.
Put im over there.
A lifting into air thick with no living thing.
An opening of one eye against a reluctant sun.
Above a shamefully beautiful sky, too terribly blue over the waste,
an embarrassment of clouds scudding majestically over the carnage.
Now he felt himself being carried over broken earth,
the broken parts of himself going painfully.
A lifting onto a cot, a rush of agony from each of the broken places at once.
A scream strangled by wetness.
A flood of morphine, sudden surcease of pain.
In the full bright fever dreams that followed he dreamt not once of war.
He did not dream of trenches fortified by mud and sand and the arms and legs
and torsos of mostly unrecognizable comrades.
Nor did he dream of the filthy, skyless rain,
nor of the earth showers,
nor of the gas that drowned men inside their own lungs,
nor of the rats that swam under water,
nor of the rot that melted flesh and wool so that both came away at once
in your hand,
no longer in his nostrils the stench of blood and urine-soaked wool.
He dreamt instead of his room in Camden Town when his mother
put him to bed in the summer when it was still light outside
and the way the dark came slowly until only the darkness remained.
He saw once again the dreary floral print of the wallpaper
and the carved pineapples on his bedposts and the heavy furniture
growing fuzzy and indistinct and the slow dark coming more quickly now
and from downstairs the low muffled voices and the heavy tread of feet
and the door opening and the sudden wedge of light and his mother,
the largeness of her, the weight of her, becoming huge and towering over him
as he lay there, then bending over him, then the press of her thick lips
on his forehead, then the slow going away of her and then the quick going away of the light and the darkness which was now filling his room and soon,
sooner than soon, sleep.
He dreamt of his room in the woollthick grey light of a winter morning
and the great clock in the hall ticking its way toward yet another
He smelled once again the pudding, the whole house filled with the damp sugary smell of it, saw once again the crusted sugar bubbling smally
against the sides of the pot, saw his father and mother laughing and pretending to steal a taste while the other wasn’t looking.
Then the seasons began to tumble one against the other,
now a crisp fall day and the rising of a church steeple into a hard blue sky
ripe with sap and snow,
now a day in summer and the air thick with unshed rain,
now a night in May under a sky flecked with pulsing stars
and the press of a hand in his and his face in the hollow of a neck
damp with sweat and sweet with the smell of lavender and inhabited wool.
He felt himself being carried over broken earth and in his ears
the thud of cannon and in what was left of his mouth the taste of blood and mud.
Put im with the other blighters ‘oo ain’t goin' to make it.
Even if ‘ee did ‘ee couldn’t ever show his face to anyone, poor bastard.
It was painful, more painful even than his wounds, to hear himself
spoken of in such a way.
Didn’t they know he could hear as well as they?
He could not bring the pieces of his mouth together enough to tell them.
Nor could he nod.
He tried to speak but his voice was strangled by a gushing wetness.
A sodden groan.
February 1st, 1916, 8:27 pm
This one’s caught it, Sergeant.
Put im over there, like I said the other one.
But he was not yet gone, there was still enough of him to mouthlessly cry out,
put an ear to my lips, I’ll tell ye.
It was over and he knew it, it just hurt to hear himself spoken of that way,
so casually, as though he were already not there.
While one is alive, he thought, it is impossible to imagine being not alive,
until suddenly, one simply isn’t.
How could I have ever fooled myself into believing
it could ever have been otherwise?
And he spiraled out of himself into incorporeal air.
Floating, floating, streamers of dreams following, lost and dangling ends
of conversations strung together like long and wisping kite tails.
And the earth turned huge and silent beneath the soles of his feet,
the tender undersides warmed, now cooled, by zones torrid,
now tundra-like as he soulspun out ever farther out,
a dreamwrecked star hurtling toward the further dream of a next life
then a soft painless slipping out of himself and a rising above himself
and then a welcoming embrace of light.
Oh soon to be forgotten life: a wisp of hair, a curling smile, the tender hollow of a fragrant neck, flutter of girlish laughter, a roiling, rolling caravan of images, where? Upon what screen?
All around, himself the screen, himself the image, viewed as if from a great distance, ready pain arrrowquick to his heart, nothing left out, everything viewed and reviewed, to what purpose? What lesson?
I’m so tired, he thought, let me sleep, sleep.
And sleep did close about him like a fist, and did fling him like a stone across starry webbed night, across time and geography, into another puddle
of indwelling flesh, yet another internment in gristle and bone.
Gone out of his life on a sigh (or was it just another futile battle cry?)
on what felt like an uprushing of air whooshing him out of yet another body,
short interval of womb silence, then a sudden inrushing of air and outrushing
of blood, a moment of strangulation, then an upside down interval in space,
now a slap, a cry, and a swaddling of soft blankets and new flesh.
February 5th, 1916, 7:12 am
New York City
He’d tumbled out of the trenches and into the glare of a delivery room
on the upper East Side of Manhattan; no rain of earth over his head anymore,
no shells to halve the night into fire and light,
He was safe in his new mother’s arms, still wet from the bath of birth, his still unopened eyes unbefouled by blood and broken bones.
Bloody bandages became swaddling clothes, bursting shells became lullabies.
No uniform to wear now but the suit he was born in.
Call it, will you please?
8:27 am. Male, 12 pounds, thirteen ounces.
C’mon, c’mon, the date, goddamit…
February fifth, in the year of our lord, nineteen-hundred and six—
Oh shut up.
December 5th, 1941, 5:33 am
Ponary Forest, Vilna, Poland
they'd taken him out and were bringing him to the shooting place
they'd tied his hands but did not blindfold his eyes because then the going would be slower and they were in a hurry to finish and go back to their breakfasts and he noticed the air was sharply cold for september and very dry because the rain had come little that year and the ground was dry and hard and the leaves were loud under their feet as they walked him through the wood and he looked up at the sky and in the west it was still yesterday but in the east it was today which for him would never become tomorrow that would be there for the ukrainian guards who when it was over would sling their carbines over their shoulders and turning swiftly back to camp would joke or pass wind loudly and this was their way of leaving what they had done behind them for they worked here every day and when they'd finished they always turned quickly from it and that way they carried nothing back with them still the one with the tied hands was very calm as they prodded him along with the barrels of their guns why am i so still inside he thought it must be a favor from god and thinking this he remembered to remember to pray the lord is my shepherd i shall not want but i want to remember everything and forever he thought and now there came to him her scent in his sweater the one masha had knit for him last winter at vilna the lavender she always wore coming to him even here and he would take her with him finally and she would remain with him despite what they had done and were about to do
and with the dawn came a sweetening and softening of the air and the birds woke and wheeled overhead and he was glad he was not blindfolded and he looked up and tried to follow a finch in its flight but lost it and the earth and tree smell came to him and he filled his lungs with it and he was very happy he was happier than he remembered being in a long time happier even than when they had hidden and then smuggled the jewish family to safety and then themselves had hid in a peasant's barn and afterward had fallen asleep in hay rich with the smell of foaled animals and last summer's rains and now as he walked he carried the smell of the barn and the heavy warm weight of masha against him and he was very happy and in his mouth he suddenly found with his tongue a kummel seed from the bread they had shared yesterday and the small taste filled him full and the two ukrainians and the one lithuanian who were taking him joked and talked among themselves as though he were not there and already a ghost and only when he had looked up at the sky and his pace slowed for a moment did they remember their work and prod him forward with their guns
it was lighter now and he could walk and look up without losing pace
and as he did he saw that the leaves at the top of the trees were like lacework
against the lightening pearl blue of the sky and the birds were louder now and freer in their singing and he thought how happy they sound how happy to be alive they will be singing even after no stop it you are in mourning for yourself when you should be happy for you did what you had to do and are dying the way you always pictured it but picturing a thing is different from living it but even so he thought it's what i wanted why should i not be happy make yourself remember the happiness of a few moments ago remember masha and the barn and as he walked he remembered the still quiet of the cell and the chill of the dawn and the guards entering loudly and coming eagerly between them and then a scuffle of feet as he and masha tried to cling to one another but they used the butt ends of their rifles to separate them and then they told them how they would work it
they said at dawn each would each be taken to a different site masha to the ponary side and he to the vilna side they said they would first shoot masha and then when the sound came it would be his turn because it is especially quiet at that time of the morning and one of the ukrainians said to the man you should be able to hear quite well and then masha said bastard and the hitting began and he could not bear to see them hurting her and he screamed obscenities at them to attract the blows to himself but they stopped soon enough for they were tired and sweating from their efforts and then the ukrainian said both of you have caused far too much trouble already and to the man he said i shall personally be happy to put a bullet through your head myself and then he spat thickly at the man's feet and turning to go he said take the woman now and so they took you from me but they did not succeed for you are with me now
your scent is with me in the sweater you knit so lovingly with your hands which held the wool to your breast so many times that your scent is woven into it so you see my darling they did not separate us at all and we are going together as we said even though it will be to another part of the forest
they’d handtied and blindfolded her and so her footsteps were unsure and this slowed her pace which annoyed her escorts very much and one of them used his boot to kick and his rifle to hit and the woman felt weak in the bowels but resolved not to show any weakness if she could help it i did not know i would feel the fear so badly she thought and then a bad cramp made her stop for a moment the leaf sounds under her feet stopping too and one of them poked her between the shoulders with his gun barrel and the pain together with her resolve made her body tighten and this helped her not to embarrass herself and in a little while she felt the ground becoming harder and the sound of the leaves becoming less and she lifted her head and tasted the air tangy with autumn and saw clearer than if she had no blindfold the arching of the oaks and heard the birds freely singing and went out of herself to greet them and she felt the tears start from her eyes and go hotly into the blindfold and she tried hard not to think of tomas but he was there for good and he would not go away he was there in the poem he had written on their last night together and which she had secreted into her left shirt pocket whose corners now pierced her heart and all at once she felt a great happiness unfold inside her like a large and breathing flower and this happiness so completely filled her that it took away the fear and even the guards and she had an uncontrollable urge to laugh purely and loudly just to let the happiness out and she thought how wonderful it would be to really let the laughter out and send it singing skyward like a bird but only the merest smile was visible on her lips which went unnoticed by all
it was almost light by the time they reached the shooting place and he could see the tops of the branches very well now as well as the clearing between the trees and the rounded edges of the large open ditch just beyond the clearing and there he saw a group of prisoners in filthy camp clothing filling a section of the ditch with earth some with their hands and some with make-shift shovels but they did not look up as he approached and he thought how odd to measure the rest of your life in moments instead of by the usual calendar which makes a man say i will do such and such a month or two months from now or such and such next year or five years from now but for me there can be no from now there can only be now which even now is passing away but this now had the past very much in it yes it had his brother too and his mother and his father and his friends from the university but principally it had masha and each fought for dominance in his heart and now it was his brother in his wandervolk clothes the large and heavy rucksack jumping up and down on his thin shoulders as he walked and then stopped to wave at the top of a hill at sunset a stick figure against a vermilion sky and now it was his mother tucking him into bed her round and smiling face coming close very fast to kiss him wetly on the forehead and now it was his father coming home on saturday night fully drunk and suddenly very playful as he picked him up and held him high over his head and then brought him quickly down to his lips and then the pricking of his large mustache as he kissed him and the pipe and beer smell on his clothes and the calluses on his fingers and palms as he held his face in his hands with the oil and rag smell still on them from the factory and now it was his friend lustig from the university who could barely see even with the thickest possible glasses but who had no trouble seeing into human hearts and now it was this one and that one but most of all it was masha who was being taken by two ukrainians and the litvak now a kapo who had joined them from the camps and they too were hungry and eager to be finished so they could return to warmth and their breakfasts
and the ukrainians walked quickly prodding the woman along with their guns and they joked in their language while the kapo whistled a tune he had heard at a cinema once and which he could not get out of his head but the litvak was silent and walked at some distance behind the others for he was shorter than the others and his uniform hung poorly on him before the war when he could choose his own clothes instead of having them chosen for him he’d needed to have his trouser legs shortened but the war made no such concession to fashion and so his trouser legs were too long and hung well over the heels of his boots and got caught under them as he walked and frayed them to ribbons and the upper half of him looked no neater with his tunic two sizes too large and the sleeves which were too long were rolled double over his wrists it was clear that the litvak did not care for the war but now that he was in it he had determined to acquit himself well as long as he did not have to do anything too unpleasant still shooting the woman would be unpleasant but he would not be doing it alone and besides who would know if he decided at the last second to withhold his bullet for he was no more made for war than his uniform was made for him because he was a dreamer and a reader of books and he day dreamed now as he walked and this together with his trouser legs which were continually getting caught under his heels caused him to lag behind one too many times and the big ukrainian who had gone far ahead had glanced over his shoulder to look for him but the glance was not one of concern
it was light now as they approached the place and now the ukrainians stopped joking and the kapo stopped whistling and they stood now just beyond the clearing and waited for the litvak to catch up they were bored now as well as tired and hungry for the ukrainians had each heard the other's jokes many times and had grown tired of the tune that was still bouncing around in the kapo’s head coming out of his lips hey pipsqueak come here said the big ukrainian and the litvak shuffled to where the others waited for him and stood at attention before the ukrainian and suddenly confused about how to address his superior whether to say yes my captain or yes sir he chose what he considered the safer course and remained dumb for he had not been in the war very long and then the big ukrainian said take the woman and stand her over there and pointing to the thrown up rubble at the edge of the ditch said pick your feet up when you walk and the others snickered then quickly straightened their faces when they saw look on the big ukrainian's face and then the kapo said you had better move faster than that they're waiting for the shot remember but the woman stood tall and erect and proud her blindfolded head tilted heroically at the sky but because her eyes were blindfolded the expression went unnoticed instead she had about her the curiously absent air of someone intently listening for something that is just out of sight and hearing and the litvak shuffled up to her with feet that would have preferred to walk elsewhere and reached for her elbow anyway but the moment his hand touched her the woman caught his weakness the way an animal in a moment senses fear and she jerked her arm away do not touch me murderer she said and the litvak jumped back as though he had grasped an electrified wire and his trouser legs becoming caught under his shoes made him trip but he righted himself before he fell weakling said the big ukrainian and walking swiftly up to the litvak delivered a blow to the right side of his head which knocked him down you disgrace yourself and us as well he said but perhaps you need a good example to follow so watch little litvak watch and learn this is how you escort the enemy to the execution site and so saying the ukrainian grabbed her roughly by the shoulders tugging her first to himself and then pushing her away so that she nearly fell but this time the woman did not jerk her arm away or make any motion to resist she was glad the weak man was not taking her after all how would her bravery appear next to such weakness and the woman felt under her feet the broken ground and her heels slid once or twice on the rubble but she regained her balance quickly and walked on as though she were not blindfolded she did not even mind the iron press of the ukrainian's fingers through her thin jacket into her arm pain was a minor discomfort now a momentary distraction then she felt the earth going higher and the earth looser and then the ukrainian shouting halt and grabbing her by the shoulders again in his push-pull fashion he jerked her around so that she stood facing the three who waited about a hundred yards away and when he was satisfied that she was standing where he wanted he kicked her feet apart like a folding table that needs righting and then she heard his footsteps going away on the broken earth and she heard the wind high and strong now as it came from the east and she tasted on the wind the piney resiny scent of the forest and breathed it deeply into her and she liked the way the wind played with her hair teasingly one moment now a little rough like tomas then the big ukrainian walked back to the others and sat on the ground watching the litvak massaging the right side of his face get up he said and after one or two tries the litvak struggled to his feet and tried to stand at attention but he felt his heart hammering like a madman inside his chest and the big ukrainian said you will have the honor of firing the first shot and then we will all fire and that should put some backbone into you eh and when he had said that a sinking dread a of nausea of the heart settled like some dead weight inside him and he felt his face grow white he did not mean to be insolent but he could not control the words and said please do not make me do this thing she is a woman i cannot shoot a woman and the big ukrainian did not know whether to hit him again or to shoot him and only said flinging an accusatory arm out behind him in the direction of the ditch that woman has helped hundreds of jews escape and do you know what those escaped jews will do they will spread across europe breeding like flies as they go now what do you do to flies eh how do you stop filthy flies from breeding you swat them like this and the ukrainian gave the palm of his hand a ringing slap and said now swat her like the fly she is but the litvak not only did not jump to his superior's orders he sat back down on the ground and putting his head in his hands began to weep please do not make me do this thing he said at least not by myself he thought if they all fired at once no one would know that he had withheld his bullet or he could fire just above her head yes that was what he would do while the kapo and the other ukrainian watched disinterestedly for they were by this time very hungry and the kapo cursed himself for not having the foresight to pocket at least a small piece of bread while the litvak remained on the ground and continuing to sob loudly did not hear the unsnap of the ukrainian's holster nor did he hear the sleek slide of metal against leather as the pistol was withdrawn and looking up suddenly into the barrel of the gun he heard and saw the flash but did not feel the bullet enter his brain well there’s an end to you said the ukranian and a mile and a half away the man standing on the broken earth stiffened at the sound and then went limp but did not fall and everything even masha had gone out of him now and closing his eyes heard one of them say that’s it and another say but only one has fired and then the other say who cares i’m famished heard the grunts of men rising stiffly from the ground and slapping the earth from their clothing heard them shuffle into position and heard one of them say aim for the head no said the other the heart but his heart was already dead and the two fired in unison one a split second later and as he fell back he saw the morning sky huge and wide as forever and a cloud large as any continent floating immense and wonderfully above him and it was just like a castle he had seen once in a child’s picture book it had turrets of soft pearl gray even a moat and the sky was a pale and dusty blue which reminded him of something he had not thought of for many years yes he thought the robin's eggs the sky is the same color as the robin's eggs
I used to gather here as a child how strange and beautiful to be thinking of this now
three miles away the woman heard but did not move for she was hard and dry inside like the ground and when the volley of shots came from the vilna side it turned what was left of her heart to stone and because her ears had also become like stone she did not hear the men ordered into position nor did she hear the them shuffle into place take desultory aim and fire
with these shots the morning was broken for good and in the trees the birds screamed and flew their branches and many leaves fell and the high wind blew
somewhere a sky of unbroken blue
a robin’s egg blue
the sound of the wind soughing in the high trees
somewhere a long time ago
in another dream now only dimly remembered
like the running-down of a projector
the last images flickering and fading
before the bright lights come up
Once again in the winter the dark came early but in the summer
the dark came slowly.
Once again it was daylight when his mother put him to bed,
and so his room was still full of end-of-day August sunlight.
On summer nights the dark in his room came by slow degrees,
a soft wool-grey light that slowly blackened until the darkness
was a completed thing.
He could feel the summer-baked city, a presence behind the pulled down
green shade of his bedroom window.
A sense, even from within the darkening room, of red brick russet turning
in the dying trombone-colored light, and a thickening of shadows
that cooled the bricks to a dull brown flatness and leavened the city’s heat.
And with coming of night came the further darkness of sleep,
and the sound of an oscillating fan turning now toward him and now away.
In the far corner of his bedroom, on top of the bookcase that held
his 25-volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, sat a three-speed oscillating fan.
This is what I will always remember, he would say one day many days hence,
the sound of a fan in a room growing slowly dark with end-of-day summer light.
He would always remember the slow going and coming away of the fan,
the turn and return of the sound, and the pulse of air that reached his face
a second or two later, and the room growing slowly darker every moment.
He remembered winter nights when the sky beyond his window was so hard
and blue the sky broke with snow, but it was the summer nights he would
always return to in his memory, those long suspiring summer nights that never fell but faded, layer by layer, into darkness.
In the sun-song of morning, a pinprick of sunlight would peep through a tiny chink in the cracked green shade and the fan still turning, pushing the air at first toward him and then away, like a whispered kindness.
Across from his bed stood the tall and massive Chippendale armoire
with the double brass pulls on each drawer that always clinked too loudly
when opened so that he had to grasp the pulls and hold them from falling back against the fine wood so that no one would know he was awake.
To the right of the armoire was the heavily draped and green-shaded window.
Running the length of the wall was another bookcase which held his books
and records and toys.
And his bed was a boat that navigated the night,
with its bedpost masts and pillowed clouds and the sea a coverlet
of dark blue cotton squares.
And always the sound of a fan turning in the slowly deepening dark.
To wake in a sun-crowded room, still tangled in sleep,
or a room shadow-soaked but trembling with immanent sunlight,
a gondola dream of Venice, a mud-tombed nightmare of Verdun,
all fading in its passage from sleep to wakefulness.
Oh kind cloak of sleep that covers night and lays like a pillow
between one life and another, cover me now with thy dark and starry caress.
Tender me no more dreams, at least for a little while.
Plot me no more plots, weave me no more mysteries,
dim the lights of the stage and keep the characters in the wings,
at least for a little while.
Return no more lovers to my breast, keep wide the distance
between past-life friendships and next-life handshakes,
at least for a little while.
Slow down the mad flurry of debit and credit exchanges,
the old-new introductions, at least for a little while.
Let blessed silence reign, at least for a little while.
But soon the rising and convergence of thought and desire,
surrender and appropriation, nakedness and possession,
relinquishment and achievement, nothing ever coming quite into balance.
And so the jettisoning of souls, the thrusting up out of one dropped form
and missile diving into another, the condensed mass of millions of personalities
and countless millions of experiences bullet-shot into a human being
no bigger than a fist.
And waking. Again.
They say that dying, that is, the actual moment of death, that moment
when the soul slips the body and enters the hell or heaven state,
is painless. They’re right. I know.
I’ve done it thousands of times.
And I remember each time with the wide-open eyes of memory.
A memory that never lets me forget.
Memory is my curse, forgetfulness my Lethe.
The dream of life, these lifetimes of dreams, merge and swell,
the swift-running streams running together, the images blurring
the outlines of my this-moment world, and in my ears the echo
of forgotten laughter, muttered oaths and whispers.
My heart triple-beats with a thousand memories that speak in a hundred voices,
most of which, alas, are my own.
Only in sleep, or under the comforting cloak of morphia,
does my mind find rest in the cease and surcease that follows.
I am adrift in a sea of my own stories, their ends left dangling,
to be finished in some future life.
Perhaps this one.
The sad fact of the matter was, it was all very sad,
this constant coming and going, dying and being born again,
gaining and then losing and then gaining again
the very ones you loved, or hated, or loved or hated simultaneously.
The only thing that seemed to remain eternally the same were the skies,
the endless blues of summer, the leaden grays of winter,
great continents of cloud massing themselves above his head.
Looking at a one sky could remind you not of one lifetime
but a hundred all at once.
Skies were his time machine.
July 25th, 1948, 12:05 am
Dehra Dun, India
He died in his sleep, Surrendra Kumar did, the Name sleeping still in his heart.
Because he had neglected, at least occasionally, to taste the Name,
like a kiss that is always there to be stolen and savored, he did not taste of it now,
and so nothing escaped from the too tightly closed gates of his lips;
the Name simply lay there enharboured, an unlaunched ship.
He had died in his sleep, not having consciously
taken the Name of the Lord, no “Hai Ram!” to catapult his soul
slingshot-like into birthwheel-breaking freedom and eternal nowness.
No, the Name had remained unspoken, anchored by sleep, thickened no doubt
by that second (or was it the third?) toddy.
And as his soul spun out and away he had time, just a moment really,
to regret the little lusts and lies that purred and pirouetted through his life,
so venal in their tiny singleness, so stone-heavy in their aggregate,
no wonder the Name had sunk with his wasted body,
had not soared nor lifted him Home.
July 28th, 1948, 8:45 pm
He lay there, did Eiji Kurasawa, breathing out the last breaths of his life,
and did not dream.
He didn’t really exist at all.
The personality he wore for the last seventy-six years was quickly evaporating.
The last shreds of the cloth that had so tightly wrapped his life
were unraveling now around him.
Very soon, the flesh-shroud that was he-his-own-self would become undone
to the last most-finite fiber.
All his thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, fears, and desires would,
at the exhalation of his last breath, sew themselves up neatly into a small,
yet imperceptible bubble, and snap its beloved link to him forever.
But rather than burst, this bubble which is nothing but the hardened impressions
of he-who-was-his-own-last-self will travel into another self who will be
but an extension of his-own-last-self and it will lie sleeping there
only to be awakened in dreams and flashes of insight, split-second reactions
of hatred or instant love, all of which will mystify and madden him
with a slightly unpleasant, nagging uncertainty, but he will not question any of it
beyond a moment’s inquiry .
Then he will forget them each and all but will stop to wonder sometimes
in the middle of a thought or a sentence,
What was that?
Who was that?
This damned coming and going, coming and going, dashing and darting
in and out of each another’s lives until we achieve some sort of balance,
please dear God, or at the very least let there be an equilibrating
of blood and flesh, desire and loss, instead of carving out from the heft
of a just-passed lifetime simply more heft,
craning our necks above the hubris of our humanity, until we can at last
see clearly, if even for a few moments, a way through our own darkness.
Unless by the Grace of a Perfect Master a balance is struck,
we shall stumble and stagger blindly and blithely on interminably,
in search of yet another exit, another entrance.
Fallible as soldiers do we fall into one lifetime after another,
tumbling in and out of each other’s lives like so much discarded clothing.
The consequences of our griefs lie too solidly against our hearts,
so we rummage through the detritus of our lifetimes
and give thanks for occasionally coming up empty-handed.
What dumbshows do we enjoy, paid for over and over again at ever
The curtain falls, a paring down of lifetimes into a single breath.
Unwhispered griefs slip through our tightly clenched teeth.
Tumbling down the years weariness wears the days away;
sleep divides the rest.
Ah sweet bitter memory that rubs against the heart
turning it slowly inside out,
turning it over and over a thousand lifetimes over.
The ache and pass of time
the thrusting of hands into the swiftly moving stream
a feeble attempt to pluck just one moment from the waters
one moment more fragile than a breath.
The weight and press of time
a million moments that lean their insignificant weight
against our hearts exerting the minutest of pressures
enough to catapult us through ten thousand lifetimes.
The wail and weep of time,
The forward press of its backward hand,
the taut muscles of memory
stretched to the tearing point
over some word or scene
so long forgotten, capsized by incident,
by the six-o-clock news.
Time bends but never breaks.
We try to outbreathe the moment,
until the moment passes us by.
And behind his eyes the memory of each of his beloved's eyes so fair so kind
so heartless so cruel so thoughtful so impossibly gone forever a thousand
wedding rings on a thousand skeleton fingers till dust do us part
the memory distant and fading like the tail end of a beautiful and frightening dream a high sweet voice in a whipping wind full of pledges and promises carried away by the wind and the years.
The clutch of a child's moist hand in yours the joining of old hands veined
and spotted and about to part in a final goodbye oh my heart I pledged to love you forever but now you have slipped behind that curtain where I cannot follow,
that curtain which I cannot part until I myself am ready to lift its heavy fold.
Dear God I know it's all part of your plan but I don't like it I never did I never will it's not fair goddamit I don't care about heaven and hell I just want to be with my beloved oh why did you have to rip her from my sight which left a hole
so deep and wide my love could never fill it up?
And in his heart the stirrings of other lovers, other beloveds, each precious and rare and unique beyond all telling yet attempted anyway in wood and marble and clay in oils and water color and crayon in diaries and stories and novels and poems and scraps of paper seen by no one.
And every moment says, this is real, this will last forever.
Childhood and first schools and first friends.
The first shy forays into humanhood.
Gossip, girls, boys, and their incomprehensible ways.
First date, first walk in the moonlight, sweaty hands welded together.
First kiss, the startling wetness of it, never has another face ever come so close.
Then a change of schools and friends, maybe a beloved grandparent dies,
or a sleep-shattering phone call in the middle of night notifying your mother
of the fatal accident of a beloved parent, brother, sister, son, daughter.
Then one day your father comes home and announces, We're moving…
Or declares: Your mother and I have been talking; we both feel it would be better
if we lived apart for awhile; you'll understand better when you're older.
And suddenly a whole chunk of your life, with its aggregation of scenes and acts
you unconsciously depended on not to change, to somehow by some kind
of mutual agreement no one made to go on forever, just as it was,
suddenly ends, the final act concluded by a period or exclamation point
made of stone.
Now comes the time of restlessness; the compulsion to do, to achieve,
to make, to perform, to build, to invent, to beget, to write, to sing, to paint,
to heal, to adjudicate, to preach, to collect, to craft, to cobble, to complete,
only in the end coming to realize the great and recondite secret:
there is really and truly no need to do anything, only a need to become .
Now is the time to stop becoming and unbecome.
We have already become all that we could ever hope to be
over countless thousands of becomings.
We cannot become any more.
It is now time to unbecome.
Unbecome lust. (Good luck!)
We have spent enough lifetimes becoming what we are not;
let us now indulge in unbecoming so that we may become
what we always were.
If the truth is that the end of every lifetime is the total and complete annihilation
of one's individual personality, then what does it matter what one does.
It's not what we do, but Who we do it for.
If we do it for ourselves, it binds us; but if we do it for Him, the doing
sets us free.
This little life, rounded by so many sleeps,
is passing, passing, minute by minute,
hour by hour, day by day,
year after year, and thus will it end.
And on that last day I will not have
thrown off the weight of my wants
nor will I have effaced even the smallest
fragment of my self,
save that which His face has melted away.
And the weight I so carefully nurtured in life
will weigh me down into another body,
fit or lame, colored or white,
but heavy nonetheless with the weight
of ten thousand wants.
And on the wall will hang baby's first calendar
with ten thousand days of wanting yet to fill in.
Begin, oh begin again, little life.
Like a young and reaching stalk you shoot into adolescence,
prodding experience into being with shy, brave fingers,
testing it against your infant endurance,
rearing back in terror when it rises genie-like from the inside coat pocket
of your first Brooks Brothers suit.
Now a job, a career, a purpose, a work engine to drive the car of you
across a lengthy lifetime of busyness.
Now a family, torn apart by pettiness or welded together in other-pleasing love;
children as adornments or finger-pointing shadows of yourselves.
In due course arrive achievements, honors, disappointments, the uncomfortable silences, failures turned inside out as successes (and vice versa);
speeches, concessions, reluctant compromises made in the last desperate moments of a teeming hour; congratulations, condolences, commiserations,
the obligatory pat on the back, the sideways kiss.
And over the years no excuses are made, a million excuses are made,
and all is forgiven in the end.
Then a memoir, an obituary, a biography,
And didn't every moment say, This is real, this will last forever?
Rushing in and out of each other's lives, colliding like kisses,
womb-exiting and entering, tomb dwelling and crib residing,
wrestling the demons of one life onto the mat of another,
endlessly losing and winning the game of self-solitaire,
building, tearing down, starting over, beginning at what only seems like
the beginning, forever forgetting that we have passed this way before,
not once but ten thousand times.
Just a lifetime or two ago he had passed away in an untimely hour
while he was tying his shoe (or was it his tie; he'll never remember
now), a blinding red-white nova before his eyes as the vessel burst,
unfairly snatching him away before he had really started living.
All his goals and wants, all his ambitions and aspirations
were cut off at the legs, as it were.
To his way of thinking, his life was a best-selling book whose exciting
middle hadn't even been reached yet.
Clearly, this was unfair.
Too much had been left unfinished, unresolved, his life a beautiful
sculpture still locked inside the marble.
Oh, his Last Will and Testament was made out and duly stored away
in the obligatory strong box, along with some valuable stocks and bonds
and his mother's heavy and depressing old brooch, which she insisted
he give to his wife who refused to wear it, saying she dreaded the very
sight of it.
Presently, however, his won't was much stronger than his will.
Death, coming unexpectedly as it did, was an exceedingly inconvenient
interruption, an annoying delay and postponement of his plans.
It had arrived in an untidy hour; the bits and pieces of his life
left strewn about him in incompleteness.
And he would have none of it.
But he had already set sail for that farther shore,
and he knew from watching too many movies that there was no returning,
except as some angel on a mission of mercy, but that surely wasn't him.
He had already risen far above his body (so strange a sight!);
there was his wife weeping (but not too hysterically) over his lifeless form,
in the suit he should have had pressed weeks ago; and he cried out to her:
I never said I'm sorry for the lousy way I treated you, all those many years.
But she did not hear.
His death was an accomplished thing, like breakfast.
O please! came the silent scream, please merciful God, not yet!
I had so much to be happy about, but I made myself and everyone around me
miserable with my continual whining and wanting.
Why was I always wanting more instead of being content with what I had?
Was what I had so little? Maybe it should have been less;
I would have appreciated it more.
Dear God, I had so many gifts from your hand, and I dishonored each one.
I let them all slip through my fingers.
Now I have no fingers with which to grasp!
I had a beautiful wife, a true helpmeet (look! she's actually crying for me)
yet I lusted after other women!
I had a beautiful home, yet I always wanted to live somewhere else!
Now it's all receding from me, like my hairline.
I weep and have no eyes!
I cry out and have no mouth!
My precious tears have no course!
And so he set out for that farther shore in a vessel made of sleep;
regret and longing filled his sails, his next appointment to keep.
You asshole. You self-indulgent shit.
You act as though you were the only human being who ever
You and your talk of slowly darkening rooms, old schoolrooms
and libraries, the sighs for lost time and lost sunlight,
just who the hell do you think you are, anyway?Think you've got some monopoly on feelings, for chrissake?
Think you're the first person in the world to mourn the loss of a parent?
A wife? A child?
What you need is a good dose of the salts.
A stint in the army would fix you up, it would.
Put your handkerchief away (I'll give you something to cry about)
and get off that bloody mountain of yours.
Stop thinking of yourself as some angst-ridden character in a Doré engraving.
Rain isn't bloody tears.
It's just rain.
Cold, lousy, soaking-clear-through-your-Pierre Cardin-suit rain.
And in some future life, who knows how many more
if he keeps trying to get it right,
he will achieve the reparation of all wrongs,
the healing of all wounds,
the righting of all failures,
the sweetening of all sufferings,
the relaxation of all strivings,
the harmonizing of all strife,
the unraveling of all enigmas,
and the real and full meaning of all life --
past, present and future.
“From your mouth to God’s ear,” he said from nowhere.
It is now the second day of his new life; almost a week has passed since
he has passed away.
It's late August, 1948.
The temperature is at 87°, and it's not even 8 o'clock in the morning.
The sun is an angry red eye weeping hazy reddish light into his room.
The space of these few days is enough to begin the dissolving process
for those he's left behind, more than enough time to begin canceling
other people's memory of him and his memory of them;
the distance widening with every passing minute and hour.
Someone in fact has only just laid flowers over his newly dug grave
and walked away.
The wind blows; a leaf falls.
He opens his eyes to a new morning.
Have You Seen the Lovely Stranger?
Have you seen the lovely Stranger?
Have you seen his lovely smile?
Please tell me if you’ve seen him,
For I’ve searched such a long, long while.
Have you heard from the lovely stranger?
Have you heard of the gift he brings?
The gift of a kiss in the darkest night,
And the song of silence he sings.
Have you touched the lovely Stranger?
Have you touched his curling hair?
Or has he touched you with his love
That’s silent, but always there?
O have you seen the lovely Stranger?
Please tell me, do not conceal;
For I heard that once he passed this way,
And my heart is it his heel.
One Life's Not Enough to Love You
One life's not enough to love you,
So a thousand times we return
To live our lives in a thousand ways,
Your grace to try to earn.
Each life's a single movie frame,
A simple, childish rhyme.
How sad it is we need so many lives
To become that which we were all the time.
We drag our pasts behind us
Like Marley's well-forged chain.
We wear the fabric of our sins
Which shows each bloody stain.
Yet if we could love for a moment
With all our lives and hearts,
We might cancel all our tomorrows
And never have to learn new parts.
But time it will be that steals Your Name
and mixes it with the dust,
where we've let it lie like a fallen flower;
a heart-wheel gone to rust.
We live for some other moment
in the future or the past,
instead of living each present moment
as if each one were our last.