Once I lived in Jerusalem. Two years in the late 1970s. I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, many times to pray. Face of flesh to face of stone, I felt heart. I felt soul. My heart, my soul, my my: too small, too confined to one human body set apart to characterize what I experienced there in prayer.
I look up from Cherry Hill. Between the rhododendrons and camellias on the steep hill that drops from the road down to my yard, I catch a glimpse of a woman walking by my house. A neighbor? I can’t see clearly enough to know. Is she walking with someone else? I can’t see. Is she wearing earbuds, talking on the phone? I want to know: what sparked her emphatic oh my god?
What am I doing in the Blue Ridge Mountains? What am I doing turning to Jerusalem? What am I doing with all this history, this Jewish history? This poetry, this Jewish poetry? Body, heart, mind, soul: each looking in a different direction for home.
What’s your name, they asked. “Rick.” I had just arrived in Israel. July,1976. One of seventy volunteers from the U.S., I was settling into the Mercaz Klitah, Absorption Center, in Kiryat Shimona. One of Israel’s development towns in the north, situated at the foot of the Naphtali Mountains and close to the border with Lebanon, Kiryat Shimona was then a working class city. What’s your Hebrew name? As far as I knew, I didn’t have a Hebrew name.
We were hungry, so we left home, a place of famine, for a flourishing place to the south. Oh, the cucumbers! The onions! The melons, garlic, and leeks! We were at home there for hundreds of years. Eventually, we were enslaved there. Then we were freed. After 210 years, we wandered home.
“With training,” teaches Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, “it’s possible to become aware of the space in-between—the space in-between our thoughts, our moods, our perceptions, and our breaths.” There, emptiness. Not terrifying. Rather, liberating: “a fleeting moment of naked awareness, a split-second opening that introduces us to our original mind…
One day, I will lose my early morning low-tide walk on Isle of Palms, South Carolina. I will lose my annotated copy of Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I will lose my popcorn, and my jealousies (their house, their travels), and my wife’s smile that loosens knots in the chest…
Death is death. Death is also part of a larger story. I’m part of that story. I’m no longer hiding. No longer withholding. Since my father’s death, thousands of words. I’m living, yes, living with my father in the land of the dead.
The way to paradise is through poetry: form. The way to infinity, through the finite: form. Perhaps possibility seems most out of reach when one has not committed oneself to attending to the demands and limits of form: temporal (say, meter or rhythm), spatial (say, a house or the physical universe). An ultimate temporal and spatial limit: life in a human body.
“What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone,” asks Ellen Bass in her poem “If You Knew.” Did my anticipation of my father’s death change the way I behaved with him while he was still alive? I don’t know. Might it change my attitude toward and treatment of others, including annoying others, if I remembered, in every encounter, that they’re going to die?
I, too, have a shofar, a ram’s horn, that I cannot sound. Well, sometimes I can get one rather tortured tekiah (one of four traditional sounds) out of it, but don’t choose me to blow shofar on demand as part of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
The hospice nurse spoke softly. It could be today or tomorrow. Was he the angel of death? The gentle angel of death? He was, after all, the one who met my father when he arrived at the in-patient hospice for his final two days in this world.
On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.
I’m sixty-seven. I was twenty-eight when I heard Stephen Dunn read “Men at 40” by Donald Justice in a gymnasium at New Jersey’s Artist Teachers Institute. A year later I would be Justice’s student. But for now I was Stephen’s, all Stephen’s.
I have no idea what poetry means to my father. In their modest apartment, he and my mother have a little shelf where they keep copies of my books. Along with my books, they have copies of Stephen Dunn’s Local Time and Donald Justice’s Selected Poems. Stephen and Don were my teachers. I don’t know if either of my parents have read any of their poems.
To my friend, I said I don’t believe in the soul. That surprised me: I had never said that before. I don’t know if I’d ever even thought it before. I do know that I felt relieved when I said it, unburdened. Relieved of what? Unburdened of what?
I’m not dreaming. I’m reading. I don’t expect to touch the sky with my two hands. What a relief to read this now, this fragment of Sappho, translated by Jim Powell. A human body can only do what a human body can do. I don’t expect: how about working with that as a practice when I lie down at night and in the morning when—if—I rise again?
Are there other ways of responding to what’s unknown? Might we even train ourselves to recognize the human mind’s habit of perceiving as threats those things, human and more than human, that do not conform to the world as we know it?
“It was good to be in Chicago.”
What comes next? How about this: “On the way to Santiago.”
That’s Kenneth Koch in Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. He’s demonstrating how one line of a poem leads to another.
I’m living. I’m dying. I’m coming to an end. As I do, my wish is this: I’d like to stay awake, I’d like to pay attention as I live through the days between now and my last day at the university, between now and my last day, my last hour, my last human breath.