Friday, July 20, 2012

Canyon, Gorge, Arroyo

The seventeenth-century bibliophile George Thomason, whose specialty was seditious tracts, once buried his collection of over 22,000 publications, fearing their discovery by the army. What if he'd died before he was able to retrieve them?

How many other codices
and folios are stored down there,
are held in geologic strata? - pages
that, in trading earth for air, no longer turn.
They're like the minute-lines that mark a clock:
time moves, but they stay unmoved.


My Grandpa Louie isn't only in the earth,
by now he is the earth, is atomically one with it,
and so is all of the Old World sensibility that made him
so mysterious to me: the way he took tea
through a cube of sugar gripped in his yellowing front teeth,
and the Russian tavern songs he'd hum along
to the hand-cranked music box.
The Yiddish-language newspaper that he read, however,
is still being published - barely.
I imagine its latest sad gray passenger-pigeon-of-an-issue
pacing circles on his grave, impatient, waiting to fold
its paper wings and join him in the darkness,
maybe cover his chest,
as when - in life - he'd fall asleep under its pages.


Canyon, gorge, arroyo - we can see
at any cleft in the earth, it's text
on text the whole way down.
It's shelving.
And someone else may tell us that this
is an archeologist tenderly brushing the dust
from a buried line of inscription, or a paleontologist
tending to a row of fossil pocks, but we
can recognize a librarian when we see one.


We think of death as Nothing, as a stillness and a void,
but it's an active, endless hunger:
of the countless thousands
of third-millennium Hittite hieroglyphic documents,
"none has survived for our finding," done as they were
in ink on linen-backed tablets of wood.
In Time's salivas, a thing like that
dissolves like a peppermint lozenge. Occasionally,
a relic does float into the present moment:
we have ancient Incan quipus - stout main cords
and slenderer ancillary threads, on which a code
of knots served adequately as a kind of writing (cousin
to the rosary and fringe of the Jewish tallis).
One, recovered from a chieftan's tomb, is ten pounds
of transmitted fact. Ten pounds of knots,
as if to remind us what it means for a nervous system
to carry our complicated lives.


            And did you dream?
I dreamt. I dreamt I visited
Grandpa Louie's grave.
            You visited Grandpa Louie's grave.
            Did you enter it?
I entered it, I was there in the must,
I wandered the city
architected of bone and the ghosts of electrical pulses.
            And what did you see?
His life. His Jewghetto immigrant life
that had always seemed more distant to me
than the toppled columns of ancient Rome
and the Babylonian ziggurats.
            And did you understand what you saw?
I understood what I saw. At last, I felt at home
in the gutturals of his Yiddish speech,
among the cracked leather straps of his phylacteries,
and the watch fob, and the feathered splay
of chicken-pluck in the wooden bowl.
            You say at last you understood?
I spread apart the shut halves of his ribcage
and I studied.
I could read him like an open book.

Albert Goldbarth

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