The Birthday Gift

[May 10 is Greta’s (my sister) birthday.  She would be 90 years old this year, but she died almost 10 years ago.  For a time I continued to write her letters.  I had to do this to make peace with myself.  There was so much I still wanted to talk to her about, even if I didn’t get an answer.  There is still so much I want to talk with her about, and I know that will not happen.  I have this picture on my computer desktop.  It gazes out at me and I’m not sure that it comforts me with her permanent presence; or hurts me with the reminder of her absence.  I know I don’t want it to go away.  Maybe sometimes, as I sit at the computer not sure where to begin with what I need to do, I find encouragement in the smile on her face.  Maybe after I hear something new in music, like some of the songs composed and played by Adam and OneLove, I talk to her photo.  And on this May 10, on her 90th birthday, I revisited what I wrote as I was about to have my mitral valve surgery in what I called my Memento 5,  and also what I wrote (along with Diana) about this visit to Schneider Haus and the quilt competition that Diana took part in, to commemorate Greta (you can click the links to find those pieces). Maybe instead of letters, I’ll write poetry now.  LR]

The Birthday Gift 

by Lew Rosenbaum

The photograph gazes at me

from ten years agolew-greta-diana-schneider-haus-kitchener-may-2008

your birthday, Greta,

three of us standing to the side of lilacs

your eyebrows arched slightly, Greta,

eyes glimmer – are they brown?

they must be brown, all our family

has brown eyes – but my memory fails

and what I see could be gray or even

green, but I do catch the interest

as, alert, you look at the camera, not at me

standing by your side, but gaze at the

Josef Schneider Haus docent

she holds the camera and we pose

frozen in time and yet as I look at you

now alive, lips turning up in a sly smile

you betray the disease that robs you

of your humor, your laugh, the glint that

sparkled from those brown/gray/green eyes

the creases in your face melt away

I can hear you chuckle from that photo

you had just turned 80 and you could not

remember the road we had driven

many times before – we got lost on the way

to the Schneider Haus, that frightened you,

but for an instant,

standing next to the lilacs,

Diana laughs and revels in the company

in the symmetry of our mouths

a river of amusement washes over us

the three of us bathe in the pleasure

of the moment, of being alive together

 

My eyes stray from the joy I take

looking at your face to notice your gray hair

short cut, blown in the cool May breeze,

it’s not carefully combed or straight

as you are accustomed to wear it

and your red plaid shirt, the heavy one

you are wearing because it is a cool May day,

it hangs open and to the side, not the

impeccable way you would have worn

this or any other shirt, it’s that disease,

we’ve seen it before, both of us, Greta,

when you showed me how our mother,

our Chana, our Anna, would not, perhaps

could not, keep that neat appearance that

had been her hallmark, and how you

made me see the vacancy where the sentience

had inhabited her dark brown eyes, see the

hairs dangling disheveled from the corona

of braids she still wore when she could.

 

There: a smile threatens to break out on your face,

see the dimple forming in that left cheek

as the lips turn upward ever so slightly?

this is how I used to be, you tell me from the photo

remember me this way, I won’t be able to

hold this attitude much longer, you may not

see me like this again, hold me, hold onto this

moment, my brother, this, my birthday gift to you

 

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This Is My Last Shuttered House — Lew Rosenbaum

[My mother, Anna, died at 87 in 1983.  She spent the last few years declining in a nursing home;  the last weeks hardly cognizant of her surroundings.  That image haunted me, still haunts me, trying to imagine what was in her mind when we thought she was not comprehending. This poem took a couple of decades to write, reaching this version in my chapbook To Pay The Piper. She loved to tell young people about the time the soldiers came, like cossacks; it was so central to her growing up, to her fear of the Russian oligarchy and her willingness to embrace the radical.  Of course one of the things that I think about now at this time of my own life is that others will have to fight and to remember;  and in remembering and fighting, do something the world of her comrades was unable to do. They will build a whole new world which will not know cossacks of any kind and which will treat the elders with compassion.  LR.]

This Is My Last Shuttered House

Lew Rosenbaum

 

The first time — I was only seven —

Grandma shuttered all the windows

1922: Anna

Anna Rosenbaum in about 1920

She took us up the stairs

She hid us under beds

While the soldiers thundered by.

 

But this is my last shuttered house.

This withered body contains the last of my suffering.

What hurts me most?

I would tell you,

The look you give me

When you can’t see within.

Oh yes, you see a crazy woman.

Flailing about, her tongue

Wraps itself around each gurgling

Sound I cannot make you understand.

 

You sit here now

Son and daughter; you

Have each other to talk to

And, thinking you know how

Senseless I am,

Exchange glances

Sharing your distress and pity.

 

Now I can lie here

Pretend to sleep.

Although your pity repulses me;

Still, glad you are here.

 

I know you are upset.

I’ll give you less grief

If I lie here

In my last shuttered house.

 

Peering from the outside

You can’t see

Ghost or web or

Whatever is alive within.

 

I remember the first time.

I’ve told you many times.

I was only seven

Oshmyany was our town

And the soldiers came like cossacks

They rode horses with clattering hooves

Down the narrow cobbled streets

And they banged on all the doors

They demanded young men for the army

They demanded young women to serve them.

And we shuttered all the windows

Grandmother shuttered all the windows

She took us up the stairs

We hid under the beds

We hid in the closets

Grandmother pulled the shutters

And the house was dark for days.

* * * * *

this-83-yr-young-woman

Anna Rosenbaum in June, 1979, at 83 years old.  She hung out with me on my shift at the Midnight Special Bookstore one day a week.   The bookstore hosted a birthday party for her and a fundraiser for the Texas Farmworkers Union. She died four years later, August 1987.

Now I hurt most from those

Your uncomprehending stares

Even more than sores that eat through to the bone

Even more than feeding tubes they thrust down my nose

And more:

Because my stare cannot always comprehend you.

(Moments clear like this one

May never come again).

 

One July evening you laid your hands on my

Sweat-drenched brow and murmured permission.

“Don’t stay in this pain for me” you said.

“Not on my behalf. The toll’s too great.”

 

I grip this too fragile thread

Only to recognize your faces

When I can . . .

I will let go when meaning

Slips away completely.

There is nothing after this.

 

When this house, my last house,

Is shuttered tight

Others will have to fight

Others will have to remember

 

Even about that first time

When I was only seven

And the soldiers came like cossacks

Riding horses with clattering hooves.

Things I Know I Love About You

Things I Know I Love About You: A Poem at 75     by Lew Rosenbaum

I don’t know when I first read Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.”  He wrote it a year before he died of a heart attack, but it smacks of the kind of reflection that strikes one who sees the end pending and who savors all the moments remaining.  Or of observing

nazim_hikmet2_s

Nazim Hikmet (1902, Salonica – June 3, 1963, Moscow)

the slow demise of a loved one and sees for perhaps the first time every motion, every sound that makes that person special.  Hikmet was 60 then, the year was 1962.  

Hikmet, generally considered one of the most important 20th century poets, was a Turkish revolutionary.  This is what the poets.org site has to say about him:

Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. After the Turkish Independence in 1924 he returned to Turkey, but was soon arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape to Russia, where he continued to write plays and poems.

In 1928 a general amnesty allowed Hikmet to return to Turkey, and during the next ten years he published nine books of poetry—five collections and four long poems—while working as a proofreader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator. He left Turkey for the last time in 1951, after serving a lengthy jail sentence for his radical acts, and lived in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, where he continued to work for the ideals of world Communism

He died in Moscow in 1963.  

Of course the poem made me think of what I didn’t realize I loved — especially as I approached surgery last year and wondered how much longer I would be able to appreciate those things.  But even more I began to think of what I knew I loved. And I thought about how to respond to Hikmet’s poem in a way to affirm that love.  This is what came out;  it is my poem for Diana on my 75th birthday.  

 

It’s 2017, November 13

Night has fallen as I drive home

and though I feel like a “tired bird on a smoky wet plain”

I love anticipating

walking in the door

sitting down next to you

and offering you dark chocolate

 

I didn’t know I love the earth

the working of it

until you come in, trowel in hand,

gloves soil-brown, loam aroma in your hair, and then

I know I love how you revere this, our mother

 

I know I’ve loved mountains whose peaks0004926-R1-063-30

pierce the sky, while rivers cascade

down their sides eating canyons into the stone

and the ancient sequoias that people

the slopes and valleys

and while I look up at the mysteries reaching for heaven

I love that you focus on tiny yellow and blue miracle flowers underfoot

 

I knew at once that I love the way you fight

to understand the world around you –

do you remember that salon where we watched a film

Bethlehem Wedding I think it was

and after, you explained the entire history of European feudalism

me with my mouth wide with wonder

 

I didn’t know I loved all trees

the way you showed me to see them as friends

to stand under the arching cottonwoods and

examine their ribbed bark

to hail the procession of springtime flowers

maples, chestnut candles, fragrant basswood, the long beans of the catalpas

all this and more I know I love about you

 

Do you remember the first timePortraits of Diana

you came to my apartment,

remember the blue sweater you wore,

remember how I demanded to take your photograph

I know I loved that intense look in your green eyes –

even though I thought they were blue –

what I love now is your patience,

you gave me a second chance, you must have wondered

why the photos, what’s wrong with himPortraits of Diana 1

I don’t regret them: one thing I love about you

is those portraits, those eyes of crystalline jade

 

And I know I love about you other pictures

the portraits with Greta

that introspective and far away look

I know I love how you seized the snapshot of David at Starved Rock

and transformed it into a meditative painting

of a fourteen year old young man

Portrait of David

Diana’s portrait of David in Nelson Peery’s Future is Up To Us

gazing at sand

spilling through outstretched fingers

contemplating eternity

 

I know I love how you drew resistance

how in one lone image you captured technological innovation

and the promise of a future abundance

a mandala of heads and open mouths

words and notes

hammers, scythes

playing with mother boards and keystrokes

and real-if-not-artificial intelligence

emerging from past class antagonisms

I know I love how you play with dialectics

 

I know I love the red chair in your Oxbow painting

Red Chair

The Red Chair at Oxbow

the sheathe of yellow sun light streaking across the grass,

green with yesterday rains

exuberant in the blustery winds off the Eastern Lake Michigan shore

I know I love the memory of standing in the fading sun

atop corn-rowed-hills at summer’s end

a quilted landscape draped before us

the aroma of hot dry husks flaring our nostrils

all finding their way onto your canvas

 

I know I chuckle every time I pass

the denim constructions stitched to the earth

because I know I love the rents in the fabricStitched to the Earth #1: In Joy And Sorrow

that show the working class pedigree

I laugh at our joke that someone has torn this painting

I know I love the way we laugh together

we have also cried together

 

I know I love that we can hold each other

while our children and all around us whirl toward destruction

and we grasp for the new world in birth

I know I love that you changed my life 25 years ago

And continue every day to change my life

And I love that I didn’t need to reach 75 to know I love all this about you.

 

 

 

 

At The Eleventh Hour: a poem by Lew Rosenbaum

At The Eleventh Hour  by Lew Rosenbaum

 

I don’t know what symbol

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month had.

05_amack_eatingIn 1918 it marked the end of “hostilities.”

Seven months later, a peace treaty was signed.

A year later Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it a holiday

Called Armistice Day, which in 1938

Was formally dedicated to world peace,

Which was quickly exploding

Around the world in the horrors of

Pogroms, concentration camps, massacres and

Genocides.

But at least it was dedicated to world peace.

These days, that day

Honors our veterans of all our wars,

Patriots who have protected our country.

I don’t believe the economic draftees

Of my jingoist nation are protecting it

By guarding the oil dynasties of the

House of Saud.

I think the three billion bux a year

Thrown at Israel’s war machine

Could be better spentminor6

Housing the homeless,

Educating our children,

Solving the environmental crisis.

I think of the unsuspecting foot soldier

Stuck in a Vietnam foxhole

Who discovered,

Listening to Judy Collins singing from “Marat/Sade” about the poor of Paris,

That he was fighting on the wrong side.

And as far as peace goes,

Seems to me we need a peace initiative

In our own cities and towns,

Where violence claims the lives of

Thousands who have been discarded

By political-corporate reprobates of all colors and genders,

The only things those miscreants have in common

Are that they own nearly everything

And that they don’t care about us

Because we, the poor people perpetually unemployed,

No longer sweat profit for their bulging wallets.

We need our own armistice

Not simply to call a halt to the killing of our babies

In the streets

But to end the hostilities, the conditions that lead to that killing,

To end the little murders day by day

That send us into the free fall of despair.

Our armistice will confiscate the property of the land developers,

Take over the banks and end their foreclosures

The eleventh hour tolls now; we need a People’s Armistice Day

To declare the beginning of a government

Of our class, not theirs,

Of, by and for the dispossessed,

With justice and liberty and

Peace.

Capitalism is Dead — Lew Rosenbaum

Capitalism is Dead 

Lew Rosenbaum

1.

Cicada time comes

In August heat, metallic

Raspy resonance

 

Rising and falling,

They call each other across

Neighborhoods, forests,

 

Screaming crescendos

Like the grinding of monumental gears

The autumn of industrial capitalism

Signaling but not aware that its winter is near

Cicadas are not aware of their end,

Killer wasps prey on adults and

Nymphs bury themselves in the soil

Or burrow in vain against the blacktop

 

In any case it is the end

Or at least a foreshadowing

And so it is with capitalism

For which spring will never come again.

 

2.

Bright summer day drive

On June Street, Los Angeles,

Gazing at mansions

 

Of rich, famous and

Powerful Angelenos

Secure behind gates

 

Counting their money

Planning their investments to

Take over the world

 

Sheridan and I, riding with the windows open

Almost as wide as our mouths

Before the luxuriant gardens, pillars, sculptures

Conspicuous consumption barely beyond our fingertips

And he, dazzled but not demeaned,

Screaming out the window

His rich southern baritone forming

The spaces in between, around the words,

“You dead, mothahfuckahs, you dead

You jest don’t know it yet!”

 

3.

Putrid odors reek

from pustules on the body

of capitalism,

 

I’m stepping on crushed,

mutilated, skunk-smelling

flesh, wading through pools

 

of phlegmy green fluid

oozing from liquefied lungs

of a dying beast.

 

Some of their cadaverous practitioners

recognize the end of the road, they

see the phosphorescent signs that wave

good-bye to workers, they feel the

mercurial flow of the golden fetish

slipping between their fingers into a void:

where has the magical value gone, once upon

a long time ago created and stored in

cold marble banks, in monster machines,

wealth now vanished or languishing in piles

on walmarted, targeted shelves without,

without, without value,

claiming the magic number zero.

 

I’d waste my energy to drive a stake

through your vampire heart, capitalism; you are already

dead

but you don’t know it. Or, if you do, you are

ready to move on to the next phase of private property,

ready to reconstruct society to conform to new, fancy tools

that don’t need people

ready to deform and fascisolate society to maintain your control

over a restless mass who cannot survive without

deposing you,

capitalism: you, dying, are already dead.

Foreseeing the end, you are an expiring dragon

flailing your rusted drone-tipped tail

against those who will imagine and build society in their interests

because they must.

 

Let’s seize the world from

your Voldemort grip, transform

it in our own hands,

 

cooperative,

and creative, we have been

naught. We shall be all.

On Reading the “Anthology of a Thousand Poets” Ho Chi Minh

ho-chi-minhOn Reading the “Anthology of a Thousand Poets”

Ho Chi Minh

They used to sing of nature’s charms –
hills, streams, mists, flowers, snow, moon, and wind.
Today, a poem must have steel.
A poet must learn to wage war.

It’s Not the Same River — Lew Rosenbaum

It’s Not The Same River   by Lew Rosenbaum

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Heraclitus, 535-475 BCE

“We are all related” – Lakota prayer

Ninety-six percent of water on earth is saline.

The water swimming in my cells,

The water that bathes my cells,

The water coursing in my bloodstream,

All of it is saline.

We cannot drink salt water.

 

Aquifers make up thirty percent of the four percent that is fresh water.

Lying deep beneath the arid desert,

Beneath the flat Midwestern plains,

Beneath the big-sky buttes of Montana,

Beneath the putrid oil wells of the Texas panhandle.

California almonds drink this water when people cannot.

Nestlé bottles what the people may not drink.

 

The amount of water used to supply the world’s golf courses

Is the same as the amount that could supply all the world’s people.

Japan had 23 golf courses before World War II.

They found their error

And built three thousand courses.

An anti-haiku.

 

Lake Huron is the third largest fresh water lake on earth.300px-Saginawrivermap

Flint, Michigan, lying near the shores of Lake Huron,

Started using Flint River water instead.

(It takes its name from the Ojibwe language, when the river ran pure).

But river water flowed past the industrial factories

That built Flint, and discharged chemical waste

Turning clear water a muddy brown,

Infected with retch-inducing odors,

Cancer-causing chemicals and corrosive salts

That leached lead from the pipes in lethal doses.

When people showered,

Water brought rashes and pain to their bleeding skin.

 

Sixty percent of the human body is water.

We humans need water more than we need food.

Why do capitalist private profiteers get to drain our aquifers?

Flint is a lesson and a call to wake up.

No one can make the babies come back,

But we can have clean, free water for all

By ending the rule of private property

That protects golf courses and

Preys upon the lives of our people.

We are all related.