In a house I’ve never seen, I tell my (dead) mother there is a (dead) cat I have mistakenly left behind, which she must feed. From dream to dream, our ghosts follow us, awaiting a call to action. Here is my father in his ’60 Chevy Impala, the one with the big wings, telling me the same corny joke he told whenever we were alone: it doesn’t bear repeating. And there is my Bubi, always at the stove, always cooking something meaty and bland: the shtetl wasn’t a place for subtle cuisine. We sat and ate silently, her watchful eye on the door, worrried that someone would arrive to imperil our food. When I invited friends to play, she hid our snacks. Family got fed: her ghosts taught her caution and fear of want. Now I am painting my dream house beige. So far it is empty, maybe invisible, as leaves in winter. But my ghosts will find me to populate it with all the memorized perils.
Simple realism: my dry cleaner died Monday, yesterday, that nice guy who delivered milk to that little bodega. a long ride we are all on with some getting off before their stops are called. Then there’s a madman and a nuclear plant, whole families mowed down. It makes no sense.
Which is why I am protesting that we are mortal. Still, It puts the minor key into our music and the subtle shadows into our paintings. It makes love matter. So if you were a tortoise, I’d love you for 200 years or more. But everything ends. Even our time to care. We continue to witness until a day comes… Angel of mercy, Angel of death, our doorbell will ring.
At the flea market, the goat with the rectangular pupils, hidden under her straw hat, has already half-eaten it. The man who sells dahlias and always says merde has let her leash drop as she samples the neighboring vegetable booth’s sweet, earthy carrot leaves. It’s everyone’s day: even the sun standing its ground behind those filmy cloud layers. Calm is wafer-thin, a filament of agreement printed on signs, my body, yours: no right to encumber anyone’s peace on such a day.
Maxine Chernoff is the author of 17 books of poems and 6 works of fiction. A 2013 NEA fellow, she was also winner of the PEN Translation prize for 2009. Professor of CW at SFSU, she is a former editor of NAW.