Charles Fishman is a Associate Editor of The Drunken Boat


Country of Memory is published by www.uccellipress.com


Author's Notes:

“The Get”:
A Jewish marriage is entered into by the issuance of a legal contract between husband and wife and can be terminated only by the issuance of a legal writ—a get—nullifying the original contract.

Charles Fishman Charles Fishman

Paul Granger's Wound

You were the smallest, Paul —
the shortest, leanest, blondest, bravest
in our crew-and you have retreated less far
into darkness. I remember the day
that would etch your wound into my mind,
each catch and notch of memory glistening
with your blood. There was bright sunlight
and deep blue sky     a blaze of white roses
and the dark gray haze of the new state road
the highway commission had bulldozed
into our lives.

You were wearing a round-necked polo shirt
and rolled-up jeans, a black leather belt
and high-backed sneakers. Zigzag stripes crested
on your chest in vertical waves that flowed
from neck to groin: a map of some watery terrain
no friend or parent could decipher. I remember
how the dark blue denim rippled over your thighs,
the lapping rivulets at your knees, the way
your gold-brown hair was parted. At our water hole
between parkway and woods, your clothes
dropped off

and you dove into the cold spring water all of us
knew to be sacred: a dark pool released
from the dictates of nature      where we could breathe
without constraint      without the harsh odor of fear
or desire stinging our nostrils. You dove
and we cheered, living for the moment in the rare oxygen
of the underlife you had plunged into feeling again
the icy water of time wash over us. And then you
broke the spell, bursting the surface as you held up
your hand, gashed open with that raw diagonal slash
that even now, five decades later,

wildly pulses—that wound written deep in your flesh
with the jagged edge of glass from a smashed
beer bottle—your ruined hand held up for us to witness
in all its bloody splendor     your wound, Paul: the sky
ripped open just when we needed it whole.

With Jack in Egypt

Suddenly, I'm feeling old
even ancient. Sitting
in Jack's house, I listen
for the tapping of his fingers
on the 1937 Underwood
as he pops another benny
and breaks into song     into
that jazz cantata he beat
from the drum of memory
from the pulse and passions
of friends      from the dream
of connection.

It's certain that the gods
of writing visited Jack here
that his spirit lives here still
under the old scuffed floor
between the rusting coils
of the vintage electric stove
behind the half detached head-
board of Jack's old bed
and in the huge dynastic oak
that spreads astonishing wings
over each limb of this small
gray house.

I think of Jack tapping
so rapidly on those 46 keys
calling back     with each bhikku
word his days with all the lunatic
greats of New York City     San
Francisco Mexicali L.A.
his backwoods North Carolina
home      his burials and dis-
interments      the cold jolting slides
along California's astral coast
the dark midnight freights
that held his soul captive

And then      in a down-
pour of icy January rain
I hear Jack tapping grace-
notes onto the scrolling
page: his white-magic
tantric spells     and blitzing
ecstasies     his prayers
for release from the dark
50s furies of America,
as if he were a spirit
who could not find
his Egypt.

And, suddenly, I remember
our South Bronx walk-up
earlier still than Jack's rise
to fame      Wheeler Avenue:
wide asphalt street
of my boyhood lined
with leafy trees      the light
burning down through curling
branches      a soft blue flame
and the cool hardness
of the stone steps that led
back into the building.

And then I see my father
in his wool shirt
and baggy khakis
his black hair already whitening,
his strong fingers tapping
the cigarette case
in his pocket     and my mother
leaning back in the sanctum
of her kitchen      almost at ease
in that blue plastic seat,
taking a few quick puffs
and letting memory play.

I remember the Philco radio
that moaned all day      and chanted
into the evening      its green
and amber dials glowing
how the black-crowned heron sky
rose with a mystic fire that threw
bright sparks of history
into each room     and how,
after bedtime, the closet door
loomed      like an unextinguished hearth
like the sealed gate of a king's crypt
in Egypt.

I remember how the night
carried me     beyond the city
lights      into a desert garden
where I walked slowly-
a prince in flowing robes-
or sat, cross-legged,
in the cotton shroud
of a prophet      and, once,
how I was set down
so gently      amid ten thousand
splendors      wearing the heavy
mask of a young pharaoh

doomed      like Jack      to die
to lie down      golden      but far
too early in the Blue Nile sleep
of eternity. And now, at last,
I recall how I woke to the sounds
of a new epoch      to the rich
perfumes of life to a wild sunlit
music      to ghost feluccas sailing:
with Jack in Egypt     our fingers
grasping for the last loose sheaves
of papyrus floating past      and pulling
pure pearl light     from the moon.

The Get

The coldest December night, a billion stars frozen
in the sky, and we two together for this journey unto death . . .
No, it was not the cemetery of short lives we were visiting
nor the morgue of aborted dreams. We were gliding
toward the end of our marriage—such a cold ride!

Where did we arrive if not at the place of execution?
Had not a priest in white robes invited us? And his assistants
in the murder—were they not attentive and obedient?
And did the ceiling not open then, so that the white sky
was revealed?

I saw you tremble as you neared, saw the tears well up—
your eyes were streaming. You were unsaying our wedding vows,
and I was your gifted partner. I saw that your breast had been pierced
by a small, fresh-hewn gravestone. You were beautiful again
in your broken body and you held the world in your arms.

You held the world, and it was the record of your wounds.
Yes, I recall it now, my darling, how the sky shut down
and the stars vanished like wraiths. Then the rabbi pronounced us
dead: we were strangers on the planet, and the field we walked on
was stones.

How cold it was! How unyielding the blackness!
Yet we returned to the train together, our lips shut
as if with a seal of fire, and there was a deep snow falling
inside us. Who were we now, as you leaned once again
toward me, as I held you tight?