For the interview with Shirley Kaufman in this issue.
Threshold was published by Copper Canyon press in May 2003.
The Emperor of China poem appeared in APR Sept-Oct 2000 and was reprinted in The Best American Poetry 2001, ed. Robert Hass, Scribner's.
Photo of Shirley Kaufman by Aliza Auerbach. All rights reserved.
Little love poem
bringing milk tea to my desk
at ten in the morning
as Japanese trains
such good tea
fragrant and steamy
a placable world in a cup
last night I was afraid
to lose my small claim
on things we depend on
for what would catch us
out of the dark
tucked into your everyday
I collect these words
in the bowls of beggars
they add up to
just enough to
What wants to continue
must not end
says the Wen Fu
what wants to end
words from a box
that become our language
as if we were riding
on a staircase
that only goes up
the real ones
so small below us
we hardly see them
we won't even hear their cries
there are times
when the spirit freezes
I used to know how many years
light travels to reach us
I used to remember
more than I forgot
the kinds of grief
nothing like this
sometimes a door slowly opens
sometimes the door remains bolted
On clear nights I watch holes
open in the sky
of the cosmos
of discredited prayers
nothing forgives us in Jerusalem
we speak of
opening the mind
as if a door were closed
and we could unlock it
do you know what I'm saying
God almost touches Adam
but their fingers
ditches barbed-wire fences
what is it
we long for
of the heart to change us
how we tried it the first time
and got up
the air with our small fists
and stumbled again
our arms spread wide
The park hangs on to what keeps growing
under the ice. Out of the whiteness
plum trees offer their tiny assertions.
The sky is clear and tremulously blue
around the leftover moon.
Early walkers let their dogs loose.
Crossing the hidden grass
we step out of our footprints in the frost.
What is it that glistens
like salt spray on your face,
that gathers like honey in a hive,
that makes our slow edging
to the end feel like
THE EMPEROR OF CHINA
I didn't know I was going to sleep until I woke up...
Remember the boy who played with a rope
in Kieslowski's film? He wrapped it around his hand
in the back of the taxi before he strangled the driver. Because.
Filmed through a filter, gray-green pallor of streets in a city,
moldy faces. Unnatural light the color of evil. It follows us now
when the sky is so steadily even in winter blue. Follows us
climbing the sanctified hill in Ein Kerem, the two mothers touching
each other's bellies, the unborn skimming across the valley
in their bees' wings, and a choir of children in the courtyard
of the Church of the Visitation singing Mozart.
Thin little squares of metal sewn in the hems of drapes
to make them hang straight. They are weighing me down.
Like the pigment and gravel in a Kiefer painting crushed
by the weight of its own excess. I don't want romance
in dung heaps, or Nuremberg with a blow-torch and traces
of blood. I don't want silence under the master's arches.
I want them to hear what I say. Disorder, chaos, the fibrillation
of my heart. I don't want us to fight the old wars.
"I was the eldest son of the Emperor of China. Our father
put me in a basket, summoned his mandarins in their funny caps
to rock me to sleep and fill me with nightmares about the war,
so when he died and I would be Emperor I'd be so scared
of war I'd never start one." When Uri was nine or ten in the camps
and his younger brother was frightened, he would tell him
the story again and again, how it all was a dream while he slept
in a basket and how nothing they went through was real.
"Enjoy your life," said our friend on her eightieth birthday,
"whether you like it or not." On the road to the Peace
and Other Dreams Writers' Conference in Beersheva,
a blue glass hamsa dangles from the rear view mirror
against the evil eye. There are fields of sunflowers
on both sides of the road. Their quivering faces follow us
down the highway, rimmed with light. They will be harvested
for oil and seeds the birds haven't stolen. I'm glad for the yellow,
that it's not at the center, that it sways and shines all the way
to the edge as long as the eye remembers.
The shape of a sound, your voice and the vowels as I saw them
in the first years, lips slightly open over mine and your warm
tongue bringing me here. The place of beginnings. We never
thought about the End. Where we are is only where we have been.
Diamond edge of the mind, our selves coming out of the rock
like spiked thistles. Something older than bodies that live
for a moment under the blankets, their moist skin touching.
Diamond and coal the same pure element of carbon. How you
talked about Lawrence when we first met. I want you to feel my
heart at the back of your throat. We can't go on with the quarrels
near the rubble of the next war. If we could only remember
how we started, perhaps the words would remember us
the way we found the road home in a blackout.
6 Oh love, for the young wolf caught in a foot trap in Sinai
who pulled the trap out of the ground and dragged herself
with the trap attached over our border, now healed and set free
in the desert; for the red heifers they'll never breed pure enough;
for the tiny knuckles of freesia and hyacinth breaking out of
the cold earth before it is spring; for us in our cheerfulness
and fury, for days when we're still who we were from the beginning, unrecognized; for the Emperor of China, for dreaming and waking
though we're all dying, whether you like it or not, enjoy.
We're bent in the garden planting spring bulbs, pulling up
weeds, and I'm wondering how much longer we'll crouch here
on our knees in the damp soil sorting things out. Guardians
of shrubs and flowers, the first wild cyclamen sipping the sun.
We watch over each other as we watch over our garden,
woolly branches of cacti, fiery pokers of aloes in winter.
Especially during a long drought, after a snowfall, or following
the arcs of missiles on our screen. Flurries of extra caring.
Some mornings we hang on to each other as if we're afraid to let go.
What lasts is what we are up against. We are dividing
the city after the walls came down. Raising new barriers.
I explain why I did what I did you explain why you said
what you said and that makes it worse it gets obsessive
like our neighbor across the street who sweeps the stone path
to his front door every day and now that it's snowing
sweeps it every few hours. He's out there still in the numbing cold
wearing shorts black socks and sandals, making neat little mounds
of dirty snow. First he sweeps every pine needle out to the curb
and cleans up the sidewalk. Then he turns on the hose
and washes it down. We watch from our windows
as the soft flakes fall and he wipes them off with a rag,
wrings out the rag and wipes them again.