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For the interview with Shirley Kaufman in this issue.

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“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.

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Contributors

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Photo of Shirley Kaufman by Aliza Auerbach. All rights reserved.

Shirley Kaufman Shirley Kaufman




Little love poem
                            little undelivered
words

           for you
bringing milk tea to my desk
at ten in the morning
                               predictable
as Japanese trains

                             such good tea
fragrant and steamy

                                    breath of
a placable world in a cup
last night I was afraid
                                             to sleep
to lose my small claim
on things we depend on

                                    waited
for what would catch us
out of the dark
                      unguarded
now
        tucked into your everyday
caring

         I collect these words
like coins
              in the bowls of beggars

they add up to
                     just enough to
keep going


What wants to continue

must not end
                       says the Wen Fu

what wants to end
                         must not
continue

               words from a box
each day
             that become our language

ESCALATION

                    as if we were riding
on a staircase
                     that only goes up

the real ones
                   so small below us
we hardly see them

                              pretty soon
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
                         love teaches

nothing like this

sometimes a door slowly opens
sometimes the door remains bolted




On clear nights I watch holes

open in the sky
                         light
trickles through

                           tiny strings
space shards
                   vibrating hair
of the cosmos

                       weightless specks
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

                          stone walls
ditches barbed-wire fences

unbridgeable

                  what is it
we long for
                 what lifting
of the heart to change us

unsteady steps

how we tried it the first time
fell
     and got up
                       hammered
the air with our small fists

and stumbled again
our arms spread wide

over the
                         threshold

FEBRUARY

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
becoming?


THE EMPEROR OF CHINA

I didn't know I was going to sleep until I woke up...
                                                     —Paul Bowles

1
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.

2
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.

3
"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.

4
"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.

5
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.

7
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.

8
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.