the world hates your strength O America
and is indifferent, frigid, frigid, to your suffering
it uses Afro-Americans for blame or style

but who knows the slave torment
hundreds of years, the black canyon
and I, a Jew, say American agony is just as deep
another holy cause

you are so beautiful it tears at my throat
Colorado cliffs, California coasts, New England frosts

I took the Metro-North to unlovely Ossining
along the Hudson River
flowing wide and strong and clean
I want an America as free as its rivers

How I love your rhetoric, your documents

Constitution, law, acceptance, hard hard work
fair, fair America
when you're not fair you're not American

Not all Americans are American

All men are created equal
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

What good and kind clichés
universal freedom
the everywhere right to live

O America,
George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Benny the Goodman,
Theodore Roethke, Leonard Bernstein, Duke of Ellington

Gershwin, Gershwin, I hear a creative Rhapsody in Blue
By Milcho LeBay sounds Jewish-Afro, bouncy, quick, laughing,
how free to rhapsodize the blues
so alive, alive, America-alive, o yes
On Kol Yisrael, beautiful Israeli station,
becoming more jazzy, more American

What happened to the good Israeli songs?
Esther Ofarim, Yehudit Ravitz, Chava Alberstadt, Arik Einstein
Gone with the smart TV shows, Yaron London, and
the bald guy, what was his name, Shaika something,
and the philosophical talkers, all dead as Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Play out the equality blues, O lively Gershwinist
I am in the East,
deep deep Jerusalem
but my heart is in the West
how I love your flowing river

Note: begun in 2000—repeatedly edited

Israeli TV and radio can be magnificent ; I wrote this at a certain point – in 2000, and came back to America in August 2001, just 2 ½ weeks before 9/11 ; since then Israel TV with In Therapy (B’tipul) has shown its high quality once again, and Kol Yisrael has no peer in New York radio ; like all poems this is both historical and a-historical ; take it as that.

Meeting My Analyst in Berlin


I digress from digressions when I see you
Should I prepare my session like a class?
Thus I contrived years ago
With my holocaust-analyst
Phases in an unreadable journal

But now the problem of form
and once when I didn’t know how to begin
I thought you contained my formless speech,
With digression as the very goal
so unreachable otherwise.
And what kind of light
surrounds an endless darkness?

And I thought of meeting you in Berlin
your granddaughter perched in a carriage
and your wife who resembles you
two of a kind, tall and thin
a cordial hint of frailty.

(And my granddaughter falling deeper
like my daughter, reversionary in a black hole,
Once she was another three-year old
flounced in her flopped hat
impossibly funny banana smears on a perfect face.)
But your granddaughter looked held.

When I met my Holocaust-Analyst outside the office,
I fell over an abyss.
He was so awkward
off the analyst’s throne.

What strain. Did he hate me?
Was I transfixed by The Silence of the Lambs
because my doctor devoured my words
and abandoned my bones?
(after seeing Ordinary People
I felt like a madman in a parking lot
longing for the humanity of Judd Hirsch).
The Dr. outside his office
nothingness filled with tyranny.

But now I meet the holder of secrets,
who does not throw me down
to the dark guilt of bogged truth.
The messages of Wife and Motherwife
“You are bad, bad, schlecht and rah,*
the bottom of the sea is black.

And you listen and hold, contain me as they say,
Is it that you’re a little naïve
Mr. American-born?
Maybe you just don’t understand what it means
my mother’s kind voice filled with ash-pits.
And so it isn’t exactly your voice you don’t say that much.
I know what it is, you are the one who lets me use my voice.
Yes your kind and rather fragile gaze
can receive all voices.
And I really always thought
the truth would spill me with my words
And I would have to die.

Note: Schlecht is Yiddish or German for bad/evil and rah is Hebrew for the same concept.

Red Sun Over Jerusalem


Red sun over the Scottish Church
red light exploding with dreams
Shakespeare's sun incarnadine.

I think of Macbeth
alone and bloody
terrible as the sun.

Why was I wild
in a fury last night
my beautiful daughter
flying to England
so there I was
grand as the sun
swollen and stupid and lonely.

A Cluster of Love Poems to Debra Hart 

Two Love Sonnets in a Somewhat Victorian Style

God made angels to be jealous of us


God made angels to be jealous of us
to look from heaven in anger merciless
at mortal flesh hushed and tremulous
at desire cast from far endings
at held tension in breasts so dark
they find the vanished pavilions of the heart

nor can we look at love imperceptible
but from five thousand paces away
we estimate our distances
a far flood of lost miles
the spin of deep hauntings
we wait in expanding space

where we trace with halting fingers
the contours of a face too real for a dream

Why do we try to destroy love


Why do we try to destroy love
looking for the hollow word
the creases surrounding her deep eyes
falling harshly on her long throat

the pleasures of facial imperfection
waiting for the fall of the high-hearted lover
oh kind overthrowal of glamorous love.

So soft the mistaken idea,
so restoring the rend in the fabric,
fine moment of vanished perfection,
faded splendor and tarnished shining,
glad arrival at the end of wonder

but how straight our hall of the long joys
where no cessation slows the pulsebeat of the soul

Faces of Sex


And your faces never still
Changing shots, moving film,
Always lovely, never still
Why do they change, pains me so,
always lovely, knowing they will go.

Sitting on the couch, reading the grey philosopher
Avishai Margalit, Platonic love,
High pile of metaphysical soft-covers,
"A light hour with Wittgenstein . . .
Hume. . . Sartre . . . Descartes . . . Spinoza"
Rises between us.
Let's have a darker hour.

I kiss you there,
Let's caress like 17 year-olds,
kiss me on the neck, the throat,
I kiss her scents,
I should brush my teeth, she says
I'm a heavy smoker, she touches me,
I mean a heavy shmoker,
I never thought of that,
She laughs, then stops, corked,
Brief pause, her face disappears,
you know you bend to the left,
Or do since you came to me,
Oh I made you a Smolani,*
She giggles me outward.

The mood's too gay,
I'm oblivious, get to my bed,
Ah silly dame, be sure as never,
bring a cloth for the river
Above you in the dark,
features quick and silken
curve of the eye like the shadow of a star
I whirl to kiss your other mouth
you cover yourself as always
but you are my new-old bride,
not long enough my pride,
brazen virgin to cover
the face of the river.

Note:leftist in Hebrew slang

Dimples Like Stars


Will we ever drive to Maine my darling
and walk along the rocky coast.
Dylan Thomas in the New World.
Will I look at that smile of yours
the one that reminds me
of heart-aching beauty
a little German girl
placating her maniac:
“It’s OK if you knocked out my tooth Mooty
see I can still smile don’t worry Mooty
it doesn’t hurt at all
see how I smile with a hole in my face.”

And that smile when you’re in bed,
Marlene Dietrich, Austrian flower, queen of whores,
new forms of beauty in the unfolding night.

It’s not mistress-Juno who quiets my pulse-beat.

It’s your dimples like stars,
shining to the shores of soft-pounding seas.

early 2008
rev January 2011
rev April 2017

Gorgeous Genius of a Clown


When you were little,
How did you decide
To make a fool of yourself
So the other kids wouldn’t hate you?
How could you be so pretty
And so clever
And so good all at once.
Who would believe it.
So you became the little fool
The “tembelit,” tumbling in nonsense.
If only they wouldn’t hate you.
Like mamoosh who never lifted her eyes
When all the kids crowded around the door
Drori won the spelling bee
Drori knew all the answers no one even came close
Hee g’onit*
And Momoosh kept sewing never lifted her head.
Her eyes on the scissors.
Sewing cutting cutting again.

October 15th 2007

The Body in Words


Anxiety in waves radiating outward
We live in in/tense tenses
Future, highly conditional, past continuous,
And expand into gray air with accelerated heartbeats
We lose ourselves in anticipation
Dissipating to regret.

We cannot predict the where and how
Of miraculous transformations
Wild laughter and silk.

On the glass coffee table In Jerusalem.
The dancing foot puppets
Or muppets with five dancing eyes.
Our mad bare feet
mine square yours long.
What did they dance?
A sort of tango until they embraced
In choppy hops
In the ridiculous shortness of feet.

And last night.
You slipped into bed at 3 or 4AM
Working into dark endings.
Why did we start laughing?
A phrase and we couldn’t get over its hilarity:
“farting broccoli” what did I mean?
I cannot say my dear.
Would the broccoli fart as it lay on the plate,
Or as we chewed it,
oral farts punctuating speech,
or internalized and expressed in the usual way.
I cannot say but the laughter was rollicking.

And then the silken slip of soft skin
Visions that return to our surfaces
illuminating our depths
Your dimples full of stars
Disney-gleams so beautiful
The slant of the eye, Magyar wisdom
Cynical, naughty, forgiving.

What a lark, bodies,
We don’t agree about asses
You have the old prejudice
The dumbest part of us.
But for me an ass is the purest body
Untainted by face or mind
Pure flesh doubling in its gifts
And so far as I can see
Asses never age.

December 16, 2007

West Side


The wind whistling in my skin
Dry tears tear from my throat
Around carved stone corners
her voice that lilt, that lilt
“Carielov” she would call musical
When I had pleased her
Glorifying my name an erotic patronym
Blown through grand stone pretentious houses
West Side West Side where the sun sets
Fucking Hudson River how I hate you
Your December winds killed my heart
Freezing Broadway December graveyard
My Debra My Catherine your lovely face
pervasive through these dead heavy streets
the twisted parks so bare without you.

May 17, 2010 – written wandering around the West Side

© Dr. Gavriel Reisner

Short Story (or first chapter of a novel)
1. Beginnings

Beginnings


The one that mattered framed the small dark-haired boy and echoed his endless cry...

It is the summer of 1954 at Rosenberg's Hotel, a dull resort spread on the modest slopes of Mt. Freedom, New Jersey. In one of its cramped apartments we find a tableau in sepia colors, a daguerreotype of an immigrant family. The parents sit at a table, while the boy lies nearby on a daybed. The young man and woman are attractive yet sadly worn; their overstrained youth gives a sharpness to their bones. Though seated close, they are not together, just held in marital bitterness. The father, small, brooding, handsome, projects a wary harshness, the scarred contempt of a proud man bowed by history. A tensile stiffness makes him soldierly, and his forced smile obscures his good looks. The mother, less than slim but not quite skinny, wears clothes in an inexpressibly foreign way; when she speaks her facial expressions are slow to form, just as her body movements are awkward. Yet the contours of her countenance, less sculpted than those of her husband, are affectingly pretty, her mouth vulnerable and her eyes pained.

They have been arguing interminably and the boy can never remember, if he ever knew, the theme of the conflict; they fight in waves and in languages, Yiddish and Polish, here German and there English. The boy knows the meaning of the words while understanding no trace of their significance, for, like all children, he lacks the faintest notion of sexual strife or the corrosive bond of resented marriage. “Pzestein” . . . “Daimu Spoku” . . . “Was vilt zee fon mir” . . . “kim shoin” . . . “los mich oup” . . . “los mere align” . . . “genug.” It is an argument in rhythm; there are climaxes and silences and a grim woman who never yields openly but grieves without weeping.

The stronger rhythms echoed his own sobs in the falls of memory, ceaseless, nagging, spelling out a racking question, searching the reason for weeping, leaving behind certainty that the cause was never known nor ever will be known, and knowledge that his crying, which came as inescapably as tides, was deeply and irrecoverably justified.

Not remembered more vividly than the others, the meaning of that memory resonated for being unknowable; its echo of feeling fell like a verdict.

He was never sure that the others had occurred at all. He knew only that they were tales his mother told him and believed as she believed in nothing else. They were tales formed in a sudden voice to recite a past pained telling. Sonia's mind was clear as her voice was sure only in that tragic recounting. They were tales of her guilt, shared with his father, and the boy's clever survival-instinct. Never, otherwise, did she acknowledge his cleverness: neither to praise him to the skies nor to raise him from the depths.

The admission of their guilt was the older memory, immemorial from the early entrance to life. It was the memory that marked the beginning of memory, in the house of the old German lady, in dark old Deutschland itself, high Bavaria, the old house with the closed garden, the cloister of faded roses, tended by the kind lady, Mrs. Zahn, who liked the refugees with their little baby, even if she wouldn't let them into the garden (years later, a soft and pretty City College boy, he came to her, an ancient, tender Germanic dame, and she cried like a helpless old woman staring at death, and gave him, at last, one of the roses, which he pressed in his travel diary, where it lasted for years — she had been so much kinder than the handful of twisted Jews who remained in the town).

The young couple had gone to a film — in the ruined Germany of the late 1940's Chaplin and Hollywood were especially popular, and we may picture the thin and lovely and ravaged couple, jerkily illuminated by flickering light in a run-down theatre, one of the few in Pa'amberg, the small and Medieval town of his memory, sitting amid broken Jews, bitter Germans, and displaced GI's, sharing incongruous laughter. They had stolen these few hours together and had left their baby, Choim — known as Choimele — alone in the wide single room on the first floor of Mrs. Zahn's house.

He wondered whether his father had, characteristically, bullied his mother into it. Probably, but it wouldn't have been ill-intentioned exactly, just heedless, with his strange, resistant carelessness about the feelings of other people, a kind of military on-guardedness with ready harsh words amid a limited emotional self-restriction, a careful watching of his own boots. She may have protested, but couldn't find the arguing-words, and was left with just that characteristic unhappy expression on her face, weak and blank, both self-indifferent and other-contemptuous, in its own way quite beyond appeal, and perhaps with a deeper defiance that would wait long years to find expression.

He woke up inevitably before they returned, certain in a wordless knowing that he had been left, for they had, indeed, not only left him but forgotten to take the key. He remembers the forlorn scene of the wide empty bedroom and the looming window perfectly, but is entirely unsure about the perceptual nature of that which he remembers. Before they came another neighbor tried to comfort him through the window and spoke to him for a very long time in a shushing German but could not still his crying. Arriving at long last, his parents were helpless, also calling to him through the window, but unable to find the key or Mrs. Zahn. What he remembered or dreamt that he remembered was his father, suddenly intent, determined, and supple, somehow climbing under the iron bars on the window and sliding in. There was always a faint hysteria of relief and immense happiness and fear and sharp guilt associated with that memory, but he was never sure whether it was his mother's in the telling or his own for the comprehending. Already in his first knowledge he had found them out and learned that they were so easily willing to leave him.

The final memory — the dimmest in his own mind, but the favorite in his mother's recitations — had to do with his getting lost in Pa'amberg. His father had gone away to get the two up-to-date knitting machines from another town (he never lost his dear love of German technology), his mother had taken the boy down to the railway station and, hurrying in ill-fitting high heels, not sure where in the railroad hall to find her bitter and critical and nervous husband, she had forgotten to pay attention to her baby son and so completely, silently, lost him.

The story she tells concerns his finding his own way back by childlike cleverness; for he had asked heart-stealing directions in precocious German and so impressed the grocery-store owners and trolley-car drivers that they had shown or led him home, and he threaded his way for several miles, through unknown quarters of the alien town. He was waiting on the steps when his terrified parents hurried up to Mrs. Zahn's front door.

It was not a story he particularly believed. It was the kind of story people tell to fill a blank they have never been able to confront but the blank they fill remains empty. It was the story she told to show how much she believed in him. Two years old and speaking beautiful German and touching the Bavarian townspeople in their sentimental hearts. It was the only time she ever complimented his cleverness.

Oh yes there is another one, close anyway, the vaguest because it exists only in his memory, never becoming one of the fragments of narrative that served as the family's broken story. It concerns the ship, the journey over, on some worn out barely afloat American army boat, ready to be dockyarded with an irrelevant name like the General MacArthur. There are a few broken images from that journey. People lined up vomiting into urinals, crowds of them, armies of throw-up receptacles, did that really happen, were there such rooms, and men, women and children together? En mass a chorus of gagging, his mother was in there somewhere and he was, yet he remembers not feeling so bad, comparatively.

And then the larger memory in a series of cinematic shots, lodged in his mind from the journey itself. First a deep hold, several decks cut away from the side, like a ship with only three walls, an ocean theatre, he could see all the people going up and down the rusty stairs into levels of dank holds, cavernous, insalubrious, surrounded by the dark ocean. That's the side shot, the wide-angle lens.

Then the angle changes; he's above, that is the point-of-view is above and he's looking below to see men lying in sailor's cots and then there are two young men, good-looking, well-built, standing in t-shirts. And they're fighting over him, vociferously, does he have the right to be there in the men's quarters, the men's deck, shouldn't he be with the women together with the other babies, and it's true there are no other children there. But he's terrifically engaged by this fight and it's a very serious battle, two men one entirely on his side and one entirely against him, but he is unable to discern between them, though there was that faint and fading familiarity about each of them, and the worst of it was that he could never be sure which of them, the one who wanted to hold him or the one who wanted to cast him out, for they were like twins, he could never be sure and never would be sure which of the two gesturing figures was his angry father.

So there you have them, some pre-historical vignettes. His story doesn't begin with any of them, for they are stories-before-the-story, although one of them may be the key to what follows — his whole life he sought and lost keys though I began writing his story after giving up the search.

If the origins of his story are unlocatable, his history can be traced from a continuous flow, a movement of remembering that holds a story in its telling. His history begins somewhere between the Jewish Community Center and the Yeshiva Ohel Rivka. His earliest memories are of the dark girl with braids who he never saw again except once, he thought, passing on the Ocean Fairway bus (he ran to the stop but never found her, she was in the window but not in the bus), and of the well-meaning community workers at the JCC, large American girls, who fed him stale potatoes always with the same foul smell; he remembered one of the other refugee kids threw up in her plate and the volunteer kept forcing her to eat the stinky potatoes even as bits of the vomit were included with it.

But then the bright foundation stone for the Yeshiva of Rivka's Tent was laid while he was still at the JCC and his mother was so excited to send him to a real Jewish school. He was elected president of the inaugurating class, and took his bows; by now his name was Charles, and the other kids started calling him Prince Charles (a fellow baby-boomer, almost the same age, and just across the Atlantic Ocean). The Wineseers were poor, but his father always found jobs as a skilled mechanic, paid minimal wages by the hours he worked limitlessly, and Charles, "Charlie," had a natural way of wearing clothes so that even his father, in a rare compliment and a rarer observation, thought he "looked like a young doctor.”

The Yeshiva days were divided into Hebrew mornings and English afternoons. The first year Charlie, the princely president, excelled in both; the second year he was still excellent in English, but, already, weak in Hebrew; while in the third grade he was only very good in English (the teacher, Mrs. Sparsky, perhaps knowing his second-grade performance, made him the homework monitor until she realized he wasn't doing his homework; that was prophetic, it would always be his way that the best would hide the worst or the worst would hide the best); but then he became terrible in Hebrew, forgetful, feckless, and blank, as the harsh language and fierce rabbis stopped existing for him. The Hebrew teachers were irascible and elderly, refugees with bad breath and shapeless beards, hitting children on frail wrists with sharp rulers in wild, overlooming, dream-like, gestures, a Hebraic Zero l’Conduite, while the second-grade English teacher, Mrs. Landau, was kindly with silver glasses and white hair like a soft box around her head. She favored him and gave him an advanced Reader. He read it right through, up to the 6th grade, staying up late into the night, flashlight under the covers. He loved the folk and fairy tales, Greek and Norse myths, quick wicked gods, Loki and Mercury, tweaking the noses of the big gods, and he even liked, insofar as he could understand, the goody-goody stories about well-dressed children in Chicago with soft-spoken Christian uncles. Everyone was tall and blond and wore suits, even the children sitting around the tables, suits with pants that didn’t reach their long socks, strange garments favored by Gentiles in the Midwest.

But he couldn't conjugate Hebrew verbs, hating the forms of an alien language that seemed to break him into fragments because he wouldn't do it to the words. You changed the vowel at the end of the verb and that changed the person who did the action. Sagarti, Sagartah, Sagar, Sagarnu, Sagartem, Sagru, the closer is closed in the circle of the word. He feels Hebrew like a mechanical light that keeps switching its focus around a circle, yes the words like a machine of light, a spotlight, harsh, quick, strong, one syllable, you passed the light with syllables, powerful, sharp, single sounds. No room for error in Hebrew or you fumble the light. Everything was the action, everything was the verb. Get it wrong and you're caught in the failure of doing. English was far more forgiving, so many softer words around the hardly changing verb. Things could be finessed, actions weren't so fateful. English flowed, Hebrew bit.

He always had girlfriends and liked to change them. The girls said "too bad your name isn't Georgie, Charlie, because you always kiss the girls and make them cry." His first girl friend was pretty prissy Priscilla, but after he broke up with her for homely Eileen of the long braids, dusky-complexioned in white folk-blouses, Priscilla dared him to eat the point of his lead pencil. When he did she said, "you're going to die tonight, the lead will turn to a hard nugget in your stomach, you'll sink like a stone through the bottom of hell and out of China, yes, yes, you're gonna die tonight." He liked Eileen but when she began to give him orders he turned to tomboy Dina with her hairy arms.

The boys were mostly bigger than he was and reveled in being disgusting. The more disgust you could tolerate the higher your standing in that first class at the Yeshiva Ohel Rivka. There was fast-running Billy Amiga, with black hair and dandruff and a spot on his face, handsome Shaulie, a large blond pondering boy from Czechoslovakia, and thick smooth-faced Herman Fleishman, the fart-master, who could flatulate in rhythm, imitating in his bowels the pneumatic sounds of plumbing equipment, but most of all there was the leader, Harry Shlechterman. well-built and good-looking enough, but smart and mean as hell; he was Charlie's only rival for Mrs. Landau's reading prize, and didn't easily forgive competition from the little German pretty boy.

To be part of the crowd he had to pass two "initiations"; he didn't care much about the crowd, and walked around dreaming about, for example, the deep wisdom in "The Story of the Sun and the North Wind," where kindness sweetly defeated harshness, but he couldn't get away from the boys either. Harry insisted that the test was for everyone and Herman and Shaulie grabbed him by the arms; they were heading for the initiation room and Harry was explaining that this was what he had to see to be part of things, it was important and inescapable and anyway Herman and Shaulie weren't going to let him go until he saw it. They took him to the bathrooms near the cafeteria, there was an overpowering foul smell, with all his soul he wanted to escape a stink that held everything he never wanted to look at and contained all he never needed to know. Harry couldn't have been happier, he was laughing, a deep chuckle (I think of Grendel in Beowulf and how his "heart laughed" before he cannibalized his victims), Charlie, as he reluctantly glanced at Harry's face, noticed his nice deep eyes, wide and dark, but forgot them when he saw Harry's long teeth, far too big for a mouth of nondescript shape and mocking expression.

"OK Charlie boy, here's the big surprise that everybody has to see, look once and you'll be part of us." They opened the reeking toilet stall and pushed him in. God how he hated it, he never used the Yeshiva bathrooms if he could help it, certainly not the toilets; he was nauseated by somebody else's leftover stains and lumps. This bowl was overflowing with vomit, a thick river, massive, green and yellow, not like his own occasional daintier regurgitations. He turned to run; Harry gallantly held the door open for him.

After that he was accepted; he got to shoot marbles, and play stoopball and lost, rather indifferently, his baseball cards in the schoolyard (somewhere in there resided the legendary Mickey Mantle card #1, now priceless); he remembered Harry riding him like a horse, and somehow he didn't fight back, though violent fights with other boys, some of them bigger than Harry, would come later.

Sometimes he would watch Harry as he stared out at the class, in a daze of his own. Charlie was sure that the other boy was repenting for his cruel actions, that the big wide stare was about being sorry as he took deep stock and vowed in his heart to change his ways, yes, surely a deep and soulful and cleansing repentance for every indefensible act overwhelmed Harry as he forswore all his vicious impulses. But Harry would come out of the stare and act precisely as before, without the slightest pause, and Charlie realized, quite clearly, how the victim of a bully may be lulled to helplessness by fantasizing about his regrets and sudden sympathy.

Harry even lied about there being only one initiation, soon it was announced that there would be a second test. Don't worry, said Harry, this is the last time, we all went through two initiations, the first was just "introductory." Charlie enjoyed the word, Harry was the only other boy who knew the big English words he liked. He didn't want to go but Herman and Shaulie grabbed his arms (Shaulie didn't seem to enjoy doing it, but he did it), and Billy Amiga led the way. This time they led him to another bathroom, somewhere deep in the recesses of the building, below the cafeteria. Charlie struggled but they held him fast, this time Harry wasn't laughing, he looked entirely grim. Even Herman turned off the fart-works. They moved down toward the end of a long dark hall; Charlie felt like he was being arrested. They came before the toilet stall that already gave olfactory signs of being the center of putrid interest. He fought backwards, hard, ready this time to land a punch in the middle of Herman's moron-face, but Harry grabbed him in a merciless headlock while the others grabbed his hands and they shoved him into the stall. This time the bowl was covered with excrement, filled to the brim, he remembered the joke about the "Lucky Strike" cigarette ad — LSMFT — "loose shit means full toilets," he felt himself gagging, turned to run out. They all held the door closed from the outside; the last thing he saw before it slammed was Harry's wolfish smile.

But there might have been another reason those experiences helped drive him, eventually, out of the Yeshiva.

I’ve always hated the word “shit,” and almost never use it. I’m quite troubled by its ubiquity among the kids that I teach at the High School of Administration and Organization – kids that I care about. But why don’t they think harder about the literal and figurative meanings of the word that energizes their speech, lamentably enabling their very capacity for self-expression.

After my father escaped into the Soviet Union he joined the Red Army, because General Anders’ Polish Army, enlisting volunteers over the border, didn't want Jews. Alex was promoted to Sergeant, was a machine-gunner, led battles, and was wounded at least twice. He had a long and wide scar, terrible to look at on his left leg and a smaller one on his right arm (that was the one that left him an mildly disabled for years, but he spoke as a Romantic invalid, a Jewish Byron among Ukrainian soldiers). He was full of stories of war and politics, often repeated, yet never quite told in the same way, were the details forgotten or improvised?

Sitting at the table he would talk about the war, how he was a glorious hero, or a clever black-marketeer, or a political prisoner, or a cynical deserter, the stories didn't go together, but all circled around the ongoing courage of his heedless gambling spirit, for he had always lived by his brittle wits. He would talk about his disillusionment with Russia, but also with America, and would fulminate about McCarthy, the whole story shocking him and reminding him of the political climate in Russia. Somehow he would mix together Stalin killing all the Jewish intellectuals and actors, Michoels and Isaac Babel, with the cowardice of the American intellectuals, the actors and directors who lacked the courage to face the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee. Then he'd have a good word for Edward R. Murrow. In it all he would always refer to Moïse, the one great friend, who died in the war. Moíse's older brother Monyeh, Uncle Monyeh, like Uncle Freddy, was one of the two visitors to the house who came for Alec. Monyeh had survived the war and was probably Alec's only real friend in America (Freddy, delicate and tall, would come to talk to Sonia, whom he liked at least as much), but Alec always condescended to Monyeh; he had been bourgeois, just an ordinary working guy, not much of a communist, and they had looked down on him. What he didn't say, but Charlie saw it from the few priceless photos, was that Monyeh had always had a plain shapeless face with a big nose, while Alec and Moïse, small and large, were the handsomest of the young rebels.

At the dinner table Sonia hardly spoke, but served, dinner was always ready, and the house was most extraordinarily clean; she washed and shopped (Charlie's socks and underwear were always ironed and folded) took care of Siddy, and hardly spoke. But when she did it would be some hint or fragment of her sad country life in the little town near Krakow, almost a kind of Shtetl, the Jews more religious than in the city. Her family wasn't religious, but she was sentimental about Judaism. She told country stories, Chelm-like, foolish peasants falling down wells, some story about a tall Shlimosil getting stuck in chimneys, a Yiddish Til Eulenshpiegel. Also about her father the brave little tailor who once brandished his shears at a Nazi officer, her older brother the schlemiel, her pretty younger brother, the one who got the second pulkeh, the first going to her father, who needed the strength for his tailoring, then her older sister, Hanna, very like her but definitely better-looking and smarter, the superior one disciplined and clear-thinking, with a stronger character than Sonia, as everyone knew. When she did talk some terrible little fragment would come out of her mouth that he couldn't bear to hear. The speech stopped around the deep epicenter he didn't want to enter. "I remember when the Germans came into our town, their officer, fat with rimless glasses, looking scholarly, he said, ‘we will exterminate the Jews like rats.’" The fragment in her otherwise gossipy even sugary speech, was like a black hole in discourse waiting to suck him in. A bottomless piece of story.

Charlie didn't want to think what it was like for her, a young girl, neither a child nor an adolescent, to hear such things, to see how her family was treated. He could hardly listen. But around Alec he could hardly talk. The things that happened to him seemed so small. Sometimes he would bring incidents or friends from his life, but Alec was not subtle about his contempt for his son's endeavors. "I'm not interested in your dummy friends," he would always say. "I really had friends, I had Moïse."

Charlie felt some anger and tried to get the better of him, but somehow could never score a point. They would watch television together in the evening, especially Phil Silvers in St. Bilko who made them both laugh and Robert Young in "Father Knows Best." Charlie tried to put together the world of "Father Knows Best" with his own life. It was a world where everyone spoke and father listened until he said something that made everything better. His own father never let anyone else speak and only said things that made things worse. He got up his nerve once and said: "Dad why can't you be more like the Father in 'Father Knows Best'." His Father didn't miss a step, "why can't you be more like Bud"? Somehow everything Charlie did seemed very small.

They were sitting at the table in their usual position, like two men sitting comfortably around a conversation table, the Jewish tisch, or, considering it was his father's favorite leisure activity, at least when he still had some friends to play with, card table. Charlie could never sit settled on the chair, but always felt like he were sliding off, it was always as if he were just posing as a man, even a very young man, at the table, and had nothing to bet or even bluff with. He came up with some words, but he didn't know from where exactly, only he knew that he couldn't meet his father head-on from what he had within him.

He had long straight soft hair that fell over his eyes. This should have been his strong point. Yet it still didn't get any response from his father. (He knew his mother liked, perhaps loved, the way he looked, but she never said anything either.) Once he ventured to talk about these things with Alec. He picked the wrong night, it was one of the times when his Father came home tense from the factory, but that was almost all the time.

"Dad you know sometimes I think I wish I had curly hair," he ventured, thinking as he said it that it sounded childish and namby-pamby, he should have started a conversation about Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, because he had started reading science-fiction stories. He didn't like them much but his father did. His father had snorted in his most contemptuous gesture, "Curly hair, what are you talking about, niggers have curly hair."

He was genuinely shocked. His father had never used that word before, and was always talking about poor people and the rich Republicans (he was hostile to Eisenhower like all the Brooklyn Jews) and socialist ideals (not Communism anymore, not after Stalin and the Doctor's Plot). Charlie tried to somehow take in this new piece of information, this new attitude. He internalized it tentatively.

Next time they spoke, he suggested, "Dad, you know what, you were right, it's good that I don't have curly hair, like the niggers." I still remember how uncomfortable he was using the ugly word. His father looked at him fiercely now, not with contempt but with outrage, "What, how do you dare to speak like that! I cannot believe you're speaking like that! You know what, you little stinker, I know colored boys that compared to them you're not worth, you're not worth, let me think, their shit!"

I was sitting at a plain Formica kitchen table in Brooklyn, about 1955, and feeling as if perched at the edge of an abyss - the feeling I always had at dinner with my father. When he said those last words, words I have never forgotten and never will forget, I felt overwhelmed but it wasn't that I tumbled into the great deep area that surrounded me. That was a familiar feeling. It was more a feeling of being transformed into the degraded material my father so cruelly evoked. The change came over me gradually as I sat there, a slow seeping spread that seemed to transform the very substance I was made of.

And yet all the sickening experiences hardly woke him from his childish dream-daze; he had discovered Landmark Books, and read about Alexander the Great and The Defeat of the Spanish Armada and Young Dwight Eisenhower. His heroism knew neither historical nor geographical limits, he was the Prince of lost time and far space. He loved reading in bed and prized the time before sleep, the pre-dream dream when he fantasized about rockets and explorations of his favorite planet, Venus, her red gasses surrounding her with a deep mystery; he would pre-dream about exploring her planetary sexuality, losing himself in the galactic allurements of a mythic orb. He designed an Art Nouveau rocket-ship, rectangular with little square outjuttings, like Le Corbusiér, each cubicle for somehow he knew, and he had a slightly bigger one for Heshy's – his best friend, the one who left the Yeshiva – incapacitated grandmother.

The strongest real impression made on him at the time came with the birth of his brother. He remembered he was called out of class, even the angry Rabbi was comparatively friendly, and went down to the office to receive a phone call. It was from the hospital; he had a baby brother. He was amazingly excited, he thought perhaps it would fill the emptiness of the apartment. Not that there weren't people there – most of the time his Uncle Freddy and his Uncle Monyeh were around (thought neither of them were among the real uncles who were killed in "The War"), yet the three hollow rooms were empty in a cavernous way, the long railroad corridor seemed to go on forever, his little mother and father, rarely together, hardly filled any space.

When she brought home the new baby his mother was very happy, but suddenly strict and admonishing, “make sure to wash your hands very well before you touch your baby brother.” Charlie scrubbed his hands harder than he had ever done in his life, mercilessly with the hard brush, the one his parents always wanted him to use and that he always put aside. When his hands were rubbed and sore he touched the delicate little baby, quite overwhelmed with love at this other filling presence. Charlie named him; "what shall we call him," his father asked, we need an American name, but after my father, Zisha; the baby became Sidney.

After the third grade he left the Yeshiva. He followed his friend Heshy who, one grade younger, left after only the second grade. Heshy was chubby and cute and energetic, a good and believing buddy, Charlie's best friend. His tall, strong father was sort of religious, didn't wear a Kippa but went to shul and kept kosher. Heshy's fat mother hid bacon at the bottom of the freezer and seemed glad that Hesh hated the Yeshiva. When Charlie wanted to leave the Yeshiva his own father didn't say a word. (But later, after he opened his own factory, Alec would rant about phony Rabbis who sat on their "esses" and took a lot of money for Bar Mitzvah lessons — "let them come to my shop and do a day's work.")
His mother pleaded with him to stay, and took him to the religious store-keeper who sold him his briefcase in a hole-in-the-wall "leather-goods" shop. "Don't leave the Yeshiva my boy, stay part of our people, we lost three eighths of the entire Jewish people just a few years ago" (Charlie was impressed by the precision of the fraction, but the old man seemed so tired and antiquated in a room filled with briefcases that smelled like the Yeshiva.) His mother looked at him; yes sometimes she'd bring him to some strange man for good counsel, but had little to say herself, she seemed to long after something vaguely "Jewish" but could not translate the feeling into words or actions.

Mostly she wandered around the stores, taking the little boy with her, following along to the dress and hat shops; he was fiercely bored, but it seemed natural and inevitable to wander with her so, until they found a store or shop-lady she liked, only to be disappointed. He remember one old hat-maker lady, speaking more Yiddish than English, but not a survivor, gushing over his mother's beauty, “are you this boy's mother, I was sure you were his sister,” and then, when his mother, having looked at so many, decided not to buy a hat after all, the woman had turned on her, "come's in here with a face like a Tuchis and expects to look good in my hat?" His mother had just laughed, the disappointment beyond anything to say or show.

So they wandered some more, under the elevated train, the gritty nothingness of 1950's Bensonhurst, his mother not even taking interest in the food, the Jewish franks and Sicilian pizza (square and thick) that compensated their fellow walkers. His mother talked about the people they passed, how do men go around with their fat bellies sticking out, doesn't it make it hard to walk, to sit, to lie down, to piss? "So unestetic." Or, clucking, trying to understand, why do such handsome men sometimes marry such ugly women, there must be something wrong with them. Yet he knew that wasn't it; it wasn't the dresses and it wasn't the hats, and it wasn't the fat men or the ill-assorted couples that obsessed her, that seduced her seemingly diffused glance; somehow he knew, for he began to do it too, and did it all his life (I still do it) that his mother was looking at faces, this one's eyes and that one's nose and this one's mouth, looking for someone's delicacy, someone's finesse, someone's evocation.

Somewhere down the long stream of countenances, under the 86th Street El, somewhere at the end of the detritus, under gray dust and heavy dullness, she searched the rolling rivers of faces for a past full of ashes, looking for the faces she’d suddenly, in that oncoming city-flow, she’s suddenly want to remember as, in the strong moment of an evening’s reality, she would suddenly, in precisely that strong moment of an evening’s reality, and just for that moment as the new faces came forward and for that beginning of a moment she would suddenly just in the looking at all those new faces begin for that moment the forgetting of the need to forget.

Prose-Renderings
1.28 Men
28 Men – a prose poem

I’m with my brother in Saran, an upmarket restaurant, Thai in Chelsea. My brother, what a story, les frères enemis, a little of Birkin and Gerald in Lawrence’s Women in Love. Hearts hurt and needy, minds cagey and considered - we erect psychic fortresses to defend ourselves. What do brothers want from one another? He’s taller and richer. I think I’m handsomer and more creative. God knows who’s smarter. Maybe we’ll come through it all and hold on. “You only have one brother” my father says to each of us.

My father, as usual the story’s about him. “Remember the night we talked about the will with the lawyer,” says brother, “oh yes.” I remembered that all right. My father was going to empower him until I turned to my mother and asked her what she thought. My mother, passivity her watchword, becomes acute when it comes to me, some atavistic spark arises, protect the cub, and she said my name, after a comparatively short pause. So now we’re both executors. But that’s not what he wanted to talk about. “Remember the story about the German soldiers?”

He looked at me challengingly. He has certain expressions, various harsh smiles (something strange happens to his eyes, the word “ugly” looms, I won’t use it). This leer contains the usual quotient of mockery, but there was something else in the glance; it teetered between sympathy and pity. “Tell me the story as you remember it.” Why did I need to repeat it. “Just do it.” Well, my father was a Russian soldier during WWII – not just an abject Jew rounded up in Poland, not him. He talks about himself as a hero of the Russian army, but also a defiant black marketeer, I never did get how the two stories go together. For him, as he claimed, the Germans were just enemy soldiers that he killed. This particular story was harsh, he was a machine gunner, would describe shooting the old Russian model until it nearly melted, impossible to touch. There had been – I thought – a train crash and all the German soldiers aboard were taken prisoner. What to do with them? The prisoners camp was far back in the lines.

The officer said, “shoot them.” My father, the communist youth leader worried about all people, not just Jews, hesitated. “Shoot him or I’ll shoot you,” the finality of office. My father took them out, one sensitive looking boy, a good German, started pleading, “my parents were social democrats, we believed in the Soviet Union, we thought like you.” My father had no choice, shot the young man with the other prisoners, 28 men in all. He still dreams about him, one of the many assaults and betrayals that plague his conscience. “That’s the story,” as I remembered it. “Yes, I thought you’d remember something like that,” my brother says. “Do you want to know what really happened.” “What do you mean, I remember the story very well.” “No, here it is.”

“The Russians bombed the train and 28 German soldiers survived. Dad got to it as the leader of the Russian troop. When they arrived to capture the Germans, his commanding officer ordered him to take the prisoners back behind the lines to get information. But Dad said 'I wasn't going to waste time taking the men behind the lines when there were so many goodies on the train', so he turned to a guy he commanded, “and I said ‘Yiska, finish them off’ and he tookthem aside and tratatatatatatatatatat!” My brother’s eyes focused, aggressive in emulated greed. ”They were mowed down, and oh yes the pleading boy, the leftist, that really happened, and Dad feels guilty, but it didn’t stop him. He killed 28 men in cold blood, to save time, and get booty. I haven’t been able to look at Dad in the same way since.”

I look down at my Tai Bouillabaisse, a large shrimp in orange broth grows a shining eye – it holds me. A nursery rhyme repeats in my mind: “These are the things our fathers did, our fathers did, our fathers did, these are the things our fathers did, as the dawn broke in the morning.”

2.Communication II
Communication II

My brilliant and fearful wife was obsessed by two situations impeding the act of communication. Her feelings of dismay, anger, frustration, and even splenetic fury when I failed to respond to her were, thus, matched by emotions of a similar tidal magnitude when I succeeded in interrupting her.

We have, then, non-reaction and overriding, the evil twins hampering communication. In either case, an autonomous yet linked verbal-physical space is requested by a woman seeking and finding her words, and, yes, a woman (also a man of course but I write of women here trying to apprehend her separateness) must have a language-arena of her own if she is to speak her Debra, the spatiality of speech, the place within which she may complete a statement-of-meaning which she can, if allowed a full and finished closure, seamlessly turn into a statement-of-being. Her distress derives from the conviction that I neither allow meaning to be transmitted nor being to be achieved, and that I enclose, truncate, diminish, erase, overwhelm, or otherwise fail to provide her with the place where she can discover the ending of a speech only just begun, now therefore imperiled and left to dangle with an embarrassing and insecure uncertainty.

My goal it appears must be to allow her to hold herself separate, to grant my articulate bride her own space for maneuvering, while I patiently await the opportunity to join with her in such a manner as to be entirely accepted by her, for, yes, a man should delay his reaction to his wife until the moment when it is met with complete and joyful receptivity.

3. Elaine

Reconstructing A Lost Poem I'll never Reconstruct “The Girl of Silences”
It was the best poem of my early years about the best sex of my early years. I left it behind when I walked out on a marriage of 28 years.
It was about my old girlfriend, she’d been the sensitive vulnerable one in the suburban town, not as pretty as some, her nose, well-shaped, was too big, but her mouth was full and her eyes were green and her body a touch short was sublime. Elaine of the sad house one of the many girls in the late 60’s evoked by Leonard Cohen songs. Her father in the luncheonette, varicose veins, standing all day, giving up a career as a doctor for his mother in the Depression; he sounded so many echoes of depression. She loved me so, I don’t know why, I wasn’t much more than a vague pretty boy in those days, but had that touch of sensitivity, loved Siddhartha and Ravel’s piano music and she found me there.

I left her and returned, going to Diana of the rejections, the mermaid, her body so cold from the waist down. I left Elaine many times and she became a city girl, somewhere she found a brownstone apartment and worked in the Met bookstore. I was off at a SUNY English department, bored by pedantry and confused by the revolution. One night I found myself at her place. I would go to the houses of old girl friends it didn’t really matter which one. She showed me pictures of her father looking like Johnny Weissmuller in bathing trunks but shorter and darker more like me. I began looking at her books and at some point threw a volume, Hesse or perhaps Baudelaire on the pile carelessly and she said, don't treat my books like that, they’re precious to me. Thank god I felt bad.

At some point we went to bed, it was more or less expected we had taken each other’s virginity let’s see about 5-6 years earlier. Something happened, something clicked and some masculinity descended on me like I’ve almost never known before or since. How we held and loved each other, it felt like hours. Maybe we smoked some pot first. Yes I guess so I had forgotten. Meanwhile we began to hear the upstairs neighbor a woman a widow alone abandoned now mad pacing up and down talking to herself. This was counterpointed by Bach’s unaccompanied Cello suites, very Elaine kind of music. In the poem I tried to find the triple counterpoint, an epiphany of sex, a madwoman, and a cello.

Let’s see which lines I remember “She holds me for hours,” “A husband long dead,” something like “I am caught between a madwoman and a cello and I can answer as well as she.” No it was a woman calling for her husband long dead “I am caught between a madwoman and a cello and I can answer as well as he.” Yes that was the achievement of the poem, that though it was a moment of such potency, a rhapsody of love, I was still dead emotionally somewhere. I think that might have been the last time I saw Elaine. No, we were together another couple of times, but it was much worse, the moment was over.

I’ll never remember the entire poem. Shall I look for it? Why did I lose it? Why did I lose so many things. And why was she silent. Elaine why didn’t you talk, why did you just go on suffering, while others could talk and create a false world of words without feelings that held me for years. Where are you now Elaine?

4. The Pillar

The Pillar and the Ghost

I went to the pillar* tonight and to my dismay it had been repaired, the deep cracks in its surface covered with cement. But Debra’s ghost and voice had emerged from those cracks. I suddenly had the feeling that, like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Debra’s ghost was now trapped in its abode, trapped in the cemented pillar. But then to my joy I heard her; she just laughed, laughed the way she’d laugh when we made love, everything was just a joy to her, no shame or hesitation, and she said, “Don’t you know, I’m immaterial. You’re so literal Gavitch, did you really think I came between the cracks – it’s the way you folks see in the world, you know everything has to be so obvious to you and we do have sympathy for material beings. But I’m here my dear, I always will be, so what did you want to ask?”

“My darling so I’ve decided to become a psychoanalyst, you know, like you, and they’re going to ask me tomorrow morning, why. And I’m not sure, what should I tell them?”
“Don’t you know yourself, don’t you know who you are.”
“No, you’re the one who taught me that.”
“I could only teach you what you already knew.”
“I didn’t know it before you.”
“Sure you did, but you didn’t know you knew it before me.”
“Yes, well, I know, Debrashen, really I only have one theme or two but together they make one.”
“Yes Gavrielov I know.”
“You know my theme my dear, it’s love and death of course, what else is there, love and death are two but they make one and it’s called life. So it’s been such a struggle for me, I feel I was raised surrounded by death, yet they tried my parents to wrest life out of it.”
“Of course they did. And so now you know what you’ll say.”
“Well there were two things, I thought about love and death in my own somersaulting life, and I taught love and death to hundreds maybe thousands of students.”
“Yes and now you’ll face them deep deep in other people, and doing that you’ll see other people more deeply than you ever did. You are a tad self-centered you know.”
“It has occurred to me. What will I say when they ask me what your death has to do with my decision.”
“Well I can’t imagine – what will you say.”
“I’ll say that I miss you and the world, the richly populated and conceived world that surrounded you. And then if, in the Freudian way, I am making you even more a part of me, what is wrong with becoming a little – and I fear I can’t do more than a little -- bit more like Debra Hart. I would love like Catherine to say, “I am Debra Hart,” but I’ll never fool anyone not even myself.”
“You don’t have to be me Gavitch, you’re no fool yourself, now, are you, at least, not anymore.”
“You don’t think so, Debrashen.”
“No I never did, you know, even when you first came to the Institute with your bad Hebrew and your naïve gaze. I liked you – you seemed to believe everything you heard. I thought it was sweet.”
“Debraie why didn’t I just run to you way back in 1978 – why didn’t I just run to you and leave everything.”
“You’re loyal – and then you were loyal to me. And we had a dozen wonderful years, stop regretting yourself.”
“Debraie, I think about other women, I’ve gone out – a bit”
Now she was really laughing.
“I’m so glad to have you now, your lilting voice is back, and your merry laugh, and your unsurpassable aura right here with me, right now, but where’s your body my love, I want to make love to you, please how can I, when will I ever….”
“Of course you can, Gavrielov, how very literal you are, my dear literary husband, don’t you know? It’s no problem at all.”

  • The pillar is a short bit of a column near one of the downward ramp entrances to Riverside Park. It’s on Riverside Drive in the 80’s. On black Saturday Jan. 16th , pretty early in the morning, I guess about 8AM, this being the day after my heart, Debra Hart, died, probably in the ambulance somewhere between the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Bellevue Hospital, I was wandering disheveled, unable to sleep, received a phone call from Debra’s beloved friend and my once beloved spiritual sister, R. She was still in the mode of “why is everyone making such a big deal over what was probably just a fainting spell or something.” She asked me how Debra was and I answered, I think in English, “Debra’s gone.” Mah what, she shouted and I repeated it and because R. is both very smart and very feeling there was really no point in any kind of denial or delay and so we both began crying our hearts out, I hardly remember such tears in myself or in someone else in my life. Holy tears. Crying like a madman on ritzy Riverside Drive, standing over a truncated pillar as people walked by me with their dogs.

Ever since then I go to the pillar whenever I want to communicate with Debra, and she’s always there when I need her, as always.

July 10th 2010 toward my first NPAP interview

The prose-rendering presents in intensely organized language moments of crisis or revelation or change.



DR. GAVRIEL REISNER (Ben-Ephraim) is completing his psychoanalytic training at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis in New York City.

He was Lecturer in English and Visiting Senior Lecturer in Multidisciplinary Studies – specializing in Literature, Film, and Psychoanalysis – at Tel Aviv University.

He has many publications on literature and psychoanalysis including books, articles, chapters in compilations, and reviews and is a widely-published poet and short story writer.

In 2015 he won the CORST Prize for the best interdisciplinary essay of the year from the American Psychoanalytic Association for “On Ghosted and Ancestral Selves in Hamlet: Loewald’s ‘Present Life’ and Winnicott’s ‘Potential Space’ in Shakespeare’s Play”

The author can be reached at: debracariel at gmail.com