The Photograph Suggests a Hidden Life

Susan Rich

Past Storrow Drive, over the Mystic
River Bridge, my father lived in Chelsea—

home to Katz’s two-step bagel, to perpetually
broken sidewalks. A minor chord

in an immigrant tale—feral curls,
thirdhand coat—my dad looks

into the me he cannot imagine.
His eyes and hips glitter as he stands

against the glass of the family’s corner shop.
After school, working wordlessly beside his father—

leased, not owned—he would repeat—
a livelihood soon-to-fail from unpaid credit

for kosher spam and a carton of eggs. My father gazes
towards me like a cinema darling in a Jewish saga

of fire escapes, flashy dance numbers, suicides.
He becomes a mechanical engineer

who will not be called when his mother dies,
who will never dial his sister’s number again.

My father will build his life from a mountain of questions
without an answer key, a footnote

with an alphabet all his own: part Russian,
part Yiddish, part loss. In the city

that abuts Boston—infamous for bankruptcy,
for the erasures of old countries—his heart tried.

Tonight, I search the photograph
to detect again his history—the plagues

of bewilderment—the tracks that follow
me through the unseen branches

of our family tree; faded patterns of light
and dark, ascending.

More by Susan Rich

Boketto

Outside my window it’s never the same—
some mornings jasmine slaps the house, some mornings sorrow.

There is a word I overheard today, meaning lost
not on a career path or across a floating bridge:

Boketto—to stare out windows without purpose.
Don’t laugh; it’s been too long since we leaned

into the morning: bird friendly coffee and blueberry toast. Awhile
since I declared myself a prophet of lost cats—blind lover

of animal fur and feral appetites. Someone should tag
a word for the calm of a long marriage. Knowledge

the heat will hold, and our lights remain on— a second
sight that drives the particulars of a life: sea glass and salt,

cherry blossoms and persistent weeds. What assembles in the middle
distance beyond the mail truck; have I overlooked oceans,

ignored crows? I try to exist in the somehow, the might still be—
gaze upward to constellations of in-between.
 

Shadowbox

That night the air stank, the stars obscured behind wild horses
of clouds. I walked on cobblestones on the edge of something

I could not name: new land of unalterable decisions
like a retinue of assassins coming right for me, who kept coming

in a bad dream that dissolved like a black-and-white movie, the dark
mouth enveloping the entire screen. The End. Then the aftermath

like a heroin addict waking up in the overgrowth of a river path,
no longer young. There are nights that pummel your life, chart

an alternate course unasked for and colorless—the way it was
the first time you encountered the one ready to eat out your  heart—

an innocent remark—a joke about ocelots or the weeds of purple carrots.
That night I was caught in a before and after, an unsayable horror film

of half-lives as we hipswayed and grunted along the Seine.
When someone passed us, their teeth shone like those of a vampire

happy with the waste of the world. Ready to drink it in. My body
was four months pregnant, crossing over to a nightmared path

of no return. But isn’t this the truth of every moment?
To revise our lives into the I belong—to this tribe of the unreliable

narrators, luminous in our stories and in our squalor.

To the New Journal

 
after W. S. Merwin
 
 
Let’s just listen—  
 
before the spent words and the hidden nests
of sentences begin, before the musical count
 
of vowels and consonants, the ink
 
not yet slippery with wild grief
or souped-up grandeur.
 
I wish to arrange you—
 
with a few half-formed couplets—
inquiries without answers.
 
But what can we do? These mountains are still
 
young and rising, I write. Yet,
even the fields call to an orchestra of stars.
 
Even the birds sing to-do lists.