I’m wondering about you, chevra kadisha,
the “holy society,” who will prepare my body,
once I’m no longer in it, for the earth.

Will you know me already, or see me for the first time
as you wash and shroud me, as my father was washed
and dressed in simple white tachrichim, for those

about to stand before God. Perhaps by then I’ll know
if I believe in God. I like the democratic
nature of the shroud, an equalizing garment. You

may see a body that surprises you. You may not have seen
a man’s body like this one before you, which I hope is very old,
wrinkled, and (since I’m wishing) fit, muscled

as much as an old man can be. You’ll see scars.
Ragged dog bit forearm, elbow my father picked gravel
from over the sink, then flushed with foaming iodine,

and the long double horizons on my chest, which trunked my body
like a tree. If I am unexpected, let me not seem
grotesque to you, as I have to many people, perhaps

even my own parents, and others whose highest
kindness was to say nothing. Please let me return to dust
in peace, as the others did, and recite those beautiful psalms,

remembering, as you go about your holy ritual,
how frightening it is to be naked before another,
at the mercy of a stranger’s eyes, without even any breath.

Commas

Came home and found my typewriter
case a little crushed it’s my fault
probably for leaving it looking like
a stepping stone for someone not tall
enough to climb onto the toy chest
but who very much likes to clamber
up there my father built the toy chest
for me and now the result is my comma
key sticks won’t fly up to make its mark
so no more clauses of that tender
kind or just imagine them there or figure
out how to use a semicolon or type the word
comma when I need one lots of things
are called commas not just punctuation
a certain butterfly a bacillus responsible for cholera
the chest’s nails are slowly withdrawing I notice
pulling themselves out in the invisible
hammerclaw of time or else the wood itself’s
ejecting them feeling maybe hey it’s been long
enough let me just be planks again or it could
be the climbing itself did I also climb
and all that climbing’s worked
against those nails a little each time after
my father held one in his hand one in his
mouth and with his hammer made a box

Related Poems

Afterlife

I’m older than my father when he turned
bright gold and left his body with its used-up liver
in the Faulkner Hospital, Jamaica Plain. I don’t
believe in the afterlife, don’t know where he is
now his flesh has finished rotting from his long
bones in the Jewish Cemetery—he could be the only
convert under those rows and rows of headstones. 
Once, washing dishes in a narrow kitchen
I heard him whistling behind me. My nape froze. 
Nothing like this has happened since. But this morning
we were on a plane to Virginia together. I was 17,
pregnant and scared. Abortion was waiting,
my aunt’s guest bed soaked with blood, my mother
screaming—and he was saying Kids get into trouble— 
I’m getting it now: this was forgiveness.
I think if he’d lived he’d have changed and grown
but what would he have made of my flood of words
after he’d said in a low voice as the plane
descended to Richmond in clean daylight
and the stewardess walked between the rows
in her neat skirt and tucked-in blouse
Don’t ever tell this to anyone.

United Jewish Appeal

My grandmother was eighty-nine and blind
and I was a young boy hungry for quarters,
so, in the waning light
of Sunday afternoons, my parents gone,
I would ring the doorbell
(my friend Raymond smirking
from behind the stairwell) and listen
for the slow shuffle of slippers
in the hall, the soft thump
of her body against the closet.

She would come to the door,
my parakeet Jerry trapped in her hairnet,
stammering a "Who's there?" in minimal English,
between the chain and the doorjamb,
and, without hesitancy or shame,
in a cracked, mock-Hassidic voice,
I'd answer: "United Jewish Appeal,"
swaying my hand, like a small plane
moving over an airstrip, toward her.

She would open the door—tentative,
timid, charity having won out over terror—
and reach a palm out into the hallway,
the way she reached out under the candles
to bless me on Sabbath. "My daughter . . ."
she would stammer, "she is not home now,"
poking her eyes like Borges into the vastness.
A better heart than mine was
might have stopped there, but I was a boy
ravenous for malteds and baseball cards,
so I repeated the words of my small litany,
"United Jewish Appeal," and reached my hand out again
until it almost touched the blue print of her smock.

All the while my parakeet sat there,
dropping small coils of bird shit onto her hair
until she retreated again down the long yellow hallway,
reading the braille of the walls
with her hands. And I would wink
at my good friend Raymond behind the stairwell
when the rattle of change clanged out
from my parents' bedroom, and we heard again
the slow sweep of her feet, and, at last,
the shiny fruits of cleverness and hunger
fell into my palm, and my grandmother Johanna,
the parakeet still flapping like a crazed duck
in her hairnet, closed the door behind her,
leaving me and my friend Raymond
to frolic off into the sun-licked,
agnostic streets of Washington Heights,
full of the love of grandmothers
and of change, forever singing the praises
of the United Jewish Appeal.

Doors opening, closing on us

Maybe there is more of the magical
in the idea of a door than in the door
itself. It’s always a matter of going
through into something else. But

while some doors lead to cathedrals
arching up overhead like stormy skies
and some to sumptuous auditoriums
and some to caves of nuclear monsters

most just yield a bathroom or a closet.
Still, the image of a door is liminal,
passing from one place into another
one state to the other, boundaries

and promises and threats. Inside
to outside, light into dark, dark into
light, cold into warm, known into
strange, safe into terror, wind

into stillness, silence into noise
or music. We slice our life into
segments by rituals, each a door
to a presumed new phase. We see

ourselves progressing from room
to room perhaps dragging our toys
along until the last door opens
and we pass at last into was.