I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the fourth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. (I skipped both the first and third poems, not because they aren’t rewarding to read, but because their heavy autobiographical content makes them too difficult for me to respond to.) See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.
Stanzas in an Emergency
by Paul Zweig
Here is the river,
The salt-tide edging upstream,
Grey cliffs extending in the sunmist.
I will not count my blessings,
I will be blessed.
I will solve the baffled distance in my mind.
I will not panic at my freedom.
I will know the smooth night
When my wife perches beside me,
Plumed and shining, as on a branch.
I will bring the estuary of the grey day
Into everything cramped and scarred.
I will bring you, my puzzled patient friend,
Whom I keep eluding
When you want only to tell me about love.
My neighbor emerges
In a clang of tumblers and doors.
With her sad nipples, her daughter vanished into permanent winter,
She is stubborn as a nun, and almost beautiful.
I see the news seller on the corner,
His blind face, his daylong
Conversation with dimes and quarters.
I accept my wife’s rage, her pride,
The spined flower standing for her in my mind,
The frantic light which is love’s exit, or entrance.
To exist at the highest level;
To be entirely conscious, so that even my smallest sigh
Glides happily, and the deathwatch is never bored,
For the little one, God’s human face,
Death, with his gay elfin whisper,
All the goings-on in closets,
Smothered giggle, lank defeated clothes;
All, all come crowding in, like guests at a wedding,
With promises that only death can keep.
A stubble-faced Greek runs the all-night
Market around the corner.
His bins are full of mangoes, plums,
Crushed sprigs of mint,
Bananas large as clubs, roots for alien stews.
They are colors that play against the night,
Bins of the loveliness that never sleeps.
This Greek in his shop
Stands guard for me, I sleep for him.
Together we endure the night.
* * * *
My customers are real characters, some of them.
That’s no surprise.
But this one disheveled Jew? He writes
the screenplay, I think. You should see him.
He sleepwalks in here at 2:00 a.m.
and stands in front of the import bins – star fruits
& mangosteens – with his head cocked to the side.
Can I help you, sir, I’ll call out
when I can’t stand it anymore
& he looks over & grins – great big smile.
Paul, my friend, you already have, he says.
He likes the fact that we have the same first name.
The next morning he’s in here again, 8:00 o’clock,
for a loaf of fresh bread.
He might have big dark bags under his eyes
but he’s looking happy now, as if
he can hardly contain himself.
Like a man with a secret: sometimes it feels heavy,
sometimes it’s light.
His wife is French, he tells me once, the bread’s for her.
Another time, just as he’s handing me the money,
he stops & runs his finger through
the parallel slashes in the crust.
If it’s going in the oven anyway, he says,
why do they cut it like this?
It’ll split one way or the other, Paul, I say.
All we can do is tell it where.