MRS. WEI & ANCESTOR WORSHIP
An Englishman is visiting his mother's grave
with flowers. He sees Mrs. Wei
spreading a feast of roast chicken,
moo shu pork, noodles
before her father's grave.
"When's your father coming out
to eat that food?" he asks.
Smiling, Mrs. Wei answers,
"Same time your mother
come to smell flowers."
-- Hilary Tham: The Tao of Mrs. Wei, 2003
In Istanbul, I became a millionaire
for a dollar, my eyes round as the many zeroes
on the Turkish Lira notes.
Then I arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
where the largest Som note is 500, value 30 cents.
Changing a hundred dollar bill,
I am amazed when the cashier plunks down
on the counter two bricks of 500 Som
and a brick of 200 Som notes.
I wrap them in my jacket as they
will not fit in my purse.
The hotel breakfast lightens my load
by a quarter brick. Dinner that night costs
a half brick for which we are entertained
by a belly dancer whose gyrations and costume
conjure visions of peacocks in lush courts of emirs.
Enthusiastic male viewers stride up and shower her
with banknotes--- easy largesse of paper pennies.
other favorite poems:
WRITERS' RETREAT IN TUSCANY
The women here, five to every male, hang
their hopes on the thread of a man's yes or no; changing
course like a river meeting hard rock. Secret hopes, flowering
unbidden, like hawkweed on stony slopes, at the foot
fall of Endymion wandering by. I sense unspoken
invitations, subtle skirmishes for place on the tour bus.
Everywhere I look, stone walls and marble statues,
bearing Time's marks and erasures, crumbling walls,
stairs to an Italian garden, now a road where buses, cars
carry tourists to invade your hill towns, Siena, Certaldo,
San Gimignano. In the country of love, your sad gates open
to overnight guests without reservations.
Each midnight, I walk on the terrace for my last cigarette,
check the skies for stars I know. I watch the lights
of distant hill-towns, with people bedding down
in their own beds, or another's, while the grapes ripen
on the vines and olives turn dark with oil, and night
winds bend around the straight cypresses.
I am filled with gratitude
for what I have: the quietude of balance, the heart's
being free of wanting, knowing out there
beyond the hazy slopes of convoluted olive trunks
and grape vines, my love remembers holding me,
as I remember holding him, each absence a gift of affirmation,
desire placed on hold waiting renewal. Beyond my terrace wall
a drift of voices, amazed at stone shaped by human hands,
structures that endure.
AT THE TABLE
"Selfishness? I'm very good at that," the beautiful young
woman said, turning her searchlight eyes
from the good-looking waiter
momentarily in my direction.
I am disconcerted by her braggadocio.
Only the most vulnerable go on the offensive
to distract possible enemies. The fortified
send their words like ambassadors
on caparisoned horses to negotiate
alliances, common ground to build
enduring structures, civilization.
I hope she will arrive at Rabbi Hillel's wisdom:
If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?
But I do not quote Hillel to her.
An insecure country does not
let unknown messengers cross its borders.
A CASTLE IN TUSCANY
for Cosimo Posarelli
It's been almost a century since Sir George Sitwell
fell in love with the Castello di Montegufoni,
its forlorn air of grandeur.
He poured a fortune into the ruin of two palaces
and five villas, where tossed-up shacks concealed
the grandeur of Dukes and an unknown woman's
bones turned white at the bottom of the well.
So what to do when your father buys it,
hands you this elephantine gift?
Begin with reality, a ruin of a castle
where rooms keep secret their entrances,
where stairs bring you to blank walls,
and all doors look innocent, only closet deep.
Begin small. Start with six apartments. Restore
the remnants of rooms where the dregs
of great merchant families hunkered down
into oblivion. Hire men to fix the plumbing,
move the tons of rubbish. Hire women
from the village - they'll clean and wash
for a few lire. The gardens can be green again.
Those roses can be saved.
Those seventeenth century lemon trees
will love modern fertilizer.
Find more rooms and haul them, groaning wood
and dirt-caked walls into the twenty-first century.
Hope for luck and tourist dollars to blow your way.
The castle swallows daylight, retains still its air
of forlorn grandeur. What will you leave your son?
The Tuscan landscape delights me, peaceful and still as
a dish of olive oil, virgin and green
beside crusty bread warm from the oven..
Orderly vineyards in straight rows lead
our eyes to the far hills, twilight blanketing them for sleep.
We sip a gentle wine and soak in evening's gift of color
splashed across a sunset sky.
The wind brings a sour-rot smell:
intrusive reality of grapes fermenting
in a nearby winery -- the ugly duckling
stage of merlot, chianti, cognac--
as jarring as a fork of manure
on a shining kitchen floor.
An earlier version was published in FRANTIC EGG.
I did not feel Jewish those first years
after my conversion. I felt I was wearing
a new mask over old masks, I was dancing
a new dance, miming the moves. I felt a fraud
in synagogue, mouthing a lie when I said,
"God of our fathers." I wish I had known
what I know now: we are our memories.
I did not feel Jewish for I had no memories yet
of living Jewish, being Jewish.
The convert's mind
is a brand new culvert that does not
know the feel of water until the doing
fills it with memory, floods it with rain.
From Hilary Tham's new book: COUNTING: A LONG POEM
The Word Works, Inc. To order, send $13.50 to
The Word Works, P.O.B. 42164, Washington, DC 20015
Day One, 4 AM, Castello di Montegufoni
Somewhere, an overeager rooster is crowing
to break the eggshell of day.
I wake and fumble with the unfamiliar:
an Italian coffee-maker in the castle chapel turned
Fresh in my mind, impressions of antiquity: stone
cannonballs in the courtyard, the shrine
to Mary and Baby Jesus at the gate, the grotto
with ten foot tall statue of a pre-Christian goddess
and think, astonished, I am
O everyone wants to come to Tuscany.
They come dying in October, enchanted
in April wanting not wanting
their husbands, wanting affirmation they have
not lived in vain. They buy
art in leather, pottery, plaster casts
of Davids; they buy an old farmhouse
under the Tuscan sun, seeking metaphors
for their lives, looking for light, life
giving water, the balm of blind
stone eyes. Art is long, life is short is the song
they sing. They love
the prepubescent joy of Donatello’s David,
the confidence of the newborn calf
who does not know to fear
the hunger of tigers and lions.
But the Tuscans know better: they love
Michelangelo’s David, they replicate it
all over Florence, in their gardens, on their roofs,
like a middle finger raised
in the face of Time and Entropy, as if to say,
"I am what I am. I may be killed but not vanquished, so
Death, you old thief, take your scythe and stick it
in the mud banks of the Arno."
The Silence of Cats
Before their feeding bowls,
like silent gods pondering
the failure of religion,
our two cats sit perfectly
still as Egyptian stone
statues, one gray, one black.
Their gazes pierce the air
above the empty bowls,
they miss their daily offerings.
The conjunction of cats, bowls,
emptiness and silence reminds
we have a moral contract
more binding than man-made laws:
to feed and adore them, they
to be themselves and everything
we attribute to them.
A cat's silence is pervasive
as incense as it sits after dinner
conning the essence
of linoleum by the back door.
Soon or late, a human is impelled
to open the door, hold it wide
while the cat yawns, sniffs
the night and decides he might
as well take a stroll since the door
is open, sure the world and we
will wait for his walking.
After dark, we too place ourselves
by a door and go confidently out into sleep
with the same careless assumption
that our housing will let us back in
on our return, that the world we know
waits for our waking.
-- Hilary Tham (published in MINIMUS, 1997)
Copyright © 2001 by Hilbary Tham Goldberg. All Rights Reserved