We present this work in honor of the poet’s 105th birthday.
The crocodile, with cunning smile, sat in the dentist’s chair. He said, “Right here and everywhere my teeth require repair.” The dentist’s face was turning white. He quivered, quaked and shook. He muttered, “I suppose I’m going to have to take a look.” “I want you”, Crocodile declared, “to do the back ones first. The molars at the very back are easily the worst.” He opened wide his massive jaws. It was a fearsome sight— At least three hundred pointed teeth, all sharp and shining white. The dentist kept himself well clear. He stood two yards away. He chose the longest probe he had to search out the decay. “I said to do the back ones first!” the Crocodile called out. “You’re much too far away, dear sir, to see what you’re about. To do the back ones properly you’ve got to put your head Deep down inside my great big mouth,” the grinning Crocky said. The poor old dentist wrung his hands and, weeping in despair, He cried, “No no! I see them all extremely well from here!” Just then, in burst a lady, in her hands a golden chain. She cried, “Oh Croc, you naughty boy, you’re playing tricks again!” “Watch out!” the dentist shrieked and started climbing up the wall. “He’s after me! He’s after you! He’s going to eat us all!” “Don’t be a twit,” the lady said, and flashed a gorgeous smile. “He’s harmless. He’s my little pet, my lovely crocodile.”
Some have God’s words; others have songs of comfort for the bereaved. If I can pluck courage here, I would like to speak directly to the dead—the September dead. Those children of ancestors born in every continent on the planet: Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas…; born of ancestors who wore kilts, obis, saris, geles, wide straw hats, yarmulkes, goatskin, wooden shoes, feathers and cloths to cover their hair. But I would not say a word until I could set aside all I know or believe about nations, wars, leaders, the governed and ungovernable; all I suspect about armor and entrails. First I would freshen my tongue, abandon sentences crafted to know evil—wanton or studied; explosive or quietly sinister; whether born of a sated appetite or hunger; of vengeance or the simple compulsion to stand up before falling down. I would purge my language of hyperbole; of its eagerness to analyze the levels of wickedness; ranking them; calculating their higher or lower status among others of its kind. Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts. Because the dead are free, absolute; they cannot be seduced by blitz. To speak to you, the dead of September 11, I must not claim false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear, knowing all the time that I have nothing to say—no words stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you have become. And I have nothing to give either—except this gesture, this thread thrown between your humanity and mine: I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through the darkness of its knell.
Not while the snow-shroud round dead earth is rolled, And naked branches point to frozen skies.— When orchards burn their lamps of fiery gold, The grape glows like a jewel, and the corn A sea of beauty and abundance lies, Then the new year is born. Look where the mother of the months uplifts In the green clearness of the unsunned West, Her ivory horn of plenty, dropping gifts, Cool, harvest-feeding dews, fine-winnowed light; Tired labor with fruition, joy and rest Profusely to requite. Blow, Israel, the sacred cornet! Call Back to thy courts whatever faint heart throb With thine ancestral blood, thy need craves all. The red, dark year is dead, the year just born Leads on from anguish wrought by priest and mob, what undreamed-of morn? For never yet, since on the holy height, The Temple’s marble walls of white and green Carved like the sea-waves, fell, and the world’s light Went out in darkness,—never was the year Greater with portent and with promise seen, Than this eve now and here. Even as the Prophet promised, so your tent Hath been enlarged unto earth’s farthest rim. To snow-capped Sierras from vast steppes ye went, Through fire and blood and tempest-tossing wave, For freedom to proclaim and worship Him, Mighty to slay and save. High above flood and fire ye held the scroll, Out of the depths ye published still the Word. No bodily pang had power to swerve your soul: Ye, in a cynic age of crumbling faiths, Lived to bear witness to the living Lord, Or died a thousand deaths. In two divided streams the exiles part, One rolling homeward to its ancient source, One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart. By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled, Each separate soul contains the nation’s force, And both embrace the world. Kindle the silver candle’s seven rays, Offer the first fruits of the clustered bowers, The garnered spoil of bees. With prayer and praise Rejoice that once more tried, once more we prove How strength of supreme suffering still is ours For Truth and Law and Love.
We stand in the rain in a long line waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work. You know what work is—if you’re old enough to read this you know what work is, although you may not do it. Forget you. This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another. Feeling the light rain falling like mist into your hair, blurring your vision until you think you see your own brother ahead of you, maybe ten places. You rub your glasses with your fingers, and of course it’s someone else’s brother, narrower across the shoulders than yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin that does not hide the stubbornness, the sad refusal to give in to rain, to the hours of wasted waiting, to the knowledge that somewhere ahead a man is waiting who will say, “No, we’re not hiring today,” for any reason he wants. You love your brother, now suddenly you can hardly stand the love flooding you for your brother, who’s not beside you or behind or ahead because he’s home trying to sleep off a miserable night shift at Cadillac so he can get up before noon to study his German. Works eight hours a night so he can sing Wagner, the opera you hate most, the worst music ever invented. How long has it been since you told him you loved him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words, and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you’re too young or too dumb, not because you’re jealous or even mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no, just because you don’t know what work is.
You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions Isak Dinesen
I never had a farm in Africa, nor was I at the hills of Ngong, and perhaps because I was a rebellious youth, I refused to read the book. Isak was a country on my mind, never a body skinny and consumed by the syphilis, an echoless shadow the grass cut through without any perceived musicality.
For years I held the book in my hand and my hands would tremble. I recall the rain falling over the prairies. If I closed my eyes I would see those men lingering at sunset, seen from that false luminosity that only the written page can give.
Death moved the doors. The lover or the money vanished like leaves. I never had a farm in Africa; I never felt the smell of coffee invading the rooms at sunrise. There were only lions occupying my sleep, their roaring was the only memorable thing as I awoke.