Sack of Flour, Bowl of Sugar


      My son has grown
      and is asking questions
      about Bosnia now,
      he wants to know what the country
      he was born in
      was really like
      during the time of war.

      He is reading Zlata’s Diaries
      and is determined to write about Bosnian war
      for his History Day project.

      He barely started and is already finding contradictions,
      unlike Ana Frank
      Zlata is well and lives happily
      in Paris
      from the proceeds of the book sales.

      He is reading other books too
      but they don’t answer his questions
      and neither can I
      although my memory
      is clear about
      the day our neighborhood
      looked broken
      as when a house catches fire,
      nobody repairs it for a long time,
      blackened windows stand an omen
      of worse things to come.

      Dad, why didn’t you write your own book,
      my son insists,
      at least you were there.

      Too many books were written,
      I said,
      publishers are looking for
      new diaries now
      backed by free commercials
      camouflaged as evening news.

      My silence is long, but not deliberate,
      and my son starts regretting
      that he chose Bosnian War for his
      History Day project.
      He thought he could get insider information,
      first rate stuff,
      eye witness testimony,
      but all he gets are long silences,
      incomprehensible ramblings
      by someone who stood by
      the church
      on that warm
      fall day
      and watched
      tiny green birds migrate north.



      That poem from last night about
      the colonel somewhere in Panama
      entertaining two guests at dinner
      in his cozy home,
      the scene so mundane
      that we easily overlook a pistol on the pillow,
      broken glass sticking out of the walls
      as signs of something extraordinary to
      take place. It starts when
      he yells at the parrot to shut up,
      goes somewhere, and the silence
      for a moment
      becomes so thick so heated
      you could fry eggplant in it.
      The colonel comes back, a sack
      In his hand.
      He says: “Fuck the human rights,”
      and spills a handful of human ears
      out of the sack, he takes one ear
      and puts it into a glass of water where it expands,
      the others lie on the floor
      as if listening.



      “You know what to do,” says
      the silver hair man
      in green uniform and a voice
      they could barely hear.
      Used to loud commands,
      the whisper
      makes their bellies tingle
      their spines stiff. They enter the
      school where they learned geography
      years ago and
      history, that stallion they couldn’t tame.
      Oh, school, the place
      of murmur, house filled with faded footprints.

      The rustle becomes louder
      while they are walking down the hallway
      their heads down
      as if going to math class, anticipation,
      anxiety mixed together, he
      enters the classroom,
      sees the shadow huddled
      in the corner,
      seizes hair the way
      sailor grabs rope and holds it tight,
      the worn out cloth gives way to thorny fingers,
      he hesitates for a moment
      which never ends and is brief
      her face like a violin on the wall
      soundless, mute
      his soul filled with whisper,
      will not remember afterwards,

      years later he will
      hold tight his son’s little hand
      on first day of school.



      Two families seated
      in a cozy home in Italy.
      After dinner, they sit on the terrace,
      gobble up desserts and listen
      to the gentle Adriatic hugging the shore
      dotted with olive groves
      while the war is raging in distant lands,
      cold ones and warm ones alike.
      Two little girls in long dresses
      are chasing each other on the terrace.
      Fathers are worried they may trip,
      fall, and get hurt. They warn them to slow down and
      watch their steps.
      They are responsible men,
      high-ranking officials with
      a thousand year empire under their watch.

      Men withdraw to the study
      leaving wives to their gossip,
      and daughters to their giggle.
      The host, a short man with an oiled mustache,
      opens the refrigerator,
      the invisible kind, camouflaged as a bookshelf,
      and takes a bowl out.
      “Have you seen my oysters,” he says,
      “my oysters from the Balkans?”
      Carefully, he puts the bowl on the table,
      holding it with both hands.
      removes the lid,
      steps back to admire the insides
      there it is,
      like peeled grapes,
      the jelly made of human eyes.


      Manual for Staying Awake In Meetings

      In the meeting,
      you turn in your chair and drift away
      when the topic of discussion is Payroll.
      You have no more
      affection for other agenda items,
      but Payroll throws you into state
      of dreaminess unlike anything else, and
      the conference room
      floods with horses, fire crackles and
      fishing lines, your personal collection of
      translucent things.

      You emerge to check the time
      and realize the meeting is bound to end soon,
      so you plunge back into your
      oneiric territory when you
      hear, like a distant echo: “We have a bug in our
      system, we’ve been sending
      checks to a deceased
      person for almost a year.”

      Wait a second, you think,
      this is not a fiction writing workshop,
      but a Payroll meeting. You shouldn’t
      witness extraordinary at this hour.

      Days later, you can’t stop thinking
      of this unexpected monument suspended
      in the air
      of the conference room
      to a person deceased almost a year ago
      whom nobody knew,
      and of us, unprepared to attend the service.

      You can’t stop thinking of that hand
      opening the envelope
      twice a month,
      a candle lighting ceremony
      at the doorstep instead of
      the church on the hillside.


      Before You Send Your Son to College

      You know the day is coming
      when you will have to go to these events
      because your son is a high school junior
      and he is talking about college
      every night at the dinner table.

      So, you go one evening
      to a MEFA presentation,
      you are given a brochure
      and a free pen, you are so sleepy
      through the first half
      that the rest makes no sense at all, but
      you don’t want to ask questions
      because the topic might have been already covered,
      you don’t want to look like a total fool
      among Chinese parents seriously concerned
      about their assets, equity in their homes,
      things they had worked so hard to acquire,
      all the vacations they skipped
      in order to pool the money,
      and you feel a kind of bad for them.

      Oh, yes, the MEFA person is still there,
      and you suddenly understand it all,
      she looks like a tulip.
      Some people look like their
      cats others resemble horses or hippos,
      not that you yourself weren’t compared
      to a funny animal in the past,

      but this person resembles the bright Dutch flower
      with such accuracy that
      it stings because you start thinking of tulips
      in bloom on the day your mother died.

      You turn to your right
      and look at the person next to you,
      he looks familiar too,
      you don’t know if you are making it up now,
      but he has features of Simo,
      the dog who was fed by your father,
      when your father died Simo refused to take food
      from anybody else,
      and was dead himself within three days.

      This thought torments you more
      because it isn’t covered with dust
      of the time passed,
      and you wonder how many people in the room
      feel the same pain
      for the money they will have to part with
      before they get invited to the graduation party.


      The Ballad of Patrick Moore

      Patrick Moore is the guy who sells
      firewood by the cord for one hundred
      seventy five dollars green,
      and I think I am getting
      a good deal. He is a replica of
      Gimli from Lord of the Rings,
      the same kind of beard,
      just bigger; the same kind of
      axe, just smaller. I keep telling
      him not to put white birch into the
      mix, but he won’t listen.

      Enters Billy Collins from
      Pinkletink Chimney Service
      who scoffs at espresso, coffee for sissies,
      and goes on and on about
      Nordic lands: “Winter is the only season
      worth waking up in.” I watch
      him climb the roof
      to perform chimnoscopy
      while the house is
      lulled to sleep. I mention Billy
      because sometimes I think
      that he and Patrick have a secret deal,
      more white birch, more chimney sweeping,
      as simple as that.

      It’s early morning and Patrick’s truck
      is roaring, it’s time to split, stack
      and cut kindlings
      while playing the game to score
      a point for every poem I can remember.
      I never win in this game,
      the poems flee like birds
      out of a war zone and there are
      fewer to lean on every day,
      but today is a good day
      because I saved from oblivion
      a poem by Daniil Kharms
      the one in which he says that a walnut split
      into halves reminds him of human brain,
      and for some reason that made me
      think of Patrick Moore.
      Perhaps he told me once of his
      nightmare which involved walnuts,
      or because he appears in unexpected places,
      as on the day when
      I was snowshoeing in the woods
      and I spotted him by the brook
      measuring a white birch to cut down.

      At a closer look, that’s not
      what Patrick was up to,
      he was fitting his boots
      into footmarks in snow,
      so small they could have been left
      there by elves not believed to exist
      any more.



      Norm grows tomatoes in the North Country and sells them 50c apiece. He is not in this for money, he responds to a higher purpose. He has a small chair in the middle of his garden and sits there every day. His neighbors think he’s not his old self. He talks to someone while alone, an invisible visitor or his tomatoes, they can’t tell. They think it may have something to do with his daughters who stopped visiting long ago. Laura told me all this. She has a weak spot for Norm because he saved her when, as a little girl, she fell through the thin ice of the Great Brook. This was ages ago. I am looking at him now, his lips moving. His head turns upwards and he clenches his fist. I move closer and I hear him say: “Look at them now, as red as monkey’s ass.” Today they are, tomorrow the frost will cover them with black spots. Norm knows this, of course, but right now he doesn’t care. Today is a good day for him. Today he is winning his dispute with the master of all creation.