We are walking down the streets of Warsaw. The dogs of war are growling at our passing. The Rabbi is attempting to explain how to read the Torah. He’ll buttonhole any one who will listen.
He grabs me by the collar. I can smell the sweet decaying wine on his breath. He says,
“What you have to understand is, G-d is not only old paper and ancient laws. In the book is only the revealed Torah. But the revealed Torah is not G-d. Only part of G-d.
“There is also the unrevealed Torah. You cannot understand one without the other.”
Now that he has my attention, he releases my collar, and coughs into a handkerchief. It’s more of an old rag, really. It’s a spasmic cough, long and mournful, I want to help somehow, but can only wait respectfully for him to regain his breath and continue. Finally he folds the soiled rag, and sticks it in his pocket. It disappears, one rag inside another. His coughing has set off the dogs, and from every direction comes the howling and growling of wolves. Siberians, really, wolves who do the will of men.
We pay no more mind to them than to the booming of artillery far off in the countryside, the sounds of armies, preparing, testing, honing. The sulfurous odor of gunpowder forms a backdrop, along with the barking of dogs, along with the barking of dogs, and the dust.
The dust is everywhere, dry as sun bleached bone. Even the sky can shed no tears into this inferno.
“What do you mean, the unrevealed Torah?” I ask, passing him the wine bottle to clear his throat.
“Look around you? Look, look. Open your eyes,” he replies, then takes a long gulp from the bottle. “The scriptures are written in all things.”
He gazes off, into the distance, one of those long pauses more densely packed than any paragraph of sound. I follow his eyes, and find them resting on a small tree, which is growing directly out of a cracked masonry wall, three stories up, near the roofline of an old government building in the Germanic style of some previous occupation.
It juts out first sideways, straight out from the wall, roots sinking into the mortar. Then it curves upward, reaching for the despondent sky, branches outstretched in silent pleading. Small purple flowers dot its branches, some in bloom, others in bud, and still others already drying into their decay.
“You can read this tree as scripture itself. G-d is there, and also his people. They are written in the roots, the branches, the flowers, the leaves, even the wall itself which the tree is returning to soil.
“That tree has found for itself the harshest of soil, in which to thrive. Perhaps this is our people in Egypt, increasing and multiplying in spite of, maybe even because of, Pharaoh’s burdens.
“Also, he is G-d, who declares that all things which rise out of the soil must return to the soil, each in their season.
“Above, we see this sulfurous sky, to which our speckled friend raises his arms as if a farmer begging for rain.
“But soon this sky will rain fire, having become an avenging angel. The fire will burn down the temples, both those which men have built and those which G-d has raised out of the soil. The scorched Earth will feed grasses, trees, buildings, and souls raised anew out of what has come before them.
“Nothing is destroyed by fire. Only soil, made flesh and bone and wood and masonry, becomes soil again.
“You can see this too, G-d’s little stationary Angel, taking this building down, brick by brick, breaking off and feeding from the mortar itself, soil to soil again, only so that out of the Earth can grow new and grander things.”
He disappears into a pause again. I take another deep drought off the bottle to chase the cold, then stare, transfixed by his beard of many grays, a beard which contains all of the clouds of the sky in its dark fibers. Then, as quickly as he vanished, he emerges from the caverns of his soul.
“The coming fire will consume us all. Only the hardiest of seeds will prevail. Everything which is old and dry and brittle will be reduced to ash, and become soil for the coming generations.
“I fear the knowledge of how to read the Torah, written and unwritten, revealed and unrevealed, will be lost in the coming fire. and will perhaps take many generations to be rediscovered. Already we cling to the Law, in the hopes that by its strict observance we will be saved from the coming destruction. But one can observe the Law so closely that one cannot see anything else. Not even G-d.
“So the question becomes, when this comes to pass, who will truly be responsible for the murder of G-d? Will the guilt lay only with those who seek to eradicate the faithful, and our unmediated relationship with G-d which leaves no room on our souls for the State? Or will the Chosen ourselves push the G-d who lives in all things from our sight, and replace Him with the god who is dead in the Law but can no longer speak through the Creation itself?
“Who will bring him back to Earth, after man has banished the living G-d?” After men spend generations searching for Zion, for Heaven, for Eden in some faraway place, perhaps in Jerusalem, perhaps in death, when will they discover again Heaven in the soul where the living G-d dwells within us?
In the distance, the dogs continue to howl. The thunder booms, but no rain falls. Hooves and wheels clatter on the dry bones of the street, hurrying in all directions at once.
The clouds open briefly. The purple flowers of the insouciant little misplaced tree show resplendently in sun, before the sky closes again.
The red and orange leaves are dripping the last few drops, remnants of an autumn shower that drizzled a bit of cool air over the still warm sidewalks of Alabama. In the late evening sun, shadows draw sharp contrasts to the shifting rays of orange, dappling the verdant grass of our city park, as the humidity mingles with the song of evening mockingbirds.
It is the end of summer, in that moody, mercurial weather that defines the transition to fall, as if the sky won’t quite give up warmth of summer for the ashen gray dismal dampness of a Southern winter. In between the bouts of sleep-inducing rain and afternoons that suddenly turn steamingly hot without warning, the evenings are given to shades of perfection, warm enough to shed sweaters and shoes, and cool enough to dance and sing along with the drifting leaves.
It is September, 1999, and in this park, in this town, in this weather, we are having our own summer of love. We are young, just old enough to be called adults but young enough to play, free of self-consciousness, filled with the exuberance of possibilities. A new century is a season away, and we are the generation that will welcome the new century with our adulthood.
A time for rites of passage, for experimentation, for the relentless search for self-discovery that raises us from our beds full of expectant wonder tinged with apprehension, this has been, and still is, the summer of road trips, impromptu concerts, and sudden outbursts of poetry. Every day it seems, a van arrives full of unwashed kids and unimaginable stories, or an old station wagon rolls away from the park filled with guitars and hugs and well-wishes, chasing destinations unknown, and always arriving somewhere else entirely. The possibilities are endless, and none of us can see that some day the choices we are making now will define and contract the possibilities for the future. It is a merciful blindness, for if we truly understood this we would be bound by our own confusion.
J—- has just emerged from the pond, next to the statue of a lion, and is standing regally before the fountain, staring up at the sky. He and several others have just emerged from a road trip that began in the late spring, and wandered over much of the continent. Arriving at the park from this journey, he walked directly to the water’s edge, divested himself of shirt and sandals, and slipped into the cool rippling water of the artificial pond created here at the head of a spring which once gave reason for siting a farm that became a town that became the sleepy Southern city in which we were raised, kicking and screaming, to this age of self-exploration.
Now the sun glints off his wet hair and darkly tanned skin, as water and eager questions pool on the sidewalk beneath him. The kids in the park, dirty and effervescent in this radiant evening, are trying not to crowd him with expectations, but they cannot contain the curiousity that pours from their eyes, unspoken. For now, though, it is apparent that his need is to bask in the gentle light of home, silent in his thoughts. As he stares at some point or memory unknown to the rest of us, I can see the process of organizing and analyzing the experiences of this first foray into the complete unknown. His unformed ideas are drifting across his face like clouds wandering across a gentle sky.
There will be plenty of time in the cool days of autumn for stories, for the inevitable tales that will dance from his voice, flickering with the fires of autumn camping trips.
E—- is holding back. She seems wary of leaving the van, and with that tentaive step acknowledging the end of this summer’s adventures. She sits, hands still on the steering wheel as if the bus is still travelling down interstates and highways, curving through mountain passes, each of which conceals some microcosm of joy or danger, the mood of the moment changing with every shift in the surrounding environment. Her eyes are closed, and I imagine that behind her pensive mask she is reliving the road.
Tonight we lean forth in hope,
hope which was we had forgotten the scent of
in so many long years of fear, uncertainty, and doubt,
praying that this speech will manifest more than words,
astonished at the idea that we have elected before us
a man who embodies the best in our ambitions and dreams,
instead of our worst fears, and in this evening, lay a
final blow to the artificial culture of fear which
has ruled our nation for a long and arduous decade
of declination, of disintegration, of self-destruction
at the hands of our avarice and our yearning for security.
Barack, we believe in you, our hopefulness tempered with
worry that this is all a dream, that by the cold winds of
January, nothing will have changed, but we will hold our hope.
Will you unplug the wiretaps listening to our conversations?
Will you exchange these bombs for food and sow good will in the
fertile soil of the third world, which now has been planted with mines
which can only grow hatred?
Can you change the nation, remind us that kindness and
fair wages have a place even in this nation of rugged individuals?
We pray tonight, that this dream will not end, and tomorrow
will the sun shine brighter than it has since war broke out
across the world?
Tonight I was riding through the park downtown, with my head feeling jumbled and confused, in an irritable and self-immolating mood. I rode to the edge of the park, to the place behind Embassy Suites where the old railroad bridge crosses the spring, and stared out over the running water smoking a cigarette and arguing with myself, then turned to ride back towards the square. As I rode under the bridge, a little span linking two parts of the park together with really interesting acoustics beneath, I came upon a woman sitting against the wall with her bike leaned next to her, playing the recorder. I stopped, just to nod and say hello to a fellow cyclist, and without saying anything she began to play amazing grace, soulfully and slowly, the sound rolling against the curved concrete walls. I just stood there, listening, feeling the accompanying words, which resonated deeply this night, as I am feeling wretched and saved again, and nearly came to tears.
When she finished, I said thank you, and she smiled and nodded, then I rode off, suddenly aware of the bright moon and the cool wind and the glistening of the water, thankful for the way little moments of inexplicable small grandeur can rescue me from myself.
Quiet on Friday,
infancy formed ad hoc,
of gentle and slightly
our ear cleaned of
wax and diatribe –
forever laying waste to
The banjo twangs, and
our nods and half-smiles
form a dissertation
about the ecstasy we have
sought, lost, yearned,
chased, abandoned, and
stumbled over while dragging
our feet down some
broken glass alley –
suddenly face first,
Then we were
from pothole vessels to
quench our thirst for
dirt and impurity and
Crashed down, the
cops found us,
sleeping there, in
our own bruised armed
embrace, wrapped against the
feeble wisp of cold sneaking
around, peeking from a
corner office at our
Indulgence, sister to
self-effacing, laughing demise,
screaming at streetlights
humming the rhythm of
electrified modernity, an
immaculate intensity, a
reed blown by wind, our
joy at becoming soil,
returning to the
source, with a
beer in our hand as we
watch kudzu wrap around
our swollen tired feet,
raising a toast to
dreams turned to
effluence and dust,
a last can-clenching fist
held high above the loam.
Out of that decadence, that
decay, a dandelion dances
upwards towards the gentle
breeze, scattering these
memories, these images to the
wind, broadcast to take
transitory root throughout the
earth, unconscious of
her subordination, as we
extrapolate our complicity
from an analysis of the
supply chain which
delivers 20 ounce bottles of
filtered spring water, purity
guaranteed by impure man,
quenching some of our
thirsts but not all on
sultry summer curbside
escapades, escape outings
under leaves, drooping sweating
canopies in which birds
sleep to pass the time and
leave the heat.
Canopies breathing carbon, the
exhalations of our
conditioned air and
purified water, the ashes of our
hope, our burning red-eyed
need, our unfortunate
expedient, expounded under the
rhythm of drums calling for a
war on need, a war on poverty, a
war on war.
Raise the flag, take the flag,
take no prisoners, this
war for love needs blood to
feed her. Jesus spits
bile in a hungover sink,
aching from the
last party, which lasted
2,000 years, until the
holy spirit was drained,
empty of every drop,
exuberance spilled across the
The philosophy of
smoldering in the
ashtray, ignited the
last drops of
I’m walking down the street, following vague directions towards a piano I’ve never played. The birds are chattering in the trees, lending a surround sound symphony to the settling sun. On spring evenings, the sunlight wandering through the trees is resplindant, the amber color filtering down amongst the branches to dapple the late March flowers. All the village is bathed in rippling rays of light and shadow.
Along the path, an eighth of a mile distant, I hear a bird different from the rest, straight ahead, and look up, startled by the sound of Wagner. I’ve never before heard this music played so brilliantly, so perfectly eloquent on a simple piano. The house before me resonates in the evening wind, and something between elation and utter disbelief settles in. I can’t quite comprehend the magesty of this. Looking around, turning my head side to side, I try to find if the notes are reflec ting from somewhere, but there’s no doppler effect; they are directly in front of me. I peer intently at the bamboo forest which forms the yard of 1600 Tollgate Road.
There’s a tear in my eye, then another. The emotion and sorrow and searching of these last 4 years overwhelm me through every cell. I keep walking, compelled, concious only of the pull of these musical notes dragging me forward. “Oh, G-d,” I think, “this is too much, just a little more than I can comprehend. You have got to be kidding. . . of course you are, but what a punchline!”
I wander across the pebble driveway, dragging my feet and consuming the old familiar sound of this little roadway. It leads up to the brick stairs wandering to the various doorways into this magnificent house. I can’t go through the door yet, but Seth is playing the piano magnificently, and I sit on the stairs, smoking a Newport and crying out the tears of all these broken years since the last time this old lady, this beautiful hidden house, sang out. It is a complete circle, a rebirthing, and the forests surrounding tremble and dance with the sound of these aweful and brilliant messages, a story of perserverance woven in the ancient 12 note scale, all civilization’s struggles realized in this instant of grandeur.
“Oh, Michael, we have missed your voice so much!” I say, wiping the tears from my face and trying to look more composed than my heart can possibly feel. I walk along the old pathway towards the back, where Kali’s front porch was. There are little marbles set in the concrete, leading away to that place where he lay, looking up at the night sky and at our shocked faces. We were surrounding him, White Mike pushing us back so we didn’t crowd all the air away from the injured, but nothing could halt this, a burbling spring of the blood, the wine of our family leaking away, down the backside of Tollgate, finding it’s way to the cemetary ahead of Black Mike, and us.
He radiated then, as his strength dissipated into the humus below, becoming soil for new life as he left us, slowly. No sound could come from his lips, but he told us then, not to worry; all was fine. Then he was gone, cooling in the night air. His warmth was beyond us, and the wind rose and carried the evening off to make way for our cold despair.
I shake these memories back a bit, and finally walk into Mike’s apartment, Seth’s apartment now, and look around. Of course she doesn’t look the same. She was marked with the signs and symbology of dreadlocked prophets then. Now, the decorations are more austere, clean white walls and polished floors, canonical texts neatly arrayed on shelves, but it is every inch the same rooms, I remember the old furniture and the stories attached to them.
I’m overwhelmed again, and have to sit down, attempting to maintain some composure; the tears keep coming anyways, and I don’t want to hold them, they need thier escape. We’ve held our faces against the sorrow of this emptiness, this hole in our family so long, and have been numb and slowly dying through it all, receding from our dreams, unable to continue our ambitions in the face of this.
Oh this death, a cruel ripping away the fine patriarch of our ad hoc family of wandering rabbis, has left us torn and confused, unable to converse with G-d, or hear him. We have unable or unwilling to believe that the same G-d we knew at the park could do this, would cast plague upon our house which would decimate our ranks and dim our community with the falling ashes of our charred spirit. How could Mike deserve this, so young, so brilliant, so perfect and powerful? We, who had given all of ourselves to each other and the world in the pursuit of nature’s perfect beauty, how could we deserve this? What had happened that our archangel had been taken from us?
across the tablecloth,
rickshaws of meaningless verbiage
spill themselves on checkered ground
and mingle there with drying sticky coffee
ground ashes, and spent thoughts,
empty emoting objects of
desire and loathing
left discarded under this corner of shade,
a dusty respite.
I linger too long,
hours idled away painting in
the evening shade
and horrors like
cheap late night cable imagery
and scrawlings and scribbles and
noisy bits of radio static,
a phone chirping to it’s master
breaking into the noise of shared
history, half remembered days
and hot wavering nights,
bold escapes, our first forays
into the growling mouth of
the voices before us.
I awoke near dawn,
to be a puddle,
melted in the back seat floor
of a Pontiac with no hubcaps
and no gas,
all ambition and hope
curling away from the burning light.
Peel yourself off the floor.
Run, son, but I can barely walk,
legs turned to jello and then gone rancid
beneath me sir and I cannot
move this hour, no matter how you
yell and tug.
I yearn to leave here too,
just let’s finish our beer. It’s hot out there.
Our idols are dead, and our mythology
is on the nod,
passed out on the roof of the bar,
a belt still wrapped around her arm.
It was never weird enough for you?
An empty feeling
leaves me sinking like a stone,
I want to drift but drifting I
want to hang on tight to the ground,
if just for tonight, let’s just
Lay out in that grove of trees next to the freeway
until morning or they catch up to us
whichever comes first,
they move while we sleep so we run while they rest.
Let’s get moving,
maybe if we’re far enough they won’t catch up til sunrise.
They will eat us if we ever stop.
Wavering leaves and
softly yielding jazz
settle nerves on
Arid lungs are
filled with hot,
on skin with
no space to
Energy dissipates into
There is no sense in
against this weight.
The 3 o’clock hour
calls forth a rest.
Relax before the
Descendant sun casts
expansive amber hues
across the slowly
Birds ring with song
the gentler warmth and
gauze lifts away.
Color and music
greet the cooling wind.
The steam peels away,
unwrapping the gauze and
revealing the young and