A Gifted Child

By | 1 December 2009
And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said,
If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon
into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh
forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return
in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's,
and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
–Judges 11:30-31

 

I. Genesis

It helps to have a pedigree
where life–back then–was cruel and hard,
resolved by now into a world
of West Side prep school avant-garde
and Dads who quote Foucault.
I guess that they would know

the contradictions of the world–
Great-Grandpa used to follow Marx,
and though the revolution fizzled,
it shot off very pretty sparks
above the tenement.
They usually made the rent.

And in the reeking one-room flats,
Bubi prayed to Dave Dubinsky,
went on strike, and then sent Dad
to college. He met Robert Pinsky,
and all the stars aligned
with first editions signed.

Marriage, children, teaching job,
manifestos, tenure track,
apartment on West 84th–
but there's a thing you can't get back:
The union hymns they'd sing.
‘The movement's everything,'

said Edouard Bernstein in his day,
but as time passed, the movement changed,
moved to a better neighbourhood.
The signifier became estranged
from the signified.
The sign, though, let it slide.

We've read the books by Philip Roth
and know the tensions as they stretched
throughout the sixties. What's unsaid
is what became of who came next.
La lutte continue.
If only that were true!

And she was born in ‘85,
a babbling thing. Recall the verse.
‘'Let there be light!' And there was light.'
Note, if you will, the universe
began, as we've all heard,
not with Big Bang, but Word.
 

II. Exodus

Then she left home, the clanking downtown A,
the New York scenes we know,
to head to heathen lands out West.
‘Let my people go',
though not unto the mythic Promised Land,
but to the lecture hall
and student cafeteria
with fliers on the wall.

The ghetto residents, just blocks away,
are poor and quite bereft
of what goes on within those walls.
‘But I'm Aesthetic Left!
I do my bit with words and photographs,
with papers and critique.
I'd stay and chat, but I'm afraid
I've got an exam next week.'

The leftists, sagging with their flyers' weight
of exclamation marks
can blend into the background, but
something in her harks
to what they're saying in their tones
of righteousness and rage.
The slender boy who talks to her
looks about her age.

Was her rejoinder parroting a line
inherited like looks
(dark-haired, gray eyes, a heart-shaped face)
or all those fucking books
that she had read before she graduated
top of a top-flight class.
Is hers a revelation, or
just talking out her ass?

She thinks about the kid, the leftie paper,
the spittle on his lips,
the protest that she won't attend,
the classes that he skips.
It's not her problem. All that stuff's passé.
The proletariat
was good enough for grandma, but
it's time to bury it

with geriatric Stalinists back home
who rotted in their flats
not far away from where she lived.
Want to end up like that?
God, no, it's all utopia, and she
is willing to resign
red flags and the May Day march
for the banner of the Sign.

You see, she'll take the system from within,
and if it seems too staid,
she knows about the body, and
she might even get laid
amid the throbs of Underground Du Jour.
She knows it all by heart.
Love is an ideology
like post-Romantic art.

And if she tells her parents what she's seen
or that she knew a man
as Zipporah knew Moses, well,
she knows they'll understand.
The things they say when up for peer review
can sound a little mad,
but on the phone at dinner time,
they really aren't bad,

and in the end, it comes down to support
from parent, friend, or mentor
who knows the dean or publisher,
is slightly left-of-centre,
and knows the proper way to woo a girl,
papers to sign in hand
for what comes next back in New York
or a distant Holy Land.

And sometimes, when the iPod's blaring out
that song she loves to sing,
the rhythm shakes her slender bones.
The backbeat's lilting swing
is sensual, of course, but in a way
that's simple, not transgressive.
Who cares what it represents,
explicit or suggestive.

Within the changes of the 1-4-5,
She's still a smiling child
dancing to the Rolling Stones.
Her mother even smiled
as she cavorted through the living room
and past the kitchen door.
Her smiles came easy in those days–
she wishes she smiled more.

Were it that simple! Everybody knows
about the social text
inscribed with horror from the past
or the sell-out that comes next,
so gird the surge of feeling with a smirk
of knowing irony,
as the coda starts to fade
in grand futility.

As the notes reverberate, she pushes,
testing the song's dimensions.
The Christians say the road to Hell
is paved with good intentions.
And when did curiosity transform
into mournful knowing?
The bus to school is pulling in.
She really must be going.
 

III: Leviticus

She keeps the father's faith in the avant-garde,
the tribe of misfits in the wilderness,
scratches of verse, a rudimentary canon,
and outcast snobbery, a course that ran on
to sandscapes and a Chosen people, barred
from settling down, forced to still transgress

against the same old tired Establishment.
It's not the 1960s anymore;
the paths run smoother now, and she can feel
the pebbles smoothed beneath her feet. What's ‘real',
though, is a thought experiment,
a posture and perception at its core.

So many excommunications come
from places well outside the synagogue
or church or mosque. The sentinels of Gog
note the armies gathering at the gate
with words of quick salvation to the drum
of battering rams. She hopes it's not too late.

Heresy's the merest cataract
within a delta flowing to the sea–
the Nile reintegrates the narrow stream.
It is the captive's ever-present dream
to run from Pharaoh, though we know, in fact
she'll end back in the mainstream, probably.

The desert, on the other hand, is dry,
a place of hermits and eccentric creeds,
of grim commandments and a wild-eyed prophet
speaking for God … Really. Oh, come off it!
We say ‘language'. The rabbis say ‘the sky'.
Either way, I guess it meets our needs.

What do we need? Some laws, a rigid stricture,
a covenant to help us persevere.
The regulations sometimes seem… eccentric.
But hey, they aren't crass and Eurocentric–
but come from oppression. Yes, you get the picture,
although the picture's what you see–or hear?

There is no mannequin to represent
the grim Creator; all we have is Word,
a relayed vision, a guarded tabernacle,
an ankle's distant memory of a shackle.
But is it real? Just asking … ‘I repent!'
That question is beside the point. Absurd.

Some forty years since 1968.
The desert starts to feel like home, the wind,
harsh with sand, caresses like a lover.
Storms ahead, but she's unused to cover.
Her generation came a bit too late
to understand the ways her parents sinned.

And where the hell's the radical other now?
Shirking its duties as the dialectic
negates its own negation in the waste,
a matter of politics–or is it taste?
She'll try to reach the other side somehow
as the prophets grow more apoplectic.

And Mom and Dad would pore through the submissions
that came by mail when she was just a child,
laughing at the also-rans, and sighing
at someone else too obviously trying
to be like them. But all of their transmissions
(subliminal of course) were quickly filed

into the folders of her mind. She knew
they wanted more of her than academics
searching for the tenured job with scribbles
dashed off with a minimum of quibbles
but aiming to slip through the peer review.
The problem, they would say, is all systemic.

But here she is, their greatest protégée,
in cap and gown, scared out of her wits
at somehow failing of an early promise,
dreading the lunch of Zinfandel and hummus.
Solicitous and decent in their way,
their well-intentioned pressure gives her fits–

or rather nervous tics as she surveys
the blasted landscape spreading from the gate
into the city. Christ, she wants a joint–
or maybe just a hint of what the point
of all this is–the disapproving gaze
at what is hers, inherited too late.
 

IV. Numbers

She, I guess, could be the voice
for a latter generation,
a requisite degree,
a well-known family.
But how to speak … now that's a choice
provoking perspiration.
Straight protest? Talk some sense!
There is this conference

taking place next spring at Yale.
It's all in the connections
and good for the CV.
With no advanced degree
(not yet), but not beyond the pale
with Mom and Dad's affections
and clear accomplishment,
the letter soon gets sent.

Faced off against the corduroys,
she grips the bottled water
and somehow holds her own,
although not quite alone.
The topic's ‘mentorship'; her poise
is one of mother's daughter.
Although she steals the show,
who the hell would know?

Written up on the internet,
a minor publication
for the participants,
a pleasant happenstance
for rebels who have not, as yet
founded a new nation
on radical sisterhood.
But fuck it. Life is good.

And if they launch an anguished kvetch
that draws on backlash theory,
it's all a bit abstract,
since we all know, in fact,
that funds come through, and if they retch
when politics turn dreary,
it isn't quite their lot.
Just look at what they've got:

Graduate students, tenured jobs,
gifted kids and spouses
who make a living wage
both on and off the page.
And if they gesture at the slobs
who can't afford their houses,
well, that's for history
(whatever that might be).

All seminars are ‘critical',
and every text ‘transgresses'
in a subversive whirr.
But where does that leave her?
Fighting off the cynical
assumptions of addresses
in each colloquium
as mounting tedium

rejects the carapace she finds
enveloping her parents
and everyone she knows.
But that's the way it goes.
It's less a meeting of the minds
than paths gone slightly errant,
veered from an early goal
and that thing once called ‘soul'.

She takes it in and in good stride.
The setting is familiar.
Christ, she's from New York!
As the bottle's cork
arcs across the room, her snide
doubts appear peculiar,
a momentary blip.
She's won a fellowship

to go abroad and find herself
in some grand ancient city
surrounded by great art.
It's bound to be the start
of something better than a shelf
of trophies that look pretty.
The doubts, as yet, still lurk,
so this had better work.
 

V. Deuteronomy

The Grand Canal's no Jordan, she reflects.
No Promised Land lies on the other side.
It's just a fucking postcard after all
for Mom and Dad to tack up on a wall,
and still the words won't come. The mind rejects
the sense of being chosen and the pride  

that father's watching, though she let him down,
a sin she only faintly understands
that he won't mention, maybe doesn't know,
that's either recent or from long ago.
‘Fuck him, fuck them, their stupid-ass renown!'
she thinks, and she regards her trembling hands.  

It isn't getting better, and her doubt
isn't just ennui as she would hope
in summer days before she got this work
in Europe. But it's harder, now, to shirk
that sense that one can never quite get out
of what she signifies. Best just to cope.  

Off-season Venice turns to a museum,
a symbol of itself, with gondolas
and churches and a square and that strange stink
that rises from the water. At the brink
of something … what the fuck … there may be freedom
in someone else's era. But because  

the journey took so long, the destination
is just another pit stop on the way
to … what? Another internship, a culture
of landmarks, books, and avant-gardist sculpture?
It's just another overstuffed vacation.
More of the same. Besides, today's the day.  

The vodka bottle's plastic, and the pills
are over-the-counter, purchased in a rush.
She'd felt a covert buzz when she got back
and set the items by a tottering stack
of books and magazines. The giddy thrills
of possibility turned to a hush …   

Jephthah, stained with blood, victorious
and heavy with fatigue, went up the path
that led him homeward. Israel was preserved.
His cause was won, the Chosen People served.
His service had been meritorious.
He never would have guessed the aftermath.  

She pours a glass and pours the pills across
the table. As she swallows through her tears,
she thinks about her parents and the hope
too overwhelming now for her to cope
with, even face. ‘Well, that's a total loss!'
Twenty-some-odd years are ending. ‘Cheers!'  

Beyond the water lie luxurious flats
and other problems lie behind the light
that twinkles in between the gondolas
as dusk obscures the view from her, from us.
She takes another swig, and then that's that.
Stagger to the futon, and good night.  

‘Who is that on the edge of sight?' the judge
wonders, as he contemplates the life
he tried to save. His daughter's quick embrace
hides the sudden grimace on his face
at hasty promises, a tardy grudge
toward the sharpened sacrificial knife.  

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