WHAT SURVIVES

After the Army, after the Ph.D. in Astrophysics
you started work at Lincoln Labs,
settled into your first apartment
and got a Siamese cat named after Wanda Landowska
and an antique Italian harpsichord.

In that tiny, dark kitchen, with a copy of Escoffier,
you began teaching yourself to cook.
Your mother was delighted–
sent you a stream of pots and pans,
skillets, strainers and steamers,
soufflé dishes, mixing bowls, baking pans,
and a full set of German kitchen knives.

And oh, the gadgets! Egg-beater, sauce whisk,
lemon-zester, cheese-grater and garlic press,
and that melon-baller!
For making fruit salad, I guess…
One end of it to carve out small moons,
the other–larger–to fashion planets.

Where I live now,
only this, of all your dowry, survives.
Most of the handle’s cheery red paint
has flaked off. Humble among implements
of stainless and Teflon,
it sleeps at the back of the drawer.

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SPECIAL

In a flowerbed of white
and purple tulips
one maverick flames
orange and gold.
A sport–a rebel?

Perhaps just
happenstance–
the grower’s hands
in a hurry to pack up
the bulbs for shipment.

As a child, I aspired
to be a prodigy–
to dance or write, paint
or play the piano
so brilliantly
the world would gaze on me
with wonder.

I practiced hard
but the world
went right on spinning.
Good, but never good enough,
never Mozart
or even his gifted sister.

Then, the summer I turned
thirteen, I suddenly
grew five inches. Became
too tall, too old, to be
that wunderkind.

Mid-May now–and see:
the tulips are all fading–
the flame-colored one too:
no more special now
than the others.

Instructions

From The New York Times Magazine,
April 2017

Move quickly:
the odds of survival
are highest if you get out
in the first 60 seconds.

Don’t open the door.

If there are children present
unfasten them from the back seat.
Push them out the window,
oldest ones first.

In a submersion study
from the University of Manitoba
three passengers were typically
able to exit
with a child mannequin
in just 53 seconds.

Electric car windows
will likely continue to work
after impact with water. Still,
keep a small glass-breaking tool
on your key-ring or hanging
from the rearview mirror,
just in case.

NO END

Some mornings as the sun streams across the bedclothes
and the cat’s hot body presses against my back
and I lie safe and blessed
the terrible old question arises again:
why do I have this life, and not some other?

I could be a Nigerian migrant, jammed into a leaky boat
off the shores of Greece
I could be a mother in a refugee camp, giving birth in a tent,
or a Syrian child who has to labor in the potato fields

Possibilities are almost endless.
Tell me, why am I safe and warm here when at this very moment
a woman somewhere is having her genitals cut?
And why aren’t I the undocumented Mexican, stumbling through snow
to get to the Canadian border?
Or the boy outside Rio scrambling on a steaming garbage dump,
scavenging for metal?
Why am I lying here while that other old woman, born the same year
is lying on the pavement in Lahore?

For that matter, nearer home, there’s the old friend going blind,
and the other one who is
quietly losing what’s left of her mind.
You don’t have to look far: suffering is plentiful,
inequity everywhere
It’s like the Sahara, encroaching on the land,
the sands advancing further each season
over the barren fields.

TOUCH

As he combs out my wet hair
the hairdresser’s stout chest
presses against my shoulder

and at the dentist’s yesterday
–her latex-covered fingers
probing my mouth-

I felt, despite the armor
of her white coat, that
animal heat. Impersonal,

these touches, but so
redolent and deep, like
sleeping side by side

breathing in each other’s warmth.
I mean, what else are we if not
these bodies? In such accidental

encounters discovering again
the first language
we’re all born knowing.

THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY

I.

At night the fire-escape rungs
throw shadows on the nursery floor.
like prison bars There’s no escaping
the faces staring in—the bad men
coming to snatch me. No use calling—
“Don’t you dare get out of bed!” Fraulein says,
(My only comfort that special place
between my thighs. My secret. Bad girl…
“Don’t touch!” she warns. )

Four blocks north in Yorkville, New York’s German section,
Bruno Hauptmann builds a crude ladder in his attic, hides
it in the bushes near the Lindbergh’s country house.
Baby Charles has been tucked in by his nanny. Almost two,
he already has his famous father’s dimpled chin.
Later, Hauptman writes. “The child is safe in gut care,”
“We warn you for making anyding public.
Do not talk to police.” It’s March, 1932.

Five years old, what did I know? Only the smell of fear
seeping through the apartment. Fraulein and the cook
whispering in German. Peter and I sip our Ovaltine.
Fraülein knits, listening to Father Coughlin rant
on the radio. She’s covered Fritz the canary’s cage
with a dark cloth to keep him quiet.

They call it “The Crime of the Century.” Dead, the baby is,
all that time. The body, not found for two months,
buried hastily in the woods, with a fractured skull.
“The child is mit 2 women,” Hauptman writes.
“They are taking care of him. I must haf the money.”
Much later, the trial—conviction—execution.
The police had made a mess of it: no fingerprints,
only that ladder. And some boot-prints in the mud.

II.

I outgrow my Shirley Temple curls, become
a little Swiss girl with a bob. I speak German at home,
French in school. Peter prepares for his Bar Mitzvah—
I listen in, add “Shema Israel” to my nightly prayers–proud
to address God in so many languages. Sundays, I often
go to Mass with Fraülein. It’s 1937. Hitler. it seems,
doesn’t like Jews.I imagine confronting him, just us two,
my black eyes blazing with righteousness
to convince him he’s making a terrible mistake.

“America First,” that’s what Lindbergh believes—preferably
Anglo-Saxon. He admires Mussolini and Hitler, at least
for a time. Just after Kristallnacht, he writes
“We must limit to a reasonable amount
the Jewish influence…Whenever the Jewish
percentage of a total population becomes too high,
a reaction seems to invariably occur…”

Later on, my mother used to see him at parties.
He was just as attractive as everyone said—
that slow Midwestern voice, his good manners,
that deep cleft in his chin.

TURKEYS

Pompous as politicians
they drift across the road
stopping traffic, haunt
suburban shrubbery,
their bronzed black plumage
ominous, shiny with self-regard.
Above those bulbous bodies
their silly little heads
swivel like radar, scouting.
So conscience some days
in its dark-feathered habit
arrives on stealthy feet
to inspect my secret garden,
eager to snap up whatever
grubby evidence
you may have dropped.

Drop it!

we used to say to the dog,
as he mouthed over and over
his ragged beloved tennis ball–
how he wanted, wanted us to
throw it– but that meant
having to let it go.

Gray, frayed,
stinking of slobber, the ball
was just too precious to give up.
Until memory kicked in–
the throw, the arc, the rush
of capture, and then at last
the praise, Good dog!
— outraced his need to hang on.

Drop it! I tell myself,
my terrier heart filled with
worn-out need. So hard
to let go–not knowing, over
and over, what will happen next.

Please go to “Publications” page, for news of “TRAVELING LIGHT”,  my new collection.  Copies available at http://www.antrimhousebooks.com, or gzetzel@gmail.com.

WORDS THESE DAYS

scatter like sparrows
bolting off the feeder–to return
sometimes or be gone
for good–the name of
the author whose book
you’re dying
to recommend to a friend,
that movie you saw last week–
it was great
but what was it about?
Gone like last Sunday’s article
about climate change…
You live with this flock
of absences
patching up when you can
the old patchwork quilt
with whatever scraps come to hand.
And when le mot juste fails
to appear except in the middle of
the night or at breakfast
two days too late–ah yes, then
at the dentist’s–
your mouth open wide
as the probing steel tiptoes
in and out of your molars–
there it is.