Twentieth Century Requiem
for Henry R. Schepp (1908-2001)
If you had been beside me, sleepless
or chilled by the sudden violence
of the winds, maybe you’d have walked
here with me, or come after
to see what kept me standing in the night–
you’d see nothing. Only, what
dissolves: dark to dawn, shore to wave,
wings to fog, branch to light:
the vague design that doesn’t come
from me, yet holds me
to it, just as you might, another time.
David St. John, from “Until the Sea is Dead”
Strike a match, the century is almost over. The dead
sit up in their chairs; willows fan out to listen.
Rocking chairs creak: a long awaited sigh
moves across the porches of the world.
People are ready for travel: empty seats wait
for everyone at J.F.K. International. . .
I worked three jobs and still had no money:
there is no time or place
for love. I stood staring for hours
at death: heads of corpses, wheelbarrows of ash
nodding toward the waiting Earth.
My grandchildren sleep inside of me.
I will never forget my Mother’s
sense of humor. I will never
You were stoned and beaten
in New York’s Lower East Side,
a young Jewish immigrant
only eight years old.
You walked home, wiped away the blood
and sat down to read with your brothers,
who shared with you
the truth of the written word . . .
I loved her brown eyes and dark Irish hair. Sometimes
I swear I could see the moon
rise in her skin. We met
because I was selling shoes
in Akron, Ohio, and she loved shoes.
I could count on her coming to the store
at least once a week. I swear, the first time I saw her
my heart was lost forever.
Anyway, she must have had an eye for me, too,
for she invited me to play bridge
one Saturday night with another couple. Would you believe
that both this couple and she
didn’t know a thing about bridge?
So I spent the rest of the night teaching them
to play bridge, and I fell in love.
My oldest brother, Red, told me years later
that he knew we would get married
the day he found us
on opposite sides of the living room
sitting on davenports, each of lost in a book.
The air around us is heavy
like a fine mist of oil, and smells
like a kettle
of soup left on the stove
since early morning. Church bells
rinse the trunks
and branches of the sycamores:
a congregation of leaves
left on the ground.
The presence of God
is everywhere, like the unseen
language of a dream: people
cut roses and pick
tomatoes: a young couple washes
a dog in a baby pool. A black widow
is busy at work on its web
which blooms between the gutters
of a two-story colonial
and a young red maple. Every natural
is a state of mind: the sky’s ability
to sing throbbing down
through the branches
and out from the lips
of the grass.
You are late, strike a match,
the century is almost over. Newborn children
stop crying on cue: even the guns
are quiet, the air around them moving
through the leaves
like hands sifting through grain.
You unloaded boxcars of watermelons
in Akron, Ohio, sometimes earning a dollar a day
and sometimes soup and bread.
You never complained: you dressed in rags . . .
The century watched as you turned sixteen
and stepped on a train bound for Chicago, Illinois,
unloaded a shipload of Canadian whiskey
and a stranger handed you a hundred-dollar bill.
In America, he told you, no one can touch you
if you have money.
Imagine the looks on our faces
when the drill sergeant told us to grab a bridle
and go get ourselves a horse.
Most of us were from the city
and had never ridden a horse. A few of the braver men
ventured over the fence and started chasing horses.
Most guys ended up with a mouth full of dust
and a lot of laughter in their ears. Before long, however,
most of us were out there too, chasing horses around.
We were a sight to see.
Did you know we were the last
of the cavalry? After us,
the army phased us out for good.
What the hell. Everything ends sometime.
I suppose it’s like that when we pass away.
We are each given a bridle and told to go out
and pick a horse. Anyway, it probably doesn’t matter:
riding horses is hard work.
The light appears to bounce off the rooftops
and the blue jays begin to dart and screech
as the sun rises and burns
away the stars. I think
I can see her watering carnations
beside the house, her feet
covered by a puddle of grass,
her legs set off by a backdrop
of marigolds. Across the ocean,
in Africa, I board a plane with orders
for the allies to invade Sicily.
Never again would I feel myself
to be such a part of the breadth
of the world, never again would the memory
of that light bring so much:
this small town with robins and marigolds,
her words in my pocket a game of chance
only time would unfold.
Strike a match, the century is almost over.
The gray whales
from Alaska to California
change their songs — everyone begins to drink
black coffee and read Chaucer, forgive
each other’s sins, and ride bareback to mountain cabins
without running water.
The ships that left the United States on their way
to North Africa
were packed with soldiers.
The worst place to be was below deck, sometimes up to five
decks below the surface. Down there,
you could count on getting killed
if the ship was hit by a German submarine. I can remember
placing my hand on the metal, the ship’s side:
you could feel the water rushing by, the sheet metal here
less than an inch thick. I will never forget that.
It scared the hell out of all of us.
We spent most of our time
gambling: huge crap games that went
into the thousands of dollars. The winners
would run immediately to the chaplain
and give him their money
in case they were killed.
We come here, ship after ship,
die on these shores, and still
we are left without answers.
Why do we pray?
We ask, again and again,
if we find ourselves dead
on this hill, beneath these stars,
how long will we sleep?
You will sleep beneath a black moon:
I will take you in my arms and breathe
into your eyes. You must believe
there is a rhythm, a sequence
you must follow: your home
which is never far: your body
a little puddle filled
I believe in asking questions.
A person who doesn’t think about the world
is going to end up in trouble.
It has always been this way.
Is the world a frightening place to you?
it was to me, when I was your age.
I’m old now. I’ve outlived everybody.
I remember when I was a drill sergeant
in charge of the firing range
a young soldier ran up to me
and stuck the barrel of his rifle
right in my face. I grabbed it, moved it out of the way,
and it fired, shattering the drum of my left ear.
I was so god damned mad
I nearly killed him. What the hell.
That was a long time ago.
I can hear all right. I like to sit here
and look out my window,
wonder why everyone is in such a hurry.
I can’t complain. I have everything I need.
Believe it, burn a candle — sing — the century
is almost over.
The painters have cleaned their brushes;
the guitars are in tune. Now, it is time
for dancing, for anything
we haven’t done before,
for everything we’ll do again.