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Poems
By Amittai Aviram

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The poems presented on this Web site, www.amittai.com, are the property of the author, Amittai Aviram, amittai aviram at gmail dot com. All rights are reserved. Copyright © 2002. Do not copy or distribute these poems without including this statement, with the author's name, copyright date, URL, and e-mail address.

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Uncollected Poems

Poems by Amittai Aviram


Rainbow Over Bamberg

" ... with great awe, and with signs, and with wonders" (Deut. 26:8)

Can promises be kept and never broken?
I watched you come out running in the rain,
American, glance up at our soft sky,
Then higher — to the giant arch of light
And color, vaporous, yet smooth, stretched tight
Beyond this planet's ends, a stellar sigh.
The red, gold, green, blue, plum, its sweet refrain,
Spelled in your heart a wondrous, riddling token.

Was it just so the ancients thought they saw
Unearthly feet treading a sapphire dome?
And in a many-colored banner read
A whispered vow whose tones would never fade?
And yet they do — down there, where vows are made.
You didn't see me watching you from home,
But ran, eyes now on earth, now overhead.
I couldn't but feel awestruck at your awe.

For me, it is a thing of every day.
I see it right outside my window, here,
Up here, as you would say, where I now dwell
In stillness, gazing down to see things move,
As if the world compelled or could behoove
With promises. The motion casts its spell
On me, too, as I shield my eyes in clear
Weather from colors' glare, to see your way.

I used to live down there, too — back in time.
It was a lovely place, until the day
Young thugs in uniform were all the rage,
And neighbors shut their doors, friends hurried past.
The kids with F's in school now had a blast,
Forcing the teacher's door — his mom's grey age,
Dragged tumbling down the stairs, made her fair play
For kicks around the cobblestones. No crime.

We wore big badges in those days — those stars
Of one plain color — so that those who live
Next door and see us every day should know
Us finally for what we really are.
Strange thing, to read so much into a star
Of cloth — enough to read the sign below
The face, and turn your eyes away, and give
No second glance toward friends in cattle cars.

I saw you, by the way, American,
Once in Berlin, and jogging that time, too.
You paused before the synagogue — restored,
Splendid in bright red brick and gilded trim.
You pondered the inscription — David's hymn
In ancient Hebrew letters — and you pored
Over its spiky shapes between the two
Arched doorways, whose wood doors swing free again.

A plaque thanks a policeman who, alone,
Fought the flames back when crowds of torches burned,
One glassy-cold November night. I stood
And watched you as you took a few steps back,
Darting your eyes from gilded towers to plaque,
In awe. I made a sign, as if you could
Have known my face, but, running past, you turned
Your eyes away — fleet thing of blood and bone.

I know that you will never hear these words,
That we will never meet — and yet I say
I promise you, this rainbow that you saw
Will come again to spread across the skies,
Though, it may be, not for your living eyes.
One end will touch New York, the other draw
Past old Jerusalem, up from my day
Of darkness toward soft light, round heavenwards.

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Programmer, Facing Deadline, Dashes Poem Off in Source Code Comment Block

For Brian

/* As night draws on, some bug persists —
An ogre draped in fog and mists;
An error, haunting like a wraith,
Reminds me to awake my faith —

Stone after stone, long nights and days,
To build this labyrinthine maze,
Remove the threads that mark the route,
And see: will hero or bull come out?

Thousands before this night have made
The million parts, whose labors fade
Into this little box that speaks
Like some weird oracle of the Greeks,

And I, one more devout, who sweats
And toils — yet by these piled diskettes,
By clicking mouse and clattering keys,
I witness unseen mysteries. */

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Programmer's Domestic Partner, A Music Scholar, Dashes Poem Off On Napkin as Dinner Cools

For Tal

We stood together on the bridge
One February night,
And heard the river rushing past —
The chill breeze seemed but slight —

We held hands, as you told the story
Of your last night's dream;
You gestured, and your watch — come loose —
Fell to the rushing stream.

It was a gift from long ago —
"No matter," though, you smiled,
"Some day a fish will swallow it,
In downstream narrows wild;

"A fisherman will catch that fish
And haul it in to sell;
The cleaner'll trade it as a fine
Antique, and do quite well,

"And, someday, two just like ourselves,
Tourists, will come to town,
Wander into an antique shop,
And buy the watch, and down

"Toward the river, holding hands,
They'll stroll, and, half across
This bridge, they'll hear the river rush.
They'll never know our loss."

That's what you said — or rather, words
You spoke once, in my dream,
After I'd studied German Lieder
By the tome and ream —

And now, as dinner waits, I hear
That river rushing past
And wish that evening on the bridge
Had stayed, and still could last,

Except that then you'd never burst
In late, and tell, eyes tired,
And hear, what wonders each has found
In all the time required.

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Keep Your Day Job

The house was drafty and the rent past due.
The poet leaned over the marked manuscript,
Peering in search of the right word, until

The cat bestowed his languid bulk of fur
Opaquely across the page. Gusts howled outside.
The house was drafty and the rent past due.

Beside the page, piled on the kitchen table,
Among late bills, third notices, dire warnings,
Rejection slips littered autumnal colors

On snowy paper hills. The poet leaned,
Wanting to be inside his very poem,
Wanting to live his poem's sweet desire,

Leaned late and long, peering around dark fur,
Upon the leaves of his marked manuscript,
Finding himself, alone in his poverty,

As if he were the very script of longing,
Desires character. The clock ticked.
The wind was howling. Soon it would grow dark.

Yes, in the waning light, while the clock ticked,
The cats tail flipped and slapped the page, the wind
Moaned outside, bearing a few dry leaves,

A whispered syllable would come to him,
Alone, and make him lean his head to hear,
To harken to its longing for his soul.

The dark would close, the cat would rise and stretch,
and he, carried adrift, a falling leaf,
would lean and listen late into the night.

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The Wanderer

Þæs overeode, þisses swa sceal. (“That has passed, so shall this.”) —Deor

1.
The research library stood right downtown—
I see it still, though this was long ago—
Hard by that tower of Biblical renoun—
And there I stowed clay tablets, row by row.

That’s how my scholarly career began,
When I was hardly out of school. It took
More brawn than brains, as down the aisle I ran,
Heaving the tower of clay that was each book.

The library of Babel’s fifty floors
Held, each, a thousand rows; each row, ten stacks;
Each stack, ten shelves; and on each shelf, in fours,
Clay tablets, pressed with marks, on fronts and backs --

All in the language that we all then spoke,
All written in the same, wedge-spangled form.
Meanings were clear. No allegory’s cloak
Obscured the sense. Plain sense remained the norm.

In short, each book, each tablet, line, and word,
And every mark was everywhere the same;
And meant the same. (I know, it sounds absurd.)
All signs proclaimed, as one, our single name.

It seemed like such a good idea back then:
We understood each other perfectly.
Alike in word and deed, the women, men,
And children knew no shame. We could not see

How language all the same was language dead.
Meanwhile, our ringing name, so magnified,
Cracked tower walls and toppled its high head,
Scattering bricks and bodies far and wide.

Our single word was shattered into dust
Like a clay tablet that some student drops.
I struggled hard to learn new words. I cussed
The foreign babble and barbaric yawps.

Once, up late in the ruined library,
I came across a tome of ancient lore
Not in the catalogue; the charactery
And language, such as I’d not seen before.

Then, sign by sign, and word by alien word,
I pieced together sentences, and saw
It was a book of prophecy, and heard
Its voice, unwavering as stone-carved law;

And, straining to decipher, night by night,
I saw foretold the downfall of our state,
And found my name, and, in the dawning light,
Beheld my many-tongued and far-flung fate.

2.
A temple to the Muses, singing maids
Of memory: thus Ptolemy’s Museum.
The gleam of Alexandria never fades--
The books, the boys -- if only you could see ’em!

Our library held half a million scrolls
Of linen, parchment, and papyrus, drawn
By ship from Athens and the reedy shoals
Of Biblos; Carthage; Thebes; Troy; Babylon—

From every quarter of the world we knew—
From Nubian, Egyptian, Elamite,
Numidian, Hittite, Persian, Celt, and Jew—
In every tongue -- if they had means to write.

This was a city for the ageless gods.
Callimachus led the myriads of the bright
In scholarship, and Homer never nods
Once proofed by Aristarchus and made right.

At sunset, in the glint off topless towers,
Dazed from a long day’s work, we’d stroll downtown,
Theocritus and I, to watch for hours
The naked young men wrestle each other down,

And sometimes the palaestra saw us, too,
Strip and oil down to join the sweaty fray,
Keeping our youth, as well-kept books should do,
Striving in earnest for the prize of play.

So life went on. We had our share of losses:
Octavian burned the queen’s ships; books caught fire;
Twice later, some of Rome’s more stupid bosses
Ordered more flames to sate imperial ire.

But every time, we built ourselves again,
Shipping in copies from abroad to make
The library whose catalogue in pen
Callimachus left for all ages’ sake.

Yet none, not all the wisdom of our world
Could match the rage of Omar’s Caliphate,
Who, hating pagan lore, had firebrands hurled
In every window -- and we met our fate.

3.
But there were countless burnings yet to come.
Iconoclasm threw its spastic fits
In the gold city of Byzantium,
And tore the best Greek poems into bits.

It wasn’t the last case and not the worst.
England’s King Alfred’s Lindisfarne held fine
Bejewelled books, until some rascals burst
Inside to let fire feast on page and line.

The printing press just made things easier.
I watched unfliching Cromwell pile all Rome
In pamphlets, books and tracts, light up, and stir
Cold mobs with light and warmth in every tome.

And I was there to see the dreadful burning
Of Hirschfeld’s archive of sexology,
That told of invert, androphile, and Urning—
Till Hitler torched what hate refused to see.

Those red-faced outbursts of unlettered rage
Have kept me wandering, year by countless year,
In search of peace, the temple to the page,
Where I might read, remember, and revere.

Most recently, I’ve taught at various places—
Itinerant scholar—Michigan, Kent State,
Miami, Harvard, Clarke, without the graces
Of tenure or promotion to this date.

Long centuries!—yet shorter than the day
When, working long into the evening, late,
And peering at strange signs impressed in clay,
I first surmised the legend of my fate.

[ Table of Contents ]

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