Jessica Greenbaum

Four a.m. and 40 Years Later
December 31, 2019 Greenbaum Jessica

Four a.m. and 40 Years Later, from an Eighteenth Floor Balcony, Downtown

The poetry world is rife with simplistic pieties, unable to fathom or celebrate complexity. Often, everything gets boiled down to an easy sense of justice.

–David Mason, “Les Murray, Dissident Poet,” First Things

Driving into my old city yesterday
for the first visit in decades
every street sign whispered a story
from my only great war
my move here as a lone
21-year old, when by day three
my map of the city
lay shredded from reuse
and humidity and from
shaking it in hopes it would
rearrange into something familiar—
and there were false starts
to sharing living quarters, unloading
my car then reloading it
to a pencil’s width of space
after a week—once even a day—
at last blissfully on my own
in a Murphy apartment
but then so lonely there
I worried I would also
fold up into the wall
and in such proximity
to the palm-sized palmetto bugs
I could hear them chewing
the newspaper as I lay awake
in the long hours—
and three moves and major
heartbreak later I rented
a furnished garage apartment
drawn in three-quarter scale
including a neck-high refrigerator
and on the bright side
a yard of climbing flowers
and a landlord so kindly
and deaf I could blast
records after hours
and still have him ask
if I needed a phonograph—
and there continued such stops
and starts to equanimity
that by the end of seven years
I decided it had taken
a full five to move in.
Then, after all that work
I moved back to my native city
and when we returned here
to my old city, yesterday
those friends who had
sustained me back then—
and I mean sustained—
showed us the new
(well, to me) gardens
the new park downtown alongside
the museum’s new addition
and in this pre-dawn
quiet the new light rail
runs its paces
in the still-dark, cheerily
ringing its bell though
no one seems to come or go
but it’s hopeful
and I look out over downtown
like older people do
as if over the partitions
of time, because at this age
and in this age
I’m also seeing the headlines
and my head is ringing
with radio interviews
with what it means to really live
in danger for your life
or your family’s, what it means
to suffer in such scale
as the news reports, and I try
to outrun this understanding
in order to finish
superimposing my descriptions
on the blank grid
of empty streets and lots—
because soon the heat
will settle itself like the cars
between everything, the dark
office windows
will blink white
when the first employee
walks in and flips a switch
(as I was able to do
back then) and soon
the town’s most celebrated
occupant, routine
will take up residence not
remembering how this grandchild
of immigrants fought it out
in what the day will show
was just child’s play
chasing its shadows up
and down the blazing streets.
Having Been Laid Off from His Job as a Garment Cutter, My Grandfather from Poland Walks around Highland Park, Brooklyn
And in those days, banks gave out small household gifts
so that you might stroll in, and so did luncheonettes
and dry cleaners, and here I try and envision
somewhere on the marketing ladder, that vice-president
of Emigrant Savings Bank, and The Dime
who sensed that wooden eight-inch rulers would turn
the tide, so that we found them in our desk drawers
year later, and I wondered who, on what side
of the universe began employing kittens for calendars,
and who, mountain rams? I also remember a spate of
thin circles of red rubber, wider than a tub stopper
to firmly grasp and twist the lid off applesauce
and pickle jars—they worked! Like his daily round,
he cycled through his riddles—which he called “stories”
Pete and Repeat were walking down the street. . .
and because he could arrive at the bakeries early
in the day he would return with every kind of roll:
the soft, the crescent, the onion, the Kaiser—
even the cheese Danish and almond horn which
I feel sure he handed me, along with the funnies
he saved from every Sunday News. They were the story
he was telling me of that separate life, illustrated
for us like January’s page of snowy hills with skiers
and July’s clear brook with a fly fisherman, casting,
and in that life a reporter with long red hair
was the heroine, and a hapless boy never quite
got what he wanted—but neither did he lose
all hope. My grandfather, touching the bald circle
on top of his head, would lean down to me,
smile, and say, Don’t get a haircut like mine—
with a hole in the middle.
Consigned to such jobs
they told me it was he who left the window open
while cleaning the bird’s cage—and for years
I envisioned the yellow parakeet shivering in alleys
between apartment buildings. As for true stories
my grandfather left me inheritance enough
for my first electric typewriter, and a memory:
I was four, running like a kid goat around the
summer camp-once-the-great-grandparents’-farm,
and when I fell, skinning my knee, he scooped me up
in his arms like a fireman a Jewish person
could never be, ran to the infirmary, sat me down,
riffled through a tray, knelt, then smoothed a
“butterfly” bandage over the bruise. He was smiling—
he knew I’d like the name. And he knew the shape
was cut to keep hold. That’s all. Kindness also stays.

Jessica Greenbaum is the author of three volumes of poems, a co-editor of the first ever poetry Haggadah, and also of the forthcoming Tree Lines, an anthology of 21st century American poems. A recipient of awards from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Society of America, she teaches inside and outside academia including for communities who may have experienced trauma, and in synagogues around the relationship of Jewish text to contemporary poems. Her most recent book, Spilled and Gone, was recognized by The Boston Globe as a best book of the year, 2021.