Every surface glittered as if the glittering
alone could keep all dirt from falling through
the stringent tang of cleaner in the air,
seal it away up near the ceiling fan
that knitted dark and light shapes from the smoke


Spindle of red yarn on one side, spindle
of yellow on the other, turning, always
turning as the needles clicked continuously
crossing over and under looping loop
to loop down rows of an intermeshing red
and yellow never-ending chrysalis
into what I never knew since it was always
only just beginning to emerge


All of the wooden surfaces bright as glass
gave off a just buffed lemony aroma
while dust motes hung like stirred-up silt in water
high overhead as high as they could go,
as if afraid to fall back through the clarity
their absence made.

                                            What no one ever spoke of
was saying itself through the little that was said,
something to do with money, which had to do
with her, head down, knitting on the couch,
with how the pink skin on the inside of
her palms and fingers (“white” as mine, which were
as pink as hers) was looped with a dark brown
called black, each one entangling the other
till each was neither, a confused and busy
flickering black and white as purple looped

through orange looped through green. His money spoke
because aside from money, he was a man
of few words. It was said he could afford to be
since he was loaded, “filthy rich,” they said.
You breathed his money in like smoke.
The glittering of all the surfaces,
the lemony aroma of the wood,
the tang of cleaner, the needles clicking, clicking–
all that would be the only explanation,
all that informed you (if you didn’t know
already) in all the ways you might pretend
you didn’t hear it, never listened to it,
that he could live with whomever the hell he wanted,
sleep with whomever, he didn’t have to please you,
you had to please him while he sat in silence,
amused or not, contemptuous or not:
money said you couldn’t say a word.


And if there could there have been a word between them,
a word of understanding or agreement
that part-resisted part-conceded what
each gave the other, that only they could hear
while we talked on and on, I couldn’t say.


There was Aunt Jemima and there was her.
Aunt Jemima smiling from the pancake box,
smiling at me, her white teeth whiter than mine,
made whiter by the smile she kept on smiling,
as if I’d just said something sweet or funny;
the smile said there was nothing I could do
that wouldn’t please her; the smile called me honey-
chile, precious, sugar, convinced me that’s all I was.
The smile said whatever I needed it to say.

But that one, that one, that one never smiled.
Never looked at me; in the not smiling,
not looking, I felt a baffling chill. I saw
a chilly unself I hadn’t known about.
I had to hate that self, there was no other way
to keep the rest of everything around me
warm and clear as it had always been.


Money was a wet bar between living room
and kitchen, bottles of different sizes, different
colors, tall ones and short ones, red and gold,
amber and pink and blue ones pushed together
like a model city skyline made of bottles,
on every one of which money had drawn
a black line at the level of the liquid
like pencil marks on the basement wall my parents
drew once a year to measure how much I’d grown.


I found her one time at the wet bar sink,
holding a bottle under the tap until
the amber rose back level with the line.
And when she turned to find me there, her face
without surprise flickered with no expression
I could read—I was going to write “almost
without emotion” I was going to write
“like any President’s on any bill,”
I was going to write as if she half-
expected to be caught–But whatever stitch
or snag of history bound us to this moment,
the moment made no bond between us: even while
she raised one finger slowly to her lips,
and smiled, her smile said, don’t think for a second
this is “our little secret”:
It isn’t little. And there is no our.


Because I was too dumb, too green to know
there was a war on, and the child I was
was also enemy combatant–forever
blundering into zones of no return
that she, fixed, knitting, head down, on the couch,
already occupied, between the spindles
while the needles ticking like a time bomb
said get out of here, get out. Get out.


The muffled clicking, the spindles turning, the ash-
trays filling up with stubbed-out rubble, from which
smoke spindled upward driven by the sprayed,
the buffed, the scrubbed clean, how the small talk stitched
itself around the filthy richness of
the old man’s silence no one could say a word
about until the car ride home, and did
you notice how she never lifted a finger,
didn’t so much as clear the table, wash
a dish, a regular queen of Sheba that one,
that one that one, not to be believed
all the way home it filled the car, the second-
hand smoke of sovereignty and self-abasement
tangling all together into a cloud
I couldn’t not inhale, that couldn’t not
keep tangling into purl stitch, seed stitch, garter
and cross so deeply tightly through me through
those afternoons it left no trace of seam
to see it by, no loop come loose enough
to loosen, no fray to show me what I was.


Except as phantom of what money does,
the phantom of a phantom, when he died, she vanished
doubly into never having been.


                                   Then it’s ten years later,
I’m a college boy, a summer taxi driver,
my landlords are a mixed-race couple, Ronald
who’s black, and middle aged, a communist,
and Joy, who’s white and my age, even younger,
a party member too, though mostly these days
she’s home with Che their newborn who at the moment
is fast asleep against her chest. To them,
to all their friends, there’s a war on,
the frontline’s everywhere, and all of us,
left and right, are grunts caught in the toils
of an unconscious mastermind, although
right now, right here, you wouldn’t know it.
We’re on the front stoop of their triple decker
in the early evening, drinking with a few neighbors,
some white, some black, a joint is circulating.

Ronald’s still in the drab gray earnest suit
he wears when he’s out organizing, or canvassing,
recruiting for the party I won’t join–
too many meetings, bro, I always tell him
and he never laughs. I’m always trying
to make him laugh, to overcome his cool
resistance. I never do. Remote, aloof,
unreachably serious, it’s impossible
not to feel disapproved of by his aloofness.
Joy tells me it isn’t personal, that’s just Ronald,
he’s like that with everyone, but, no, I think,
it’s me, it must be me he doesn’t like.
I need him to like me, I don’t know why.

He’s half asleep, face wet with sweat, eyes closed
one elbow on a step, he’s leaning back
the joint between two fingers, he inhales
deeply, deeply inhales again and says
into the thick long plume he takes his time
releasing, passing me the joint, “shit man,
only so many days like this a man can stand,”

his voice weighed down with weariness so rare
for him I hardly hear it, as if it can’t
push through the smoke its spoken in; I’m moved,
I feel confided in, I want him to know
how moved I am, “I hear you, man” I say,
then take a hit and pass the joint to Joy,
and when I turn back he is looking at me,
incredulous, and then begins to laugh,
he’s laughing but, it seems, without amusement;
the laughter ripping through the smoke has ripped
the smoke to shreds, and all the shreds are saying,
“What? You hear me? You?
You sorry fucking little mother fucker!”


Alan Shapiro, has published many poetry collections (including Reel to Reel, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Night of the Republic, finalist for both the National Book Award and the International Griffin Prize), 4 books of prose, including The Last Happy Occasion, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, LA Times Book Prize, an award in literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His latest book of poems, Against Translation, was published in March.

You can read more of his poems here.


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