Six Poems


Barry Goldensohn

We began to publish Barry Goldensohn’s poems in these pages forty years ago, and when he died earlier this year we decided to devote a memorial section to him and his work. Nothing academic. Some “Remarks,” several of his poems, a photograph or two. Then, in early summer, his wife Lorrie Goldensohn, also a frequent contributor to these pages, sent us a sequence of her own poems which we thought indispensable to this memorial tribute…

So let us begin with a selection of poems by Barry Goldensohn that appeared over the years in SALMAGUNDI.

The Marrano

“Art is the remedy for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness.” – Collingwood

God wants the souls of the faithful,
not their corpses. He has carrion enough.
In The Golem it explains
from moments of the highest danger
he saves us, always in the form of wonders,
like making a new man. For this truth
we struggle in disguise.
I moved to Hamburg or Seville, bought
a bakery or clothing store, a new name
and lived openly, spoke like a native. I was
a kind of native, the most internal exile.
I could not change my name
because I was committed to disguise,
from Weiss to Sheiss, Hermano to Marrano.
I am His pig. To hide Him I renounce Him.
My teacher cared for me, a prize student.
To spare my feelings he asked me to leave the class
during his diatribes against the Jews.
I listened from the hallway, grateful
for this lesson in accommodation.
Modesty and secrecy are virtues of the chosen.
Study the pig for modesty. The cat
buries the emblem of the world. We learn
in secret, through closed doors, all love.
I welcome the need to convert, create
an adequate corruption of the mind
fit for understanding, for the sacred,
the one text, the one ungainly text,
saying Alles in Ordnung ist,
meaning another, unimaginable order.
The gnostics were right, the world is made of shit.
I made my life a work of art expressing this.

Tarzan & Co.

I lived in the caress
of the most dangerous
wolves, apes, big cats,
knowing them in my hands,
the thick ruff at the throat,
the soft skin of the belly,
the vulnerable crotch
and their rich Edwardian speech,
taking on their powers
with their fearsome tenderness
like the English nobleman
who turned toward savageness
against the systematic
savage trade at home.
This was after the war
after the famous photos
of death camps and the entrance
of the new word “genocide” —
our apartment overcrowded
with Jewish refugees
sleeping on the floor.
Growing away from childhood
I turned for my defense
to a sterner animal code,
more instinctive, perilous,
than the mild rational world
of my accommodating home.
Sometimes I would stand
at the corner for an hour
buried in my book
until some thoughtful neighbor
would grab me by the elbow
to steer me across the street
still absent in the dream
of an animal poise of body,
faster, more alert,
enough to seize the cobra
arched and ready to strike,
to save the young, swimming,
with a knife across the belly
of the perilous crocodile,
and knowing a hidden language
that I had been denied,
the message of the spoor,
the turn of twig and vine.
This was the dream of knowledge
I returned from as a beast
to change the world to beasts.

A Librarian of Alexandria

She has the manuscripts of Sappho in her hand,
the personal body, not a scribe’s work
but shining with her mark, Sappho’s, actual.
She seals this papyrus in its own urn.

This is before Actium. She knows
the line of fire of the Roman mind,
learned in her body’s long analysis.

Homer’s two books, Moses’ five,
in their own hand, blotted and corrected,
Aeschylus and Sophocles, not one
play lost, and all of Euripides
on the stupidity of gods, and many voices
wholly lost to us whom the grammarians
did not quote nor the invaders preserve
as mementos of the Greek defeat.

She has buried them deep in her own earth:
the Psalms for preservation and Solomon’s song.
She sways above them.

The books of the soul are dreaming underground
at their true depth, waiting to be found.
She has worked long at this, will defy
fire, time as fire, the fire in the mind,
using an Egyptian art. She has saved
all of Heraclitus, to mock him;
Aristophanes to make us sane;
of Archilochos the whole warm body.

In her white dress she is the one steady light
in the abandoned mine among the smoking lamps.
She preserves last
those that bear the stinging taste to the mouth
of love of tragedy—
                    kneels as she buries them—
with her face lowered in the golden tent of her hair
that brushes the floor in a circle around her, she smells
her own spiced oils (that aromatic body
knows how the satyr plays)
                           —all the Satyr Plays.

After The Revolution

They both held their breath at separate windows
breathing so softly that the faint rush
of air would not interfere
with the fluting of the thrushes back and forth
across the four corners of the garden,
and savored together the lente, lente,
the darkening room, the bird song
in the middle distance and the crescent moon
rising. Their silence in this vigil was important.
His voice had grown mechanical
and oppressed him with his own spirit’s death,
laboring for the cause that changed and changed.
He was once so passionate in battle
and beautiful. Trotsky said his eyes alone
were revolution in the name of more perfect love.
That was the evening he disappeared.
She never knew when he left the room
whether the Security Police arrived
and he went out to meet them, or merely walked
into something unofficial,
a new life or death in the newest order,
the moon behind a cloud, nothing and silence.

Margaret Roper

(after Holbein’s drawing)

To be the favorite daughter
of one like More imposes
with serene dangerous love
the curse of its obligations.
She knew her father well—
the peril of his laugh,
his last sticking point.
It made her face a dove
landing on a wire,
its white wings outspread
to drag against the wind,
her mouth the wire—
thin, wary, guarded.
She broke through the guard to More
on his last trip to the Tower
and kissed him again and again.
No one stopped her. He wrote
his last night in the Tower:
“I cumber you dear Margaret
very much … I never
liked your manner better
than when you kissed me last.
For I like when daughterly love
and dear charity
hath no leisure to look
to worldly courtesy.”
Double: the gentle and ruthless
demand to protect the thing
he could no longer protect,
his head impaled on a spike
naked on London Bridge
and her last obligation—
to take it down and carry
the drained thing home
enclosed in rich cloths
and return it at last to his body.

Last Act:  Don Giovanni

He understood no other name but death
for the wish to be restrained. The Stone Guest
invited in defiance clomped across the room
and the massed silver quivered on the table
at each footfall, the last feast,
to end the comic murderous lust and send
Giovanni and his phallus errant
cursing through the trap door and stage flames.

He had no inner life—no check and counter—
an animal attack against the law
without love, with one drive only,
to push into the soft door, either
open in passion or closed and dry in terror.
He was a numbers man: a finite
linear series that comprehends its end.

Let us pray for him.

For his eyes whose rolling hunger we have guessed,
let them (Amen) close and ears that heard
much squealing in the highest register
of acquiescence, though protest was music too,
hear, after your applause, nothing more (Amen).
It is said he missed much loamy richness
because he kept his nose stopped with wax
though this is an addition to the text
by the too fastidious and he was not.
Let it now be stopped (Amen). His mouth,
what it tasted of other mouths, and his lies—
how sweet they must have sounded—how much like
civilized duplicity—on their account
forebear and wish that mouth its dry peace (Amen).
The hands that alone or with others gave
much pleasure, and received, and agony,
let their bones brown richly among their rings
forever undisturbed (Amen) and feet
that pointed downward for release rest now
not splayed, relaxed, but propped (Amen) upright.
And for the instrument whose instrument he was,
let it decline into perpetual rest, the terror
he dreamed of. He was his own instrument.