“Can’t You Get It Through Your Thick Head!” In Memoriam – Summer 2019

August 1, 2019

                                  1. 

 

Mikey! – Guido – or was it Marco? –

What were my other pet names for you

And yours for me,

Michael Irving Berger,

Who could never say I’m a Jew

Yet who, ever in this world, looked more Bronx-Jewish

than you?

Parents, grandparents, great grandparents, Ukraine Jews,

But not you? Just because you didn’t go to Temple?

My maternal great-grandfather

Was a Jew,

Which might be enough for the SS on a slow day – 

Making us plenty Jewish enough, you and me, to land us

In Dachau – and

I suppose

That’s the test:

Would we be called to die for it?

So: Jewish enough.

But you! Soon I’ll die too

And then there will be no one to remember

The you who was really you.

Not your kids. They ain’t got a clue.

And those two surviving X’s – 

You were careful to marry shikses

Who could not possibly understand you. 

Careful, too, to settle where Jews are scarce.

. . . Mikey, let’s walk to that great Dachau in the sky

like children, hand in hand –

as though we didn’t know the vagaries of God –

and how easy it is to get lost

in God’s bouts of inattention.

Your kids are good people –

There is that –

Otherwise –

You didn’t leave much, Mikey – except in me –

In me you made all the difference.

Hannah said you were “addicted to disgrace” –

And that fits, I’m sorry. But I knew a shining you

When we were seventeen,

Eighteen, nineteen, twenty,

When, at all our crises, you’d quote to me

Five words, as though they were written

In parchment, five words by James Wright:

Only the truth is kind.

 

                               2.

 

I didn’t much fly at all until after my third marriage

In my 70th year. A decade before that,

The week you turned 60, I drove from Lubbock, Texas,

To Atlanta, Georgia, for your “procedure” –

Out come your prostate and your bladder!

You needed someone who really knew you.

Neither your kids nor your third wife

Quite fit that description.

A piss-bag on your belly.

(What do they call those things?

I call them piss-bags.)

Hanging on your belly.

For the rest of your life.

Which turned out to be

A bit more than twelve years.

We can evade you and all else but the heart –

You often quoted that, at least to me –

Did you quote it to your kids? –

What blame to us if the heart live on.

Interesting – I’m just noticing –

Hart Crane put a period

Where you’d expect a question-mark.

And I’m remembering it was you who told me

That those last words of Goethe’s

Were not “Light, more light!” but

“Where the devil is that bitch of a landlady?”

Or something to that effect.

And I told you Unamuno’s response: I say warmth, 

more warmth,

for we die of cold and not of darkness.

You died of a fall.

Your thick head wasn’t thick enough.

 

 

Dante Alighieri (l) and Guido Cavalcanti (r): a 13th-century friendship

 

 

                             3.

 

Three days after we met, you and I,

Me and Kratmann barged into your room –

Your door was unlocked! – at 

Four-something in the morning,

Shook you awake (I don’t remember

Why at all) – eyes wide you looked at us and said:

“Do I dare to eat a peach?”

 

Days later – we’re seventeen – you laid out for me,

Harshly, I remember your eyes, laid out

The terms of my life:

“Art is a put-up-or-shut-up proposition.”

 

. . . just to say . . . I haven’t forgotten,

In that mishegas with Ginger and Lynne – you’d become a shrink by then –

How you offered the novel solution of admitting me to a psych ward

Involuntarily. There followed several years

Of silence between us. (Christ, it hurts

To see, within, that afternoon. Not that I wasn’t

Crazy . . . ) I learned, in that experience, the truth

Of a line in Humoresque, scripted

By that snitch Clifford Odets:

I love you so I don't care what I think of you.

. . . just to say . . . Mikey,

We hurt a lot of people on the way, each and both of us.

And hurt each other.

No excuses.

No alibis.

We die stained.

 

Memory doesn’t solve anything.

 

(Antonia became a shrink too.

She died two years ago.

When I called to tell you

You kept changing the subject.

I’d break in and say “Mikey,

Antonia is dead.”

“Yeah, I know, yeah” and on you went . . .)

 

Memory solves nothing.

 

Keeping that in mind . . .

 

You died of a fall.

You’d been falling ever since your 60th, that procedure (and you

Know what I mean). It all got kind of sordid, Mikey. 

It did. Even I didn’t know how to talk with you for a while.

___”Can’t you get it through your thick head, this is lousy for your kids.”

___ “It’s none of their business.”

___ “In some Hells maybe it’s not. In this Hell it is.”

“Addicted to disgrace” . . . that pretty much covers it.

The police report said you fell off a truck. No details.

In the shape you were in, what were you doing, and

On what kind of truck? It’s so weird for me,

And you know why. Once, still seventeen,

There was this truck . . . Hitchhiking

With a girl our age, whom we didn’t know,

Name of Lorraine, and we’re in the rain,

Late night, somewhere near Albany, soaked through,

And a big goddamn eighteen-wheeler stopped for us –

Crewed by two black men who were kind of surprised

At their own impulse, but they’d stopped, they really

Wanted to help, and they opened the back door

Of their empty trailer – they were running empty

And we didn’t ask why – and told us to stay deep

In the shadows at the tollbooths. The New York 

Thruway, bright in the dark, shining with rain,

That empty trailer bumped and jolted something awful,

It was better to stand than to sit, but we were agile,

Even standing right at the open door to be soaked again

Because it was what it was and all it was, glares

Of white beams driving toward us, far

As we could see, smaller bright reds 

Headed away, watching it all through mists of truck-spray,

Everything bright with wet reflections,

The tarmac too, as though lights

Shone from below –

All the way to the Bronx.

We’d known each other about a week. Seventeen

And nothing sordid about either of us. We hadn’t yet made

The mistakes that are all one’s own. It’s almost embarrassing, 

How pure we really were. Immersed those weeks

In Isak Dinesen (the vaguely masculine

Alias of Karen Blixen), her Winter’s Tales and Gothic Tales.

She seemed harmless enough, though – in

The best sense – she was anything but. We read

And forgot Life and death

are two locked caskets,

each of which contains the key to the other.

What gripped us then was Man and woman

are two locked caskets, of which each

contains the key to the other.

 

A lifetime later, we have no answers.

That’s probably a good thing.

Finality, in anything, isn’t quite believable.

 

Not even this one. Though, of course,

You’re dead.

 

 

No one called me “Mikey” but you,

No one called you “Mikey” but me –

So when I’m talking to you now I’m talking to myself?

I wouldn’t be surprised. Calling each other

“Guido” and “Marco” probably came around 

The umpteenth time I saw , but also

I was deeply into Pound’s translations of Guido

Cavalcanti – either or both, I guess.

We’d probably have done better to call each other

“Stan” and “Ollie.”

 

Dave Johnson had to save my life

Summer of ’66, when I’d flipped out for sure,

Slept a week in his car, and had what I call

My “Fellini episode,” reading that Playboy interview 

Where Federico said People are worth more than reality.

And me I’m repeating that, I’m repeating that, 

Holding hard to that, People are worth more than reality.

Just words. But they maybe saved me.

Now I Google that Playboy – Mikey, born

In ’45 and ’46, me and you,

We lived long enough to Google! –

I Google that Playboy and Jesus Christ 

I GOT THE QUOTE WRONG!!!!!

I know you’re laughing.

Half a century I’ve been quoting that line –

I kind of like mine better, but it really goes: 

    Playboy: One friend says you’ve told him four completely

different versions of your breakup with your first sweetheart. Why?

    Fellini: Why not? She’s worth even more versions.

People are worth much more than truth.

I’d like to see his sentence in Italian – truth

As truth or truth as facts? (Only

the truth is kind.) Anyway,

People are worth more than reality – whether

It’s his or mine or ours

It’s saved my life more than once, as now

It saves your memory, or rather, mine of you.

Mikey, Mikey, you were worth so much more

Than the realities you conjured and toppled,

Conjured and toppled. Then you toppled.

 

We’re left with the space you fell into.

 

                              4.

 

…in my hand I see “2/27/67 – leaving Philly,” these lines

written in a Greyhound bus, late at night again,

on the opening pages of Ezra Pound: Translations –

I present this not as a poem but as an artifact.

 

Often I called him “Guido,”

He called me “Marco.”

This was in conversation,

After both of us had been debased in love,

And our words left open sores in our mouths.

In three days we traveled to four cities.

At this time

I remember how we laughed and what thoughts we had,

And what it was touched us,

And who it was

Were confused, even afraid, that I should call him “Guido,”

And he call me “Marco,”

They recalling other names

We had been introduced by.

I remember their puzzled faces.

And how it was I left you, Guido, in the fourth city.

You yelled something to me from across the street as I was leaving

And the wind took it,

And I yelled something back that I saw you didn’t hear,

And I waved, and turned to come back where I came from.

And what is your task now?

And what is its payment?

[Mikey quoted those lines back to me every time I moved.]

I remember now my girl [Antonia] in the second city,

And the dream she had, after that horrible night,

Of you and I

Dancing together.

Dancing, Guido.

 

 

 

______________________

 

Michael Ventura © 2019. All rights reserved.

 

Michael Ventura is a writer who lives in the mountains of Northern California.

 

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