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
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
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 –
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.
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,
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
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.
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,
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 8½, 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.
…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
Michael Ventura © 2019. All rights reserved.
Michael Ventura is a writer who lives in the mountains of Northern California.