What I’ve Been Given

Six dogs: Snoopy, Prince, Woody, Ramona, Leon, Bubby. All but Bubby now nothing more than names.

Apology: not in the old high sense, think Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry.” Rather, this:

Let me introduce myself. I’m sorry that I didn’t visit you in the hospital. I’m sorry that I haven’t called you in a year. I’m sorry that I’m not as good a storyteller as you. I’m sorry I haven’t read-that classic-book. I’m sorry that I’m not as smart as you. I’m sorry that these books—my gift to you—contain only mediocre poems—my poems. I’m sorry that I’ve-spoken when I should have just listened. Nice to meet you.

Proof: the books on my desk, the books in the bookcase beside the window that looks out on a little piece of undeveloped woods, the books behind me, four bookcases full, lining the entire wall on the other side of which is our bedroom, with its own bookshelf: The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, Everything Is God, Insight Meditation, Sabbatai Sevi: the Mystical Messiah, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Zukofsky’s A.

Thousands of unread pages. Proof of my fear of death: every title added to the stack by my desperate attempt to guarantee the future, my future: time to read.

Talent: one friend is a singer of sacred music; one friend translates the music of one tongue into the music of another; one friend cures me when he can, and, when he cannot, steers me down the hall, from door to door, one specialist to the next, and turns me over to their care. These are my talents, my friends.

Coasts: Malibu to Margate. Malibu was yesterday, yes, yesterday, a trail in Solstice Canyon, a pier, sea-air, a long view of cliffs and coastline swinging out to sea: the beauty of what can be beheld but not be held, sealed in the specimen jar called memory, its beauty preserved to cheer me when I’m in need of cheering.

Margate was ages ago, a childhood, a wave, a milkshake, a jitney ride away from the roasted air of Planter’s Peanuts on the boardwalk. These are my coordinates, given to me by divorce, which also gave me distance, which I cherish and hold, which is why I hug the edges of a continent.

Time: this day for instance, risen from fitful sleep into a plan to fill the open hours, turned aside from the schedule by a phone call from a doctor, a dear friend, with word of his referral to a humble surgeon. Pulled after the first minute of meditation from what I’d intended to be forty by the sound of a son’s voice come to life. My need to see him, to hear his plans for the day, greater, I think, than his need to see me before he sped from the house.

Then reset the timer that will strike its bell deeper into the morning than I intended, but who’s expecting my productivity today? No one, so time’s mine to use however I choose. Or am I time’s to use for its inscrutable purpose? Nonetheless, time, my time: to read four pages of poetry, to compose two or three sentences, check e-mail.

Pounds: today, one hundred fifty-five pounds. How much does my worry weigh? How much does my fear weigh? My resistance, my ambition, my guilt, my desire, my grief, my, my, my, how much does it weigh?

Your love of me—love which I receive, love against which I protect myself, how much does that weigh? And if I were to subtract the combined weight of all this, how much would I weigh then? And all the books in my house plus the books at my office—do they weigh more or less than wisdom? If I have gained, over the years, any wisdom, does it weigh enough to register on the scale?

What have I been given? This breath. This one. Mind that wanders. Will that brings it back from Los Angeles to Asheville to Skyview Circle to this room, this bench, back from my longing for love, your love, to the muscles of my belly, expanding, contracting. That’s all.

Enough/not enough: salmon, insurance, socks, recognition, frequent flier miles, minutes, leg room, confidence, savings, patience, pens, Hebrew, education, sun block, solitude, luck . . .

Something to lose: this body.

My kaddish: A., M., and G., who know the prayer, the mourner’s kaddish: Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba: May God’s name be exalted and hallowed. To them I will, one day, give the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah (the commandment) of mourning the death of a parent—this gift from the same person to whom is given the awful power of hurting them with my passing.

Appointments, tickets (parking, speeding, concert), a Super 8 camera, excuses, half of my genetic history, an astrological sign (Sagittarius), stocks, uncommon health problems, students, offices, rain, sunrise seen from the top of Mt. Sinai, seat in a waiting room: I have been given these by cops, a guest at my bar mitzvah, receptionists, parents, the state of North Carolina, the laws of nature.

And, on this earth: I have been given one wife, one wise woman to oppose me, to expose the heavily guarded borders of ego, my raw need to be right, right about this, right about that, one strong woman to be buffeted by my sharp reactions to the ways another intelligent, compassionate being sees the problem (the problem that is the world, contracted now to the size of a man and a woman in a surgeon’s office) and a prudent course of action.

Every time she is not turned away by my narrowness, I am given the gift of the world—the whole, expansive, inclusive, imperfect world with its myriad ways of being. And so long as my resistance doesn’t break her, I have a chance to live, to love—for however long my body survives.

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

  • http://www.poetryretreats.com Peggy Rosenthal

    Wow, Rick. The prose you’ve beautifully crafted here contains all of life… everything that matters and lots of what doesn’t, seen through the lens of illness, of profound self-awareness, of faith, of love. Thank you.

  • http://www.wnctaichiarthritis.com Anne Plyler

    Rick, I shudder when I read your words and wonder what illness you may be struggling with. I hold you and your family up in prayer as you endure the uncertainty of ill health. This poem speaks volumes in the everydayness of life’s presentation- and it speaks to me of the roving mind counting its blessings in spite of illness, with a profound faith, the love of family and friends nurtured over many years. Thank you for a snapshot of transparency without sentimentality, of the “isness” and uncertainty of life that we all share. An excellent exaple of “listing” crafted into a beautiful poem. Blessings and peace to you.


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