Barbara Goldberg graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Philosophy from Mount Holyoke College. She went on for an MA from Yeshiva University, MEd from Columbia University; and an MFA from American University. She has authored four prize-winning books of poetry, including The Royal Baker’s Daughter, recipient of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. Her most recent book is Scorched by the Sun: Poems by Moshe Dor. Goldberg translated the renowned Israeli poet’s work from the Hebrew. Goldberg and Dor translated and edited three anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace. The recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as awards in fiction and speechwriting, Goldberg’s work appears widely, including American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry and the Paris Review. Currently she is Visiting Writer at American University’s MFA program.
The Day Before
The day before the war I dreamt you left me
for another woman, a native of your homeland
who grew up singing the same silly songs. Even
in my dream I knew you loved me still, but this
was different: like that time in Charlottesville
when we were guests pretending you were king
and I the royal baker’s daughter.
The day before
the war you dreamt that I was young again, black
bangs down to my eyebrows, my breasts pert
and impudent. It was fall and you weren’t limping
yet, could’ve danced the fox trot had you so wished.
We were walking hand in hand, the leaves already
turned a fiery red.
The day the war broke out the TV
switched its focus, showed us billowing yellow clouds
and visions in green. It wasn’t yet a week before
we learned that our supply lines were too thin
and we didn’t have sufficient troops on the ground.
This wouldn’t be the first time there were such
miscalculations: take you and me, the years
rolling over us like water, and us choking
on the dreams we once dreamed while awake.
Produits De Terroir
This is not another travel poem, although I could go on
about the bluffs, massive in their verticality, or the river
snaking through the gorge, dark and green as the devil’s
throat, how the women are bony and thinlipped, their men
more accustomed to judging than being judged. But no,
this is of the dreams we have when we are far from home—
for seven days now—and feeling foreign to ourselves.
In yours we’re armed with skillet and Swiss army knife
outnumbered by a band of two-bit thugs. For me
it’s Grand Central Station and there’s a war on, tanks
and bombs and me running, one shoe on, one shoe off.
Wherever we go terror follows, its yellow eyes piercing
sleep. And stalks us by day: at the market local sausage
and cheese called “produits de terroir.” Terror
has always been with us, in the garden with its chaos
of rocks, the sun turning its face, waters rising, blood
of dogs, starvation, cholera, nights when we were cold
and alone, when trains ran on the dot.
I have been sitting in this chair, this office, this
room with a window that doesn’t open so long
I fear I’ve lost the art of breathing. My task is
to draft speeches for powerful people that must pass
through the eyes of a man scared of losing his job.
The trick is to write in his style so he can get
the credit. In this way I become indispensable. Strange
how common ghosting is. Today I heard my own
words coming from the chief of staff, exhorting us
soften the environment for brand acceptance,
bombard it with the message that this association is new and innovative,
helping people over 50 enjoy life. I am
over 50 and not enjoying life. Perhaps because
I’ve strayed from my own nature. Traditore, traitor,
doctor of spin, me whose aim is clarity, telling it
slant. Sometimes I almost feel at home here, and here
is east of Eden, downtown on the Red Line, well‑fed,
well‑groomed, making a killing in the Land of Nod.
Honeybees and frogs are fast disappearing. What
will become of little green apples, the loneliness
of lilypads? Some species of moths no longer pollinate
Arizonan yuccas. Askance, askew, something is
amiss. A tsunami one hundred feet high washes away
three thousand souls in Papua New Guinea. It’s hard
to know when disasters are natural. Once I was stung
by a bee and my arm swelled like a melon. In college
a date slipped a frog down my blouse and I couldn’t
stop screaming, those frantic hind legs. In high school
I pithed a toad. Later I saw a half-carved cadaver, head
and feet wrapped in soaked cloth, the yellow jelly we
call fat. The leaner they are, the harder to cut. Blandings’
turtles don’t deteriorate with age. Our brain is the size
of two clenched fists. The hand is the most complicated
of organs. Which, as is written on a card I carry
in my wallet, I will donate to others—eyes, liver, lungs,
heart, whatever can be salvaged, should all else fail.
The Fullness Thereof
The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Psalm 24
In the beginning a riot of color, burnt umber, magenta,
madder red. Vast expanses of indigo.There was thunder
and the absence of thunder. There was heat, earth shifting,
hills swelling, ridges rising. Then came the fingerlings,
the frogs and dark-eyed juncos. Possum and hawk
and fox. There were buffalo, mountain lions. There were
slender legs of spiders and dragonflies. Mosquitoes trapped
on salmon-colored salamanders’ flickering tongues. Black
bears lumbering through the underbrush. Speckled eggs,
beavers, fire ants. Night crawlers wriggling below, crows
cawing above, there was earth and the fullness thereof.
We forded the river, the one named Euphrates, the highest
mountain, we called it Mount George, the one we crossed
over, Mount Spotswood. We numbered the trout and muskie,
the brooks they swam in. We tracked all species of fowl.
We blazed trails in the forest and left distinguishing marks.
The winnowing down of daylight, that was good. Once
two geese swooped in. He swam up and down the pond
fixing his amber eye on me. She tucked her head beneath
one wing. Stars were our faithful companions and we drank
to their health, as we did to the King and the rest of the Royal
Family. In this way we cleared the path to today.
It’s hard to think of home without the hawthorn and the scat
of deer and mole. It’s hard to think of fall without the sight
of scurrying squirrels packing nuts into their cheeks, fearing
humans less than winter. It’s hard to think of me without my
hound, my hound, heaven’s staunchest ally. It’s hard to live
on this land without hearing sounds of all sorts of creatures, all
digging out towards light, or burrowing within, breathing deeply
of the darkening night. To love a place is to love where you are,
to know it is beyond compare, the air, the scent, it might as well
be skin, it is to touch, be touched by everything in the surround,
to feel at one yet fully other in this diverse dominion.
After the War
It was a Czech film and the lead was a dead ringer
for my uncle, same full cheeks, almond eyes, same
slicked back hair. The movie ended with the hero
reclaiming his fortune, his life. My uncle also survived,
spared by Mengele himself, angel of death, fastidious,
spick and span, spotless in white. Step to the right
he said, because my uncle was young and strong and knew
how to weld. I met my uncle when I was four, after
the camps, after the year in a Swiss sanitarium to put on
weight, after the judge at Ellis Island changed his name
from Pavel to Paul, Breiss to Brennan, the Irishman
from Prague. He seemed to live a charmed life after the war,
played the market, married money, became the life
of the party with his repertoire of jokes, which he couldn’t
stop telling. After my father died he embezzled money
from my mother, his sister, but she forgave him, because
of all he went through, which he never talked about
until he was dying, and even then only the funny stories,
the bunkmate who after liberation threw shoes at him:
Here, he said, you saved me, now you wear them, they’re killing
my feet. What if that dashing movie star and my uncle really
had been twins, identical, indulged with sweets before
dissection by “Uncle Josef,” who also survived, in Brazil,
marrying his brother’s wife, living to the ripe old age
of 79 before dying of a massive stroke.He was a doctor.
He should have known better than to plunge into an ocean
so soon after the noonday meal, and on a full stomach.