Impossible to Tell Part 2
It was a routine
Procedure. When it was finished the physicians
Told Sandra and the kids it had succeeded,
But Elliot wouldn’t wake up for maybe an hour,
They should go eat. The two of them loved to bicker
In a way that on his side went back to Yiddish,
On Sandra’s to some Sicilian dialect.
He used to scold her endlessly for smoking.
When she got back from dinner with their children
The doctors had to tell them about the mistake.
Oh swirling petals, falling leaves! The movement
Of linking renga coursing from moment to moment
Is meaning, Bob says in his Haiku book.
Oh swirling petals, all living things are contingent,
Falling leaves, and transient, and they suffer.
But the Universal is the goal of jokes,
Especially certain ethnic jokes, which taper
Down through the swirling funnel of tongues and gestures
Toward their preposterous Ithaca. There’s one
A journalist told me. He heard it while a hero
Of the South African freedom movement was speaking
To elderly Jews. The speaker’s own right arm
Had been blown off by right-wing letter-bombers.
He told his listeners they had to cast their ballots
For the ANC – a group the old Jews feared
As “in with the Arabs.” But they started weeping
As the old one-armed fighter told them their country
Needed them to vote for what was right, their vote
Could make a country their children could return to
From London and Chicago. The moved old people
Applauded wildly, and the speaker’s friend
Whispered to the journalist, “It’s the Belgian Army
Joke come to life.” I wish that I could tell it
To Elliot. In the Belgian Army, the feud
Between the Flemings and Walloons grew vicious,
So out of hand the army could barely function.
Finally one commander assembled his men
In one great room, to deal with things directly.
They stood before him at attention. “All Flemings,”
He ordered, “to the left wall.” Half the men
Clustered to the left. “Now all Walloons,” he ordered,
“Move to the right.” An equal number crowded
Against the right wall. Only one man remained
At attention in the middle: “What are you, soldier?”
Saluting, the man said, “Sir, I am a Belgian.”
“Why, that’s astonishing, Corporal – what’s your name?”
Saluting again, “Rabinowitz,” he answered:
A joke that seems at first to be a story
About the Jews. But as the renga describes
Religious meaning by moving in drifting petals
And brittle leaves that touch and die and suffer
The changing winds that riffle the gutter swirl,
So in the joke, just under the raucous music
Of Fleming, Jew, Walloon, a courtly allegiance
Moves to the dulcimer, gavotte and bow,
Over the banana tree the moon in autumn –
Allegiance to a state impossible to tell.
from The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), copyright © 1996 by Robert Pinsky, used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com. Poetry Foundation recording made on 6 June 2007, Boston, Massachussetts.