David Unger


You drank
  bitterly sweet Turkish coffee
                        in the sprawling metal bed,
a white linen gown for pajamas,
      your black skullcap
              hugging your very bald samovar head.
In the open armoire
                              hung your grey herring bone suit,
          the silver pocket watch
you were too blind to read
         hooked to a vest button
              by a Prince Albert chain.
In the pocket
          next to your smuggled cigarettes
       a tin filled with baking soda:
you'd dab a bit on your tongue
     to cover the tobacco reek
              of that forbidden Shabbat puff
taken in the bathroom
                       between the kibbe lunch
       and the afternoon siesta.
Joaquin would drive us
    to the Mogen David Synagogue,
            the service had  already begun

and we
          the reprobate grandchildren
          who had partnered with your wife
 to turn back the clock the night before
       were guilty as Cain
                sweet but overzealous grandpa!
I saw the puff clouds of anger
    march out of your ears
       the veins on your temple bulging,
you arrived late
  to the opening of the Ark,
          as sacred as God's words
  pure and perfect
       from the burning bush.

The Haham
       (the synagogue was too poor
          to hire an authentic rabbi)
rocked on the bimah,
   slurred the prayers
           like a toneless sax,
a wart the size of a golf ball
           or Mount Ararat
                          on his forehead
 (lucky to be blind, you wouldn't have to stare at it).
Impious, defiant
     just like my father
           a nine year old Jew,

I would cross my legs
   over and over again
             making the sign of the cross
(aping the priest
              who folded his arms across the chest
                  at the Cerrito del Carmen Church)
flipped Guatemalan len
   (Quich? for pennies)
               in my pocket
dreaming of sleep
                           carnivals and ferris wheels
                 a world without obligations, free of prayers:
I was an ishto too
      (Quich? for snotnosed brat)
        set on avoiding the Haham's sermon
which made the hard wooden benches
      and more wooden like sitting Shiva

though there were no corpses
    unless corpses
      prayed the same prayers every Shabbat.
Salvation came when the velvet-covered scroll
                  was returned  to its place
                         in the Ark,
the criminal to his cell
   the bully to the principal's office
          and I could stand up

hear the soccer cheers
       at the Municipal-Comunicaciones game
                          in Mateo Flores Stadium
A la bim
  A la bam
    A la bim bom bam

A  la mierda con todos
coil the ends of my talet
    kiss the Torah goodbye
        as it sailed forth into darkness.
We would be singing
     in Hebrew by then
            walking quickly
down the stairs
  to the breakfast room below
      to say Kiddish over the wine
but where the whiskey
             sparkled like liquid gold leaf
                in crystal lead goblets
and the trays of cheese sambusaks
          Turkish empanadas
       made our mouths water.
After your first whiskey
     you had forgotten
            about our nasty clock trick

your stubbled Syrian face
         (a sin to shave on Shabbat...)
           leaned dow to kiss us
Shabbat Shalom
   Shabbat Shalom
      Shabbat Shalom
I could smell your 47-11 cologne
         doing battle
             with your sour whiskey breath
the naphtatlene on your  suit
           grandma's talcum on your collar.
         Shabbat service was over:
rang out dervishly
      like the Sunday morning bells
            at the nearby Iglesia Metropolitana,
as if I had won ten games of toule
                crossed the Red Sea alone
               to skip and jump
on that other shore
   not knowing
     not caring or daring to wonder
if after surmounting that hurdle
             mile after mile of desert
            awaited me...

David Unger was born in 1950 in Guatemala City; he lived there until 1955 when his parents, fleeing the violence in Guatemala, emigrated to Hialeah, Florida. He holds a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an MFA from Columbia University.

His most recent translations include: Silvia Molina's The Love You Promised Me (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1999), Popol Vuh: the Sacred Book of the Maya, version by Victor Montejo (Toronto: Groundwood, 1999), Elena Garro's First Love (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1997) and Bárbara Jacobs's The Dead Leaves (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1993). He has also translated the work of Roque Dalton, Mario Benedetti, Sergio Rámirez Mercado, Luisa Valenzuela, José Agustín, Paco Ignacio Taibo II and others. He has co-translated collections of poetry by Vicente Aleixandre, Enrique Lihn and Isaac Goldemberg and edited and cotranslated Nicanor Parra's Antipoems: New and Selected (New York: New Directions, 1985). Publication of his own writing includes Neither Caterpillar Nor Butterfly (1986), The Girl in the Treehouse (1992), and poems and short stories in the following anthologies: Paper Dance: 54 Latino Poets (New York: Persea Books, 1995); Currents from the Dancing River: New Writing By Latinos (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1994), Tropical Synagogues: Latin American Jewish Fiction (New York: Holmes and Meiers, 1994), and the Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Literature (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986).

Awards include the 1998 Ivri-Nasawi Poetry Prize, the 1991 Manhattan Borough Presidentâs Award for Excellence in the Arts, and two translation grants from the New York State Council on the Arts.

He is the U.S. coordinator of the Guadalajara International Book Fair and the Director of City Collegeâs Publishing Certificate Program;  he also serves on the Advisory Board of Curbstone Press and the Multicultural Review.

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