Poetry | June 01, 1998

Featuring the poems:

  • The Uses of Rain
  • Schmaltz
  • During Sixth Grade
  • The End of Uncertainty

The Uses of Rain

We sat, in geography, for nine weeks

With water, a marking period of rain.

We followed the dittoed diagrams

Of water’s efficient recycling-

Precipitation, evaporation,

All the clouds we memorized for exams:

Cirrus, cumulus, the great thunderheads

Like the ones Mr. Sanderson called us

To watch at the windows. Snow, he told us,

Was nature’s cheap ice cream, more air in drifts

Than water. A barometer, he said,

Could thrive inside an injured knee, but he

Made us read the names for irrigation,

How crop rotation and the geometry

Of plowing could safety-net the earth.

He taught the proper times for lawn sprinklers,

The folly of building in the flood plain,

And we remembered the timetables

For tides, the value of deltas, wetlands,

And the extraordinary ecosystem

Of the ocean. And though we conserved

For extra credit, though we catalogued

Our care, we took our test, turned it in,

And listened, books closed, to Mr. Sanderson

Tell us the story of the crested bustard,

Whose desire is triggered by the sound of rain.

“Because it lives in the desert,” he explained,

“Its courtship dance must be timed just right.”

He held our stack of tests to his chest

And walked among our rows. “In zoos,” he said,

“In captivity, those birds begin to dance

When they hear a keeper’s hose. They prance

To the simple sound of washing, believing

That rain will water the luck of their children.”



My mother’s old bacon grease filled a jar

That sat among flour and sugar and salt

As if that unlabeled glass held one more

Kitchen staple. 100% fat,

100% thrift-the smoked flavor

Worked its way into eggs so we could eat

More meatless breakfasts. Or no eggs at all,

Just that grease, with green onions, reheated.

That meal took timing, taking the rye bread

To the barely hardened, sopping up schmaltz

Like uncles who drank coffee to cut it.

Such richness stayed overnight in the mouth

Where German melted into the English

Of memory, its sentimental schmaltz.

People my age were forgetting the waltz,

The fox-trot, and my father’s sad box step.

What would be left, my mother worried, when

Conventional dances were gone? When thrift

Was laughed at? And all those warnings about

Salt and fat, the satisfaction of grease.

Already there were complaints about Heinz,

The soups my uncles made. Pittsburgh was home,

Now, to high blood pressure and heart disease,

All the Germans fleeing to the suburbs

Where bacon was drained, salt never slathered

On the crisped skin of chickens.

My mother said we could shimmy it off in no time,

Doing the Twist and the Mashed Potato,

The dances of the slim who’d never heard

Of real schmaltz and the terrible success

Of learning place, those who wouldn’t admit

To grandfathers who ate pure grease and lived,

Who’d punched in for fifty years and carried

The company’s gold watch to prove it.


During Sixth Grade

We learned the Redcoats lost to Patriots

Who wore drab hand-me-downs and mended rags.

We memorized the spellings of handsome

And beautiful, vanity and conceit.

Miss Blatt said listen to this lesson: birds

With the brightest feathers are attacked first

By their predators. We wrote it down so

We wouldn’t forget the consequences

Of fame. We passed around her photos of

Harlow and Valentino, beginning

An album which stopped at the red jacket

Of James Dean, who the year before had been

Pecked by the great beak of our jealous God.

I memorized the size and shape of each

Sixth grade bra cup and thought Elise Nestel

Would surely die before the rest of us.

My father, the troop leader, testified

To the character of a Boy Scout who

Confessed, at last, to a series of rapes

As if any girl’s body had beauty

Enough to attack. The homely brother

Of a classmate crashed his old car and died.

The perfect proportion of bright plumage

To death broke like schoolbook bindings; nothing

Excluded me from the spell of disbelief.


The End of Uncertainty

Researchers are said to have golden hands

when experiments produce a result only for them.


During our two-week retreat, we campers

Had to be praying by sunrise, alone,

Then together, and never for ourselves

Before hymns by the lake where the cold fog

Clung like God’s contempt for our indifference.

Our counselor, when we slept in, told us

The tale of St. Cuthbert, who sank neck-deep

In the sea to prepare himself for prayer.

Thanks be to God for the monk who followed

And his careful recording of such faith.

He showed us, that morning, his Widow’s Mite

And his authentic splinter from the cross.

Because the holiness of parts could keep

Us whole. Because, at night, he kept his fists

Closed in sleep, his fingers curled around them

With Christian discipline, what we could learn

So we’d never worry about God’s fire

Or the cyanide of the gas chamber

That had punished the sins of Caryl Chessman.


There were capital punishments, he said,

For countries, the recent executions

Of the French Sudan and Belgian Congo.

Think what’s happened to the Gold Coast,

He said, and we waited until he breathed,

“Ghana” like the amen at the end of prayer.

His last sermon explained how the world’s maps

Were revised and revised until they were

As reliable as the Vinland Map,

Forged to give Vikings credit for first claim

Of discovery. And there were further frauds,

He preached, naming none, but I could tell him,

Today, how Libya, finally, produced

A map without England, expanding

The North Sea to excise what it loathed.

And I could name the astronomer who,

For love of belief, altered photographs

Which proved additional galaxies.


This year the Shroud of Turin is making

A comeback tour while someone claims he owns

The armor worn by Joan of Arc, its nicks

And scratches where her sacred wounds would be.

Soon there may be a whole host of returns:

Piltdown Man, Cardiff Giant, and Barnum’s

Colorado Man, all of them called out

Like the planted sick of a faith healer’s

Audience. This week, from the riverbank

A mile from here, a skeleton unearthed,

Each day regaining more of itself from

Six fillings and the evidence of wounds.

This morning, the published photographs

Of the long-missing woman, interviews

With her parents, nothing like armor

Keeping their daughter from harm. It’s the end

Of uncertainty, the mother declares.

It’s the end of miracles, the father adds,

Continued on the page where a woman

Displays one thousand origami cranes

She owns to bring fulfillment of wishes.


And I’m thinking, now, that we should forgive

The scientists who have doctored data,

Forgive the golden hands of researchers.

Absolve the man who marked mice with the ink

Of false verification and pardon,

The doctor who beat probability

With a simple shift of answers. For they

Do the work of our wishes. For they bring

Miracles and divine intervention.

There are so many God-signs in science

We need a library for likely fraud,

Space enough for enormous paper flocks

To dream among, letting go of no coins

Or splinters, and willing the body not

To shift in sleep, those frail, paper birds so

Securely settled they will not startle.

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