N  a  p a  l  m     H  e  a  l  t  h     S  p  a  :     R  e  p  o  r  t     2  0  0  9






First Love


At fourteen my mother cuts a sharp

figure: in sleeveless white blouse,

denim pedal pushers, black sneakers

and no socks, she is already tougher

than the overcooked meat

she refuses to eat

when my grandmother

pushes it toward her every night.

“Take a bite. So stubborn you are,”

my grandmother shrieks, throwing up

her hands in disgust at her daughter

who—is it possible?—is even more

impossible than she was as a child.

But now hours remain

before supper, the sun still high

in the sky an unblinking eye

that can’t see my mother hidden

behind the brick apartment building

she calls home along with half

of Brooklyn. Or so it seems.

My grandmother who has eyes

in the back of her head

can’t see her either. This secret

place is my mother’s room

of her own. She leans against

cool brick, the scratchy hardness

a comfort to her bare arm

and lights up the first cigarette

of her life. It tastes good

this forbidden bitterness

this sweet piece of heat

held between two fingers

slender as the long white stem

of chalk her French teacher

slashes across the board

showing my mother what to do

with her accent. No namby-pamby

goody goody Mademoiselle, my mother

inhales like a pro, exhales with a sigh

of deep satisfaction like someone

languishing in bed, someone who doesn’t

have homework to do, dishes to wash,

a mother to ignore, a life

to escape. It’s love at first

puff, this Chesterfield King

and my tough little mother.

She tries blowing a smoke ring,

succeeds, watches it vanish

into thin air, wishes she could

follow. Inhales again, lets smoke

stream out of both nostrils

like the fire-breathing dragon

in a story book she read

long ago when she was a child.

Takes another drag, blows it out

retreats behind a cloud

of blue-grey smoke that softens

the world in front of her burning

eyes. Keeps going until she is down

to a nub, stubs it out underfoot

instantly lights up another, thinks:

all right, I can do this. And does.




The Wood Gatherer Speaks


Once when the Israelites were in the wilderness,

they came upon a man gathering wood on the

sabbath day. Those who found him as he was

gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron

and the whole   community. He was placed in

custody, for it had not been specified what should

be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The

man shall be put to death: the whole community

shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So

the whole community took him outside the camp

and stoned him to death—as the Lord had

commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-15:36)


It was a sunny day

It was a cloudy day


It was early morning

It was late afternoon


I was gathering wood to build a fire

to warm myself


I was gathering wood to build a fire

to cook myself a meal


I was gathering wood to build a fire

that was never lit

yet burns for all time


I still tasted the bitterness of slavery

and did not care about keeping the Sabbath


I cared about keeping the Sabbath so much

I sacrificed my life so others would remember


I was selfish

I was self-less


Some say my name is Tzelofechad

and my five brave daughters

Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah and Tirtzah

are my legacy


Others insist I am a nameless man

known only for the worst thing I did

on the worst day of my life


Here is the truth:


I was gathering wood on the Sabbath Day

I was warned three times to stop


I was gathering wood on the Sabbath Day

no one said a word


I was brought before Moses and Aaron

They put me in custody

Then Moses spoke with God


God said to Moses, Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy

God said to Moses Thou shalt not kill

God said to Moses Take this man outside the camp

Have the whole community stone him to death


Moses said to God

Pardon the iniquity of this man

according to Your great kindness

as You have forgiven the people Israel

ever since Egypt


Moses said: nothing


When I heard my fate

I stood still as a stone


I was struck first

by a rock

the size of the apple

Eve shared with Adam


I was struck first

by a small pebble

that was later placed

on my grave


The first stone

was thrown

by the hand of a stranger


The first stone

was thrown

by the hand of a friend

The first stone

was thrown

by the hand of my daughter


The first stone

was thrown

b’ yad Moshe


The stones came hard and fast as rain

The stones came slowly, a lifetime apart


I stood upright

I fell to the ground


I cursed God

whom I did not believe in

I prayed to God

whom I loved with all my heart


As I lie on the earth

bruised and broken

a grasshopper leapt near my face

looked into my eyes

and sang a song so sweet

it broke my heart

and healed it


The grasshopper died beside me

The grasshopper hopped away


My life ended thousands of years ago

I am alive today


I gather wood on the scrolls of your Torah

I dance on the fringes of your tzitzit

I wander through the corners of your mind

as you sit in shul on Shabbat

and contemplate

the meaning of your life

the meaning of mine




[Poems reprinted with permission of the author from Nobody’s Mother, Orchard House Press, 2008.]