Two Poems by J. T. Barbarese


My late father-in-law was a German Jew until
someone mentioned the Holocaust. Then he was just a Jew
who refused to discuss it. Once, he exploded,
The hell with Germany all Germans and the Pope
and told his older sister to go drop dead,
what did she know, nothing is what she knew,
her with her liberal views about human rights.
He pushed himself from the table, still yelling,
and stomped over my daughter’s Madame Alexander doll,
brand new, a Christmas present, barely unwrapped,
red-gowned, princessy, with gold spectacular hair.
He’d been at Yalta, a commissioned ofcer, honor guard,
and saw Uncle Joe blow cigar smoke in FDR’s face.
He celebrated Chanukah, Easter, and Xmas equally.
He voted Republican, drank only V.O., considered Nixon
the country’s greatest chief executive, ever,
cracked jokes about MLK but loved the idea
that a dead Black minister’s birthday was a day of with pay.
Neither his wife nor his two married daughters
(decades of private schools, colleges, one advanced degree)
had heard of Yalta, Potsdam, Munich, or Stalin.
But they had heard of Madame Alexander.
That’s a Madame Alexander, Dad! Watch where you walk.
He thumbed his blue-vesicled nose and sipped his drink.
He had been there at Yalta, with the Big Four,
and he wasn’t talking about the Beatles, either,
and since they didn’t know Pearl Harbor from Pearl Bailey
why bother with them? A year later
he had a spasm in the dentist’s chair
and died six weeks later while I held his hand.
Later, I went through a box of old pictures,
time-browned and -crisped,
and there he was! In a full dress ofcer’s uniform,
mustached, at attention, covered in medals
behind FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek.
He was unimaginably young there among those grandees
his own daughters knew nothing about, whose greatness
was a radiance, had made him radiant too
with history. I felt suddenly sorry for him.
Your grandfather, I said to my daughter. She was two
and didn’t remember him. She was playing
with her Madame Alexander doll,
a scatter of clothes hats bows and shoes all over,
and she pointed with her baby scissors at Stalin,
said Grandpa,
and went on cutting the doll’s spectacular hair.

No Wonder Eddie Wears Cologne

Oscar, a Soviet soldier
captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz (1937),
liberated by Russian forces (1943), re-imprisoned
(Stalin liked soldiers who weren’t captured)
and finally released in 1953, told the interviewer
that the worst thing about the lager was the stench.
The dead smell bad, but the dying? said Oscar, Don’t ask.

I know I watch too many documentaries,
but Oscar made me think of neighbor Eddie,
or rather, of Eddie’s cologne.
Eddie lives in 17-M, other end of our floor,
and whenever he gets on or of the elevator
his cologne impregnates the corridor. It masks
the cigars, the curried lamb, the sour rugs and the cats,
the skunky odor of good dope, all
the odors of a not entirely convivial collective.
His cologne is a triumph. His cologne remembers him
to the corridor, to the elevator as he heads down
seventeen floors to the lobby, which smells of industrial cleaner,
and drives to St. Peter’s, where he empties bedpans
and prepares the corpses for final delivery.
The odor of death is sweet, Eddie told me once—
on the elevator together, him and his Golden Delicious,
his lunch—before the flesh begins to decay
and emit putrescine and cadaverine. When it departs
the soul blows the world a kiss, and for several seconds
fills the room with the sweet breath of our going hence.