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RWB Workshop Poem of the Week—August 13

August 14, 2019

Arthur Russell

The Harmonica


In this poem, my mother is my mother,
and the harmonica is the Hohner 
chromatic harmonica she’d been saving 
to give me on the last night of Hanukah.

The candles in this poem are the multi-colored,
crayon-shaped candles I arranged 
in the menorah so the colors went 
blue, white, yellow, blue, white, 
with a white one slightly higher than the rest,
in the menorah
on the white Formica countertop
in our kitchen when I was sixteen,

and the flames in this poem
are the flames on those candles,
the tallow-smelling yellow, black, 
and orange flames 
I’d lit after saying the prayers,
and really, it’s the flames
that connect us to the distant past.  

The underwear in this poem
is the pack of white Hanes briefs
wrapped in holiday paper
that my mother excused herself
a moment to bring in 
through the dining room door
as her gift to me 
on the fifth night of Hanukah.

The tantrum in this poem
is the fit I pitched when 
I unwrapped the underwear,
one of the first in a line of angry fits
I pitched at her from 
time to time through 
youth, adulthood, and marriage,
through her own widowhood,
until she died forty-five years later.

Any effort to reconstruct
the logic of any of those fits
would be embarrassing,
and I’d be happy
to be embarrassed that way 
if I could remember the logic,
by which I mean the trigger,
but all that’s left in memory
are the fits I’d pitch
and the knowledge 
that whatever caused them 
still lives in me like a cramp.

The stairs in this poem 
are the beige, carpeted stairs
my mother ran up to get the harmonica, 
frightened, maybe panicked,
by that young male anger. 
Who knows what she thought of, 
who she remembered,
what fears of her own were triggered
by my meltdown, 
maybe as far back as Brighton Beach
and the chaos of her own teen years,
the brutal anger of boys and men,
even though I can’t see my grandfather among them, 
maybe only as far back as my father’s
secret, bully machismo, hidden under that calm
undertone I heard coming from their room next to mine
the nights when he didn’t get what he wanted
and her whispered entreaties broke into shouted “no.”

She ran to get the harmonica, 
but only in the way that she would run 
to get a towel if a pipe burst,
panicked and calm,
and handed it to me.

The peace in this poem is the peace 
that overwhelmed my anger 
when I held the harmonica in my hands,
a peace as deep as morphine 
it was, and, for that moment,
and, maybe for the last time,
it brought me all the way back
to loving her.

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