Friday, November 14, 2003
Workers' Houses, Lowell, Massachusetts
Jack Delano, Library of Congress LC-USF34- 042897-D
My Lithuanian uncle, Peter, who died a few years ago, was a passionate logophile and letter-to-the-editor writer. A classic autodidact. Over the years the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune published hundreds of his letters; he clipped them all and kept them in neat, chronological binders. His topics ranged from nature to politics. After his death, DK and I scanned and typed them into computer files and printed them up for his widow, my aunt.
One of his letters, an anecdote from his impoverished youth in Lowell, Massachusetts, inspired the following poem.
The boy, stumbling in a root-bound meadow,
is looking for oni. Birds decant
thick, gold gouts of melody
into the raw throat of the air.
Get oni, his Ma said. Oni.
Oni for his tonsillar sister.
He tongues and tongues the queer lozenge.
Oni buzzes among his buds.
No doctor would brave the river’s breath,
his mother, her miasmas of hair,
her spoons. She knew poison
when she saw it. She saw it everywhere,
bound her head in rags, gargled beet, leek, horse-
radish, viski against it. But oni was medus,
sweet. Was medicine, antidote.
He knows the taste of medus. LeDoux
doesn’t. Oni oni ? Oignons ? Dans un apothecaire ?
Blunt retorts, flasks of aqua-aqua, sachets, pastilles
and pestles mock him to the sidewalk,
and there she is, waiting for him, Lune de Miel.
Oni, he begs. She waxes sideways
undulant, laughing soit qui mal y pense,
naughty garçon, tes pensées t’empoisonnent.
He flees. He knows all her names.
Menusis, wafering the night’s tongue.
Loon’s song, menstrual sister,
mill, looming the Merrimack,
to a fallen stole of moonlight and brick.
Sundays the Cardinal intones Methuselah !
Lunatic, they whisper, pointing at Ma.
Medusa, says his sister, pointing at snakes.
Sanctuary, the boy prays, Oni,
and genuflects into the baznytele
where the grocer, Paterson, officiates
behind an immaculate countertop.
His apron’s a pentecost of daily blood.
Eat, my child, bids Paterson, and drink.
Accept the motley sacrament of speech.
For you the world has fallen into word,
as sin and sacrifice. Spread this good news.
And with two hands he lifts and consecrates
a jar inscribed with clover, hives and bees,
their heads thrust deep in purple, calyxed froth,
sounding for nectar, stigmata, oni.
Bells spritz. The boy rejoices, tingling.
He’s found his medus, his mead, his Oni grail,
the honey soit qui miel y pense where word
and world both lie, sweet nothings, on the tongue.