The Tea Drinkers

My grandmother, ninety plus
but still in good health, thank God,
drinks wine-dark Sweetouchnee
from a tall thin glass with a cube of sugar

clamped firmly between her false teeth.
If she has a cold, or even feels one coming on,
she cuts a little wedge of lemon and squeezes
the curative citric acid into the dark-red tea
which steams and froths as the avenging Red Sea
closing in on Pharaoh’s armored hordes
in pursuit of the shepherd Moses and his chosen wards.
When I come to visit (which isn’t often enough, I’m ashamed to say)
and she’s done with taking inventory of the
health and fortunes of the entire family,
comes the inevitable: “A cup of tea, maybe?”
You see, she thinks it beneath the dignity
of a professional man born on this side
to drink tea from a glass just like a greenhorn.
So she pours from an old earthenware pot
into a fine bone-china cup decorated

with dainty flowers in old dusty rose bought seventy-five years ago on the lower East Side
three days after she had stood under the marriage canopy
a bride, beside my grandfather Leibel Chaim,
a mighty drinker of tea in his time —
I was named after him, may he rest in peace.
My baba beams on her youngest grandson, her favorite,
I’m not ashamed to say, and we commune:
she infusing the tea somewhat noisily;
I, more reserved, as befits a professional man.
It’s mutual, this silent pleasure
extracted from a little tin red-and-gold-striped trunk
shaped like a sea chest for storing lost treasure
and my children’s (just as I before them) precious junk.
And as she gets up to prepare a small treat for her
unexpected guest, I ponder with a start, a jolt to the heart —
what I’ve recently learned from some glossy learned journal
of the radioactive dross infiltrating the world’s tea:
(a stupid mistake for that idiot leaf to make,
perversely choosing to flourish in loam nourished
by sea wind and rain blowing in from tainted zones).
What sense does it make to babble of desecration
to an old baba patiently waiting to be bedded down
between husband and son in consecrated family burial ground —
that the essence in her chipped heirloom pot
holds a distillation of slow bone-raddling rot!
how they’ve been poisoning the tea the chai, the tay,
all the way from Malay Straits to East Broadway!
Shall I beat my breast, rend my clothes, sprinkle ash,
and sit lamenting the living and the innocent unborn?
Or stagger under dour Jeremiah’s bleak vocation,
shouting for justice and judgment to the yawning nations?
And as we sit and drink tea, chatting affectionately
about the world through the dissonant sounds orchestrated
on East Broadway, I marvel and mourn that all over
this forlorn sphere people everywhere, and now,
are drinking tea: if not Sweetouchnee, then amber Oolong
or smoky Lapsang, or why not a dark mountainslope Darjeeling?
And an old grandmother, like mine, perhaps with grandsons
nomad Lapps herding reindeer; or rice farmers pausing
in the planting in fields near old Kyoto; or a blind Hindu
tea-drinking in that city of Benares where they cremate
the dead on sandalwood; or might her grandson be a Formosa
soldier boy homesick on a disputed island; a longshoreman
reposing in his slum in Liverpool; a beardy Amish farmer
soberly stacking hay in Ohio; or a displaced Bantu
diamond miner shivering at night in shantytown set like
a shattered stone in the golden blight of tropical Johannesburg.
Sitting in chair, squatting on haunch, standing in fertile meadow,
and sparring with the bedrock sea: all of us, the defiled
and the deluded lean looped together by our mute drinking
of the sacrament of the tea — whether from glass, cup,
mug or jug or antique china bowl.