Wanting to Live in Harlem

Pictures of violins in the Wurlitzer collection
Were my bedroom’s one decoration,
Besides a blue horse and childish tan maiden by Gauguin —
Backs, bellies and scrolls,
Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati,
Colored like a calabash-and-meerschaum pipe bowl’s
Warmed. matured body —
The color of the young light-skinned colored girl we had then.
I used to dream about her often,
In sheets she’d have to change the day after.
I was thirteen, had just been Bar Mitzvah.
My hero, once I’d read about him,
Was the Emperor Hadrian; my villain, Bar Kochba,
The Jew Hadrian had crushed out at Jerusalem:
Both in the Cambridge Ancient History’s Hadrian chapter (1936 Edition), by some German. (The Olympics Year of my birth and Jesse Owens’ putsch it had appeared.)
Even then, in '49, my mother was dying.
Dressed in her fresh-air blue starched uniform,
The maid would come from mother’s room crying
With my mother’s tears shining on her arm,
And run to grab her beads and crucifix and missal,
I to find my violin and tuning whistle
To practice my lessons. Mendelssohn. Or Bach,
Whose Lutheran fingering had helped pluck
The tonsured monks like toadstools from their lawns,
And now riddled the armor I would have to shuck:
His were life-sized hands behind his puppet Mendelssohn’s.
One night, by the blue of her nitelite, I watched the maid
Weaving before her mirror in the dark, naked.
Her eyes rolled, whiskey-bright; the glass was black, dead.
“Will you come true? It’s me, it’s me,” she said.
Her hands and her hips clung to her rolling pelvis.
Her lips smacked and I saw her smile, pure lead
And silver, like a child, and shape a kiss.
All night I tossed. I saw the face,
The shoulders and the slight breasts — but a boy’s face,
A soft thing tangled, singing, in his arms,
Singing and foaming, while his blinding pelvis,
Scooped out, streamed. His white eyes dreamed,
While the black face pounded with syncope and madness.
And then, in clear soprano, we both screamed.
What a world of mirrored darkness! Agonized, elated,
Again years later I would see it with my naked
Eye — see Harlem: doped up and heartless,
Loved up by heroin, running out of veins
And out of money and out of arms to hold it — where
I saw dead saplings wired to stakes in lanes
Of ice, like hair out cold in hair straightener.
And that wintry morning, trudging through Harlem
Looking for furnished rooms, I heard the solemn
Pedal-toned bowing of the Bach Chaconne.
I’d played it once! How many tears
Had shined on mother’s maids since then?
Ten years! I had been trying to find a room ten years,
It seemed that day, and been turned down again and again.
No violin could thaw
The rickety and raw
Purple window I shivered below, stamping my shoes.
Two boys in galoshes came goosestepping down
The sheer-ice long white center line of Lenox Avenue.
A blue-stormcoated Negro patrolman,
With a yellowing badge star, bawled at them. I left too.
I had given up violin and left St. Louis,
I had given up being Jewish,
To be at Harvard just another
Greek nose in street clothes in Harvard Yard.
Mother went on half dying.
I wanted to live in Harlem. I was almost unarmored . . .
Almost alone — like Hadrian crying
As his death came on, “Your Hadrianus
Misses you, Antinoüs,
Misses your ankles slender as your wrists.
Dear child. We want to be alone.
His back was the city gates of Rome.
And now Jerusalem is dust in the sun,
His skies are blue. He’s coming, child, I come.”