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Mr. Schwartzman

Every night Mr. Schwartzman opens

his Lazarus eyes and looks around

at the dead eyeballs, broken fingers

and mouths stuffed with screams.

His five dead children ride a carousel

round the inside of his cracked dreams,

each a continent, a resume filed at Auschwitz.

For piano lessons, I write his letters to

a dead older brother, Reuben, who, like

Spinoza, grinds eyeglasses for a living.

“God only knows why he lives in Berlin…”

and to a daughter, Rebecca, in Paris, which

is “beautiful at night, like glass, like Mozart…”

Humming Brahms, he rocks on his porch,

unbuttons his vest and sighs — “Four children

and her singing career flourishes! Sons

are good but a daughter looks after you…”

When I ask why he writes only to the dead

he rakes his bald spot and says, “All those

stories swallowed by the earth, all those

dreams rotting in unmarked graves, all

those souls defeated by the rain. They live

in the dead like stowaways.” Once music

was a train journey with infinity passing

outside each window, he says. Infinity

was a comfort. “Now it’s soup cans buttons

faces on TV…the lines of people marching

to the crematorium…the regrets triumphs

pleas to remain human a moment longer…”

Every morning he marches to shul with the

other DP’s, like dead weights on God’s

scale, measuring heaven, hell and everything

trapped between. “Every memory leaves

a bruise, a terrible doubt,” he says when

I ask why he stares at the ground when

he walks, “I can’t stop looking for scraps

of food.” After he yanked himself from

the dead he was an empty shirt, a barbed

wire fence, broken black wings flying

over a steaming landscape, a calendar of

lost names, an endless prayer for the dead…

One Saturday I find him turning on a piano

string in his closet, his eyes drained of

experience. I don’t understand why he put

his suit and tie on but not his shoes or socks.

The world, he quoted Martin Buber, permits

itself to be experienced but has no concern

in the matter. “All real living is meeting,”

Buber said. It was his ambition to live in

Buber’s mind like a grand hotel high in the

Swiss Alps, not exactly heaven or God but far

enough away from where we live our real lives.

— Philip Schultz

Philip Schultz was born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1945, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants. “Mr. Schwartzman” is an excerpt from “Living in the Past,” which Harcourt will publish in April 2004. In the book, which is described as an autobiography in verse — though the poet adds, “much of it is made up” — we see the year leading up to a boy’s bar mitzvah and his interaction with Holocaust survivors, displaced persons, from Eastern Europe. “My neighborhood was overwhelmed by DPs in the 1950s, and there was someone like Mr. Schwartzman then, but the rest is invented,” he told the Forward.

Schultz’s first book, “Like Wings” (Viking, 1978), won an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, and his second, “Deep Within the Ravine” (Viking, 1984), won the distinguished Lamont Prize for poetry. Harcourt published “The Holy Worm of Praise” in 2002. After many years as professor and four years as director of New York University’s creative-writing graduate program, Schultz founded the independent Writers Studio in 1988.

In “Mr. Schwartzman,” we feel the weight of memory and loss, the hell of a survivor whose every “memory is a bruise.” As in a dream, the old man who fantasizes and the young boy who writes represent twin aspects of the poet, the boy with his innocence and eagerness to understand and the old man with his dark compulsion to re-create a world that was lost. Though Mr. Schwartzman succumbs to despair, “turning on a piano string/in his closet,” his music — grim, philosophical and oddly humorous — survives and resounds in Schultz’s poem.

Poem by Philip Schultz

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