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