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PSALM 151

It’s nice to remember the houses

floating on water. It’s nice

to stand on the shore and sing

a hymn of praise

while the candles burn

in the windows.

It’s nice to dream the loaves

rising in the ovens

and the floors dusted with flour,

the women with the beautiful

hair falling like cities

into the darkness, the long

nights of love. It’s nice to

pretend we could have saved them.

It’s nice to say a few

words as spring turns to fall,

as fall turns to winter, and winter to spring.

It’s nice to return again

and stare at the stars

so bright and forgettable.

It’s nice to remember the laughter

spilling into the wind,

roses sprouting from their fleshy mouths

as the children fall down

and down into the dirt.

It’s nice to remember the voices

calling for you, calling

back the curtains, calling

through the long sleeves, the hollow places.

It’s nice to remember the feast

of speckled blackbirds

huddled on the rims

of roofs, the stars

drawn in ash on the doorways,

the lament of uncles —

the long dance that kicked

up the dust and crinkled leaves

the bodies waiting to burn,

the ash drifting on water.

— Jeff Friedman

* * *|

How do we remember? That is, how do we remember properly the painful events of Jewish history, which at this time of year, religiously, Jews are called on to remember. This is a burden Jewish poets bear, sometimes with great difficulty. Jeff Friedman’s formal approach is to write a deceptively simple litany; as a refrain, “it’s nice to remember” seems so simple as to be negligible.

But the painful images he brings to the poem pull the reader back from any easy interpretation and invite us to contemplate their strangeness — for instance, the wounds he calls roses “sprouting from” the “fleshy mouths” of children, which must be an image from the Holocaust, or the strange and ominous “feast/ of speckled blackbirds/ huddled on the rims/ of roofs, the stars/ drawn in ash on the doorways.” The images evoke and suggest narratives we already know, but from a surprising angle. In the end, the poem says without saying it, that it’s not “so nice to remember,” but we have to.

Jeff Friedman grew up in St. Louis and teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire. His latest of three books of poetry is “Taking Down the Angel” from Carnegie Mellon Press (2003).

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