The apocryphal Hebrew book, Ecclesiasticus, is attributed to the sage Ben Sira who, it is said, was so wise that he refused to be born and held a considerable debate with various rabbinic authorities from within the womb before finally consenting to emerge from it. As soon as he entered this world, he began spouting wisdom.
There’s no question that Alexander Fu — an actual child who, at the time Stanley Moss composed this poem, was about 11 months old — has nothing to lose in the comparison with Ben Sira, for his wisdom is apparent here.
Or do we owe some credit to the poet who ventriloquized Alexander’s voice, if not actually from the belly of a mother, at least from a diapered child? And which exactly is the child and which the wise old man? An exchange of roles is hinted when the infant observes, “You are wetting your pants to talk to me.”
Born in New York City, Stanley Moss was educated at Trinity College and Yale University. He is a private art dealer specializing in Italian and Spanish old masters, as well as the publisher and editor of The Sheep Meadow Press, a nonprofit press devoted to poetry. Moss told the Forward that he has written five poems about Alexander, three of which can be found in his latest collection, “A History of Color: New and Gathered Poems,” (Seven Stories Press, 2003). It’s a terrific collection spanning a considerable career, from “The Wrong Angel” (MacMillan, 1966) to “Asleep in the Garden: New and Selected Poems” (Seven Stories, 1997), with 40 new poems to boot.
With such a long career, and such lively writing, Moss is to my mind a splendid poet who speaks to the Jewish American experience with depth, varied culture, passion and humor. And wisdom. He has earned the possibility of joking, as he does in this poem, with his own mortality, or, as Alexander implies here, with his citizenship in the society of time. (“We live in two societies….”) His poems are full of arguments, not only with babies, but with mortality and with God, and these impassioned inner debates between intimations of heaven and sensations of the earth remind me greatly of the Psalms.
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ALEXANDER FU TO STANLEY
Big fool, my ancestors understood
we live in two societies: time and that other society
with its classes and orders, which you, Mr. America,
like to think you can ascend or descend at will.
Do I, a baby,
have to tell you there are laws that are not legislated,
judges neither appointed nor elected?
You are wetting your pants to talk to me.
Did it ever cross your mind I like to be ten months old,
going on eleven? You are trying to rob me of my infancy
because I have all the time in the world, and you don’t.
On this May evening passing round the world,
I probably have more diapers on the shelf
than you have years to go. I wish every time I shit
you’d have another year. Now that’s an honest wish,
better than blowing out candles.
(Secretly you want to learn from me.)
You say I look like a prophet, that I will become a philosopher,
an artist, or scientist. Did it ever cross your mind
I would just like to be a bore like you?
Stop thinking about the Jew, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist thing!
The Long March wasn’t from Kovno to Queens.
In summa: you are old and I am young,
that’s the way it should be. I have better things to think about
than are dreamt of in your post-toilet-trained world.
— STANLEY MOSS