Why Not Nothing
My Nana, wife of Poppy, told the story
only once, how she and he were in the cattle car,
holding hands, he was my Adam, she says, my good
heart, my Patroklos, and when the SS officer called
out for doctors, he said “I am,” and she “a nurse,” though he
a pattern cutter, she a baker of bread and honey cake,
so why not pray to be spared from the nothing
of nothingness, and so they were delivered.
And why not nothing? Well, first of all,
gift-horse leaps to mind, even as those few chosen
to work entered the town built on the marshes, even if
real nothingness would forbid that! It merely encodes
what it means for nothing whatever to exist. You want
proof, then know me by my proof.
Consider once again the orchestra struck up,
and the people chosen to work, the chosen, the elect,
after the officer had stalked down the ranks
in his fur-collared greatcoat making impatient
gestures, pointing at people, pointing at him.
They entered together the town built on the marshes,
dark water, rusty black, smelling of decay, filthy shreds of rags,
bloodstained clothes discarded by the camp operating
theaters, yet sometimes a child’s song, key to something
that is not, surely not, nothing, as after Patroklos is speared.
Remember how the first tribute comes from Zeus himself,
he who has just engineered Patroklos’ death,
and now sings of him “gentle and strong” then
“faithful friend” croons Athena, “His warmth of heart,”
Nestor’s son, Antilokhos hums, and “Our best man,”
“irreparable loss and grief” incapacitated
by grief, all of them, how is it, oh monsters
of cruelty, encoders of nothingness, turners
away from the nothing that is, escapees, my Nana,
my Poppy, singing lullabies to their gift horses,
those palominos of the here and now, dappled
with the dew of the living.
Jeffrey Levine’s most recent book is At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered. His many poetry prizes include the Levis Prize in Poetry, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Mississippi Review Prize, the Ekphrasis Poetry Contest (twice), and the American Literary Review prize. His poems have garnered twenty-one Pushcart nominations. In addition to his own writing, he is translator of Canto General, Pablo Neruda’s epic work of poetry. A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, Levine is artistic director and publisher of Tupelo Press, now celebrating it’s twentieth year.