Who He Was

Who He Was

(Joe Burt 1915-1995)


He catapulted from his armchair,
airborne for an instant, primed to smash
the fledgling power who dared challenge
his rule. That runty five-year-old who would
not stop his catch to fetch a pack of Luckys
crossed some unmarked border, threatened
the kingdom’s order and loosed the dogs of war.

No chance to repent, no strap, no bruises
on my face, my mother’s screaming just static
behind the pounding taking place; rage spent,
sortie ended, he thumped down the stairs
to his crushed velvet base, pending new
provocations to launch him into space.

Worse followed till my biceps hardened,
but that first strike left most scars: with strangers
six decades on klaxons ahwooga,
the clogged heart hammers, I weigh my chance.


A scion of the tents of Abraham
born during World War I, he policed
a patriarch’s long list of rights: no one
but he sat in the fat feather armchair
confronting the T.V., or at our table’s
head, read the paper before he did or
said Let’s go somewhere else when we ate out;
if he fell sick the house fell silent, roared
and we all quaked.

I was chattel as well
as son and he sold my youth for luxuries:
an extra day a week to fish, lunch time
shags with his cashier, a kapo’s trades.

My anger, like an old Marxist’s, leached
away as parenthood, mistakes and time
taught Moloch is a constant. Attic myth,
Old Testament, bulge with sacrifical
tales, the Crucifixion one more offering
to Baal; families recapitulate
phylogeny, it’s what fathers do.


the golden land in the ’thirties

Morning he threads russet gorges
of two-storey brick row houses –
short pants, pals, eighth grade
shut behind him – and evening
draggles home past trolleys full
of profiles who paid the nickel
he can’t afford to ride

no one
waits dinner: his mother leaves cold
soup in the kitchen (on Fridays
chicken) he gobbles by the sink
and chases with a fag puffed
on the way to box, while siblings,
older, younger, scribble lessons
or meet friends; sleeps alone
above the back porch in an unheated
room; wears his brother’s hand me
downs; his father beats him bloody
for spending part of his first pay-
check on a first pair of new shoes;

for cash he boxes bantam weight
before crowds shrieking kill the kike,
hawks sandwiches from wooden carts
to high school kids who once were friends,
at quitting time shoots crap with men
and at sixteen, meat hook in hand,
stands in a butcher shop’s ice-box
breaking beef hindquarters down.


Depression shadowing the Volk
like a Canaanite colossus,
arms bent at elbows, palms turned up
hefts the male offering, sublimes
skin so it no longer feels pain,
fuses eyelids so rainbows shine
in vain, sears nerves so hands cannot
unclench and a decade on, when
ritual ends, amid ashes
the sacrifice survives, savage
more than man, hard, violent,
unbelieving, in the orbit
of whose fists lie his certainties.


Bouts sometimes knocked him head to knees,
His swollen gut spewed crimson
Shit, he wasted until Crohn’s disease
Left his great white hope the surgeon.

Tangled in tubes and drips post-op,
Missing most of his ileum,
Ribs prominent through cotton top,
Fed strained juice and pabulum
He went fifteen rounds with death.

The dark heavyweight danced away,
Doctors raised his withered arm
And sent him south where snowbirds play
Hoping he’d recover weight and form.

There he eyed the champion
Crouched outside the ring to spring
Back for the rematch no one wins,
His belly’s serpentine stitching,
The black before, the black after

And when he lifted the ropes
Again, he could not see beyond
Himself and his ringside shadow.


The skeleton in a wheelchair props rented
tackle on the rail, stares down twenty feet
from a pier through salt subtropical air
at shoal water wavelets for blue slashes
flashing toward the bait below his float,
and misses one hit, two, a third, an inept
young butcher far from inner city streets
recovering from surgery, too proud
to bask with codgers, too weak to walk or swim,
a sutured rag doll whose one permitted
sport is dangling blood worms from a pole.

His father’s plumb and adze, mother’s thread and pins, tradesmen, carters, peddlers, kaftaned bearded
kin, village landsmen from Ukraine, friends, nothing
in his life smelled of ocean; but cleaver
held again, he kept on fishing. Once a week
he drove eighty miles east to prowl the sea
with charter-men, ever farther from the coast
till, white coat and meat hook junked, he trolled
ballyhoo for marlin eight hours run offshore.

Two score years and four skiffs on, by his command
we laid him down in fishing clothes, khaki
trousers, khaki shirt, Dan-Rick on the right
breast pocket, on the left Capt. J. Burt.

("Who He Was" appeared in PN Review, November-December 2010.)


© All poems remain the copyright of Dan Burt and are reproduced with his permission