Elegy with Construction Sounds, Water, Fish
A nail gun fires into wooden scaffolding up the hill—
the skeleton of a roof unfolding above the trees.
Rat tat tat. Bunk bunk bunk. There is music,
and there is music—the tap of a hammer
smoothing out a mistake. Tall hillside grass
sways, and the houses tucked into the valley
don’t do anything. They don’t rock
like the black shoulders of mourners.
Something is chirping in the yard,
but in Yiddish the skies are empty
of birds. An air-conditioning unit hums.
The mountains cup the houses the way
a boy might half-moon his hands together
to catch water from a hose that arcs
and splats on cement—skin of water, skin
of pavement. We spend all night outside
staining the deck. The night my grandmother dies
we have to do something. The night my grandmother dies
I dream of my dead friend Chris. He gives me
a fish and I skin it, roll up its white flesh,
secure it with a toothpick on a basement work table.
There is a dearth of fish in Yiddish. In my dream,
Chris and I go out at sunset, roam the streets
of what seems like Queens. He walks off
with his school bag slung sideways across his chest
before I can show him the Friday ladies in hats,
the Friday candy store, the whiskered carp slapping
the sides of white bathtubs of my childhood
while my grandmother, bare-armed, wigless,
stands over the kitchen sink with a mallet.
Whatever is chirping in the tall hill grass
won’t quit. Yiddish is a world devoid
of trees. My grandmother is dead.
We each took turns burying her
with the rounded side of a shovel,
the sluice of earth sliding over metal.
The dirt hit her wooden box—each clod
and rock. You’ve heard the sound before.
There is clover in the yard, but Yiddish
has almost no flowers. My aunt will set
a white towel, a pitcher of water
on the stoop. We will wash death
from our hands before we enter her house.
There is music, and there is music.
There is water from a plastic pitcher
hitting slate pavers, silenced by skin.
There are valleys with houses tucked
into them and something trilling
in the grass, and there is Yiddish—
my grandmother’s Galicianer accent,
shorthand for a thumping resilient
nameless thing that refuses to leave us,
refuses to sing.