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Gift Means Poison In German

ISSUE:  Winter 1983

And poisson means fish in French.
Therefore, on my first trip to Paris,
reading a menu I recalled
my cousin, now a fashionable designer,
then a survivor of Dachau, twelve years old,
a week after arrival in New York City
when Truman was President. I thought
of what she must have thought when,
for the first time, she rode on the Broadway bus
and passed one gift shop after another.

Poison itself is a funny word, a gift horse
given by deceitful Greeks: look in its mouth
and see: it sounds what it says, it seems.
For example, five years ago I walked
into the Jolly Corner grocery store
which no longer stands on 75th Street
and Columbus Avenue. A man and his wife,
ahead of me in line, were buying Camels
for him and Winstons for her when
a display case of brightly packaged junk food
next to the cash register caught his eye.
His wife said, in a tone it would take a gifted actress
years to perfect, “That stuff is poison!”
and then she stalked out of the store as though,
perhaps, the ongoing argument that defined their marriage
had taken a new, subtle turn. Tilting his head
toward the door, the man behind the counter
faced the abandoned husband and said,
She’s poison.” He said it as if he knew
and by god I thought he did: very possibly both of them
were right, I decided: and wondered what the husband
was thinking, who had suffered in silence
this perfect stranger to insult his wife.


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