Jan/Feb 2013 Poetry

Two Muses

by Jascha Kessler

Two Muses

I. The Muse Young

I find myself in a deserted square at the very center of an ancient city that once had been destroyed, or perhaps fled from by its citizens. I stand amid its ruins. Somehow it has also the appearance of having been newly-excavated, its former streets cleared of millennial debris and exposed again, as was the Roman Forum. It also seems somehow a neighborhood of my childhood in summertime. It occurs to me, perhaps this was the ancient Jewish Quarter of Rome? But—there are fresh-painted street signs on gleaming, green-painted lamp posts. Strada di Speranza? Via della Carita? Viale del Buono? "How strange!" I say to the maiden who keeps pace with me a step or two at my left. "One might almost assume that the naming of streets after the great moral virtues would be a clue to the long-dead ideals of those vanished people. Perhaps it is just a naive archæology that imagines such names could direct us to the ethical ideals they seem to suggest. Could they actually have lived by them? I wonder, though: How would they go in English today: Kind Street, Charity Street, Faith Street, Hope Street, Good Street? Et cetera. They sound, well ... quaint, but so charming! Sadly, that's all lost and gone. The signs nonetheless are there, as though just put up for us. How can that be?

II. The Old Muse

Midnight. I have returned to the Bronx. Allerton Avenue as it was more than sixty years ago. And I am more than sixty years older, standing waiting outside that Roman-styled mausoleum, the Manufacturers Trust Company. No one is to be seen by the yellowed street light. Overhead, the empty El station. Across the avenue, a lone Checker cab sits parked at the taxi stand. A haggard, old woman emerges out of the darkness and moves wavering towards me. She is tented in a muu-muu printed with large dark flowers like hibiscus, blurred purple bruises. Her gray hanks of hair hang wild, splayed over her shoulders in greasy strands. Her burning, rheumed eyes are hollowed with grief, her face creased by sleeplessness. Like a sibyl approaching an ancient altar, she raises both arms, exposing wrinkled, empty sacs of skin above the elbow as she stops to stand before me, her eyes fixed upon my chest as though she gazed through me, as though I were not even there. Then she lets fall bony hands upon my shoulders, their fingers gripping me. Then her right hand crawls across over my chest, her forefinger clawing my heart. Yet I am not frightened, but patient, standing wooden. The silent force of her gesture is a thought, silently commanding: You must speak truth. I'm startled. Why me? Yet despite fear, resigned. I think, So be it.


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