From the Archive: “The Material,” by Robert Pinsky

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“The Material,” by Robert Pinsky, appeared in MQR’s Fall 2002 issue.


The moon-stirred volume of ocean sighed
Coconut tanning-oil and frozen custard.

Birch horses and dragons rode the merry-go-round.

A splinter of the herringbone cedar boardwalk
Might be teased from your finger with a steel
Needle purged of germs by a match’s flame.

When the sliver was pulled out they held it
Up to your eyes, with bits of your flesh or blood
Stuck to it. Some doctors believe it helps
To see your tumor or gallbladder floating in a jar.

If Nana sewed a button on my shirt while I
Was wearing it, she made me chew a bit
Of the same cotton thread to keep the stitches
From piercing the precious tissues of my heart.

On the Day of Atonement she sat upstairs.
The shul was within sound of the ocean.

Across the street, Our Lady Star of the Sea
With the rumored mutable crackers and wine
Somewhere in its dark. Froth of Communion dresses.

Three round medallions filled the rainbow arc
Of our shul’s jewel-colored Palladian
Window three stories tall, with three images:

The eight-branched lamp, the double tablets of law,
The Star of David—Study, Obedience and Pride?
Or blessedness at Home, in Heaven and the World?

Inscrutable as the narcotic English translation my eye
Sometimes swam to from the phonetic surf of Hebrew.

Meaning was in uncomprehended urgent syllables
The cantor sobbed, or implicit in the building’s eight
Small gilded minarets, the terra-cotta pilasters
And three high double doors—in the velvet and silver fittings
Of the Torah you were supposed to kiss by kissing
Your talis’s fringe and pressing the fringe to the scroll.

It flirted and hid itself in names, Sol Tepper,
Manny Horn, Isador Moss. Iossel, the ever-smiling “simple”
Concentration-camp survivor they treated like a child—
Grinning, but his dark round eyes like pictures
Of the starved, the mutilated, orphans deprived of touch.

The same men called to the bima to pray by secret
Desert-names: Reuven ben Nachman, Moshe ben Yakov,
Yisrael ben Avraham, in wingtip shoes and neckties.

And with Nana upstairs Sophie Gorcey, Molly Joffe,
Suzy Diamond looking down from the balcony.

Nylon stockings, hats, double-breasted suits.
Prescribed times to rise or sit or when people recently
Bereaved were supposed to leave the building
Or remain, or enter again through the three doors
Framed by four Ionic columns.

The church the synagogue the boardwalk all razed,
Merry-go-round carted off—temporary as gestures,
Icons expendable, less enduring than names.

Made things like garments. Means. Conduits,
Like the dark vaulted cylindrical tunnel that ran
Under Ocean Avenue between the pool at Chelsea Baths
And the beach, where people descended from the bright
Stucco pavilions into the dark round mouth
And then padded out onto the beach broiling in the sun:

Dim passageway from one blinding glare
Into a greater one, walkway invisible under the traffic,
Black damp mouth of the real, leading
From incomprehensible brightness to brightness.


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