Willis Barnstone

Back in 1901

Outdoors, cows and a Vermont barn. Inside
our eighteenth-century summer farmhouse,
I quit sanding and oiling wide pine floorboards
and show up back in 1901 in Boston, determined
to know my dad’s father, whom I never saw.
On Milk Street, a ghetto named for a London
Milk Street ghetto, I find the lowdown
tenement where the choleric tailor lives
with a black woman, his common law wife.
The building stinks pleasantly of fried liver
and fish aromas sitting like tired old men
on the stairs I climb now like a regular.
Morris Bornstein heard of me from son Robert
but we were a century apart, he in New England,
I off upper Broadway. I knock. It’s good
to knock on the unknown, on a nonentity
who may star in the story about the dog
who dreamt heaven in a butcher shop,
which no one yet cares to write about.
Grandfather opens. “Hello, I’m Billy,” I say.
“No,” he answers. I notice the immigrant English,
a wet shtetl lilt mixed with the Boston r that goes
unheard. “No,” he insists. “If you are gray
and Robert’s boy, then I am dead.
You can’t be Billy!” “You’re right,” I apologize.
“You are dead and I am dreaming you.”
At once I am ashamed. This is my ancestor,
ghettoized and despised by Poles, who steamered
over the sea from Warsaw to a Boston life
I couldn’t guess. “I was kidding, Zeda,
I’m not even born, but I wanted to tell you
I love you.” “You love me? You’re a numbskull!”
And he kisses me. I think we’re doing fine,
yet know I can’t get out of these false tenses
and the small shop where his irons,
heating up on a wood stove, are owls looking
at me with contempt. I apologize again. “Sorry,
I’ve come so late to talk. I never wished to be cruel,
but you were gone when I was a child.
They never told me. So I fashioned your lips,
your Tartar eyes and crooked back,
your wife who isn’t home yet. I mean, the maid.”
“I don’t get you, Billy.” He lets go of my hand.
“Stay with me a while. I’m pretty happy.”
I sit with him all night. In the morning Zeda gives me
a jacket he made, and presses it with special care.
When did he do it? We were awake together.
I take it. I’m descending slow stairs
smelling of Morris’s shop, his owl irons, his glare.
Tonight I’m wearing the meticulously stitched
jacket, though it is tight and I’m a crummy actor.

Wills Barnstone
Wills Barnstone is a director of From the Fishouse. He is the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry; the most recent is Life Watch (BOA Editions, 2003), in which Back in 1901 appears.
Poem, copyright © Willis Barnstone, 2003
Appearing on the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse