Poetica Magazine

Poetica Magazine



In the Last Days of the House of Song

by Richard Rosengarten


1.

In the last days of the House of Song

An indignation filled me to the seat

Of wisdom. I was tempted to exhort

The elders, taking up my theme beneath

The stained-glass panes above the ark, marbled

Blue-green abstractions meant to conjure up

The parting of the sea, a miracle

Or a story told two thousand years and more—

A miracle—and there admonishing

Them in the grand prophetic style,

Indict their planting only for themselves

And not for those who would come after.


Though it occurred to me the tree was planted

Long before the first days and would still

Remain long after the extirpation

Of this tired branch, the indignation

Was the sort that children feel for personal

Injustices, the sort of pain that sends

One reeling back to childhood. It hurt

In the last days of the House of Song.


2.


In the last days of the House of Song

We built a sukkah, same as every year

In the courtyard, a temporary booth

With walls of latticework, a roof of royal

Palm fronds, fanned out over slats to hold them

Layered, from which the few remaining children

Hung their paper crafts and plastic fruit, under

Which they snacked on apple juice and honey cakes

And sang the blessings that we taught them, learned

The lessons of the booth:

                                            Our dwellings are

But temporary, and to decorate

A place and fill it singing, eat and sleep

Therein and make of it a synagogue,

A home, we are to understand that

Every dwelling is a sukkah—every

Synagogue and every home, that we are

A wandering people, who never left

The desert, still returning to it, still

Instructing children yearly in the woodwork

And the foraging of temporary booths

And in this way have been practicing

For all our lives and history to be

In the last days of the House of Song.


3.


In the last days of the House of Song

Some were overheard to say, with rueful scorn,

The last days were written long ago,

If nothing else ordained or sealed upon

Our excommunication of the last one

Among us who could sing. Still others less

Of rue than scorn, agreed in principle, if

On different grounds.

                                         They said what Tevye said:

Someone should have set a match to this place

Years ago. Some say they even sang it

In the last days of the House of Song.


4.


In the last days of the House of Song

We opened the ark, removed the scroll,

Read from the scroll, returned the scroll, and sang

What we always sing: “Return us to you

And we shall return. Renew our lives

As in the days of old.” An old verse rooted

In an ancienter theology

That we are not the masters of our fate,

Robust in its indulgence of our guilt

That we can thrust our very straying back

Up to the heavens: Yes, we will return

But only if You return us.

                                               And yet

It was not clear which we could least withstand:

A last acceptance of that theology,

In which case we were failed, or a last

Rejection, meaning it was we who failed

In the last days of the House of Song.


5.


In the last days of the House of Song

There was a great stirring. Sensing the last

Of days and ears and chances nearing,

Out of the cracks and crevasses, the depths,

There rose and stirred a multitude of songs:

From underneath a bin of skullcaps shuffled

The barely-uttered, half-syllable

Of a 13-year-old boy, fumbling

To express a thing mistook or understood

For love to an uninterested friend

In the youth hall.

                                Out of the worn folds

Of a prayerbook, between a seldom-read

Piyyut and an essay on homiletics

Sloughed and faltered a lone hm, once uttered

In a thoughtless, nodding revelry

That if attended might have just resembled

Something in the vein of revelation.

And like a feather floating or the swirling

Dust within a window light, roused the sound

Of fingers on a copper plate, tracing

The engraved forever letters of a name,

Whose accompanying tearful sigh

Had long ago alighted to the heavens.

In an effort to substantiate themselves

Before the end, they rose and clamored

Like a thousand Hannah’s prayers. Unheard

But sensed among the silent halls they fled

To where at least they would not be alone—

They joined the burning letters of the scroll

In which they wrapped Haninah, soared and found

Akiva’s laughter, ringing then and still

In the last days of the House of Song.


6.


In the last days of the House of Song

We sought to magnify the merit of

Her memories, of everything she gave

To us by giving her a fit farewell,

To cut the string of resentment, through

The tears and bitterness, to celebrate

Her life, our life, and at the very least

To send her off in grand ballroom style

With festivities and stories, memories

And song.

                        And yet.

                                    A quiet whisper in

The costumed hearts of all those present spoke: If

To say farewell you had the wherewithal

To swell the House with life and memory,

Substantiate the ghosts to dance again,

Then it was always in your power

To forestall the last days, to renew.

Why didn’t you? We shivered at the whisper

In the last days of the House of Song.


7.


In the last days of the House of Song

There was a rage against the lastness

Of the days, descended from the striving

For the life and vibrancy that once there was.

Still others lingered, wondered if the sadness

And the pain sufficed to bring the shechina

Upon us down, a last descent, another

Glimpse for those still simply pining for their friends

Who once had roamed the halls, with whom they clapped

And learned to sing. It seemed as if they still

Ran by with book in hand and skullcap flying,

A blur of felt amidst the swell of years

That filled the emptying, echoing room.

But the ghosts of memories were just that—

Ghosts, and a pair of hands to close the doors

In the last days of the House of Song.


8.


In the last days of the House of Song

There came at last an opportunity

To speak, or to exhort, or to admonish.

Between the congregation and the scrolls,

The warped and fading sunset through the glass,

The crumbling courtyard booth anon,

Rage and indignation welling from within,

Marbled by the sadness suffused without,

I opened my mouth, or was it opened,

And chose instead a psalm of comfort.


There I conjured up for them an image

Of the far future we would never see,

The dwelling booth rebuilt again and filled.

I told them once the ark was finally closed,

The lock removed, the flame once called eternal

Out, the last song echoing through the hall,

The last footsteps through the gate, after

The obligatory forty days

Of wailing and the pining and the pain

Subsided, numbed, dissolved to memory,

Sometime after that, there will doubtless be

Moments: Mine in my daughter’s bedroom, likely

In her threshold, seeing, overhearing

In the lightless quiet of that room

The words that I once learned to sing within a hall

Now gone:

                        Shema....

                                             Sung softly from the lips

Of one who sees with only fondness rain

Outside the window, hears with only calm

The falling branches, whispered in the innocence

And the forgetlessness of nothing lost.

Thus in harmony with the still, small voice

A melody will stir within my heart

And in yours too, in your soft moments too:

The last days were the last days of the house

But not the song. Although the branch may die,

The tree remains.

                           In the end, no cause

For prophecy, for truth shone on or from

The attending wizened faces, blinking

In the sanctuary’s white fluorescence.

It looked hard enough for them, to be

Amid their own last days, knowingly

Or unknowingly in the last days.

What profit would there be to send them

Back to childhood, where I was, for them

To hurt. It wouldn’t have changed anything

In the last days of the House of Song.