Two Poems by Carl Auerbach

 

OUTRAGE

After the daylong fast of Yom Kippur,
we went to Ruthie’s apartment on West End

for her usual break-fast meal of lox and bagels,
gefilte fish, whitefish salad, her special strudel

we all loved, and the usual family and friends
and friends of friends. All of us had read Torah,

chanted, stood and sat, beaten our breasts, confessed,
repented, to open up the book of life

to a fresh new page, where we could be more loving,
more compassionate, and most of all, more peaceful.

But Ruthie’s sister’s youngest daughter was a social worker
doing her fieldwork at a clinic in Bed-Stuy,

so the talk turned to race and social justice
and the subject in the headlines, “stop and frisk,”

which lead Ruthie’s older brother’s upstairs neighbor,
the wealthy East Side lawyer, to deliver the pronouncement,

“Let’s face it folks, the police go into neighborhoods
where the crime is, and most crime there is black-on-black,”

as he leaned forward in his chair and thrust his bagel out
to make his point. As if he were Maimonides,

as if his stating something made it right,
as if there were no other points of view,

as if his every statement was original
and not right-wing cliché. It was how my father spoke

to my mother, my brother, and me—
the contempt, the slight curl upward of the lip;

the implicit message (sometimes not) that anyone
with the least bit of intelligence would agree—

that always left me in a silent rage. But this time
I said to Ruthie’s brother’s upstairs neighbor,

“Pompous statements of prejudice don’t constitute
an argument,” which he called painful and ad hominem.

Who knew that someone so offensive could be hurt
by words? We might have kept this going longer,

but Ruthie changed the subject to the price of real estate,
leaving Ruthie’s brother’s upstairs neighbor glaring at me,

and leaving me shaky but satisfied that after many years,
I had written a new page in my book of life

that erased the text written by my father,
and finally found the chutzpah to voice my outrage.

 

WASTING TIME

Sitting here on a bench by Central Park
on a Tuesday afternoon, smoking a cigar—
my wife lets me have two a week—when I should be
running the statistics on the latest data
or grading exam papers or working on crossing off
the top items on my to-do list: like replying to
my four thousand eight hundred and fifty-three
e-mails, or studying the difference in Spanish
between estar and ser, or sending a check
to the international NGO
working with trafficked women in Uganda,
and afterward I could have some scheduled fun,
during which I might have an out-of-the-box
publishable idea, instead of sitting here
smoking my cigar and nodding in complicity
to the other old cigar guys passing by
or watching the kindergarten teacher
with her class of five-year-olds in their bright red
Robertson academy T-shirts and their tiny
rainbow-colored knapsacks, still young enough
to be dallying down the street holding hands
without worrying how much time they are allowed
before they have to be somewhere else.

 

Carl Auerbach is a Professor of Psychology at Yeshiva University, specializing in the psychology of trauma, with an emphasis on collective trauma and mass violence. His work has been published in many literary journals. He lives in Manhattan, New York.