|The Hoopoe’s Call|
Dedicated to my mother
Copyright © 2019 by Michael Stone
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing.
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As one book closes (“Call of the Whippoorwill”, my fourth book of poetry), another one opens (“The Hoopoe’s Call”).
As any multi-generation American can tell you, the whippoorwill (or whip-poor-will) is the bird that most characterizes the American soul. For me, the single poem that best captures that bird/soul is Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Mountain Whippoorwill”:
“Born in the mountains, lonesome-born,
Raised runnin’ ragged thu’ the cockleburrs and corn.
Never knew my pappy, mebbe never should.
Think he was a fiddle made of mountain laurel-wood.
Never had a mammy to teach me pretty-please.
Think she was a whippoorwill, a-skittin’ thu’ the trees.”
The hoopoe is Israel’s national bird and has occupied a special place in Israeli lore at least as far back as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
For me, both birds have a personal meaning: the whippoorwill represents the first half of my life, growing up in America, while the hoopoe represents the second half of my life, maturing and discovery in Israel.
My Whippoorwill Years began shortly before I was conceived when my father and mother dropped out of college to elope. Dad was an aspiring writer and Mom was an aspiring poetess. They crossed over the Ohio River into Kentucky where they didn’t ask too many questions and that was that. I was born and a few years later my sister was born. We weren’t a religious family although we had a few religious skeletons in our family closet. I don’t remember whether I was happy or sad during those years (most probably a healthy mixture of both); however, I do know that during that time my soul ran wild and free. That is to say, my imagination and my predilections pretty much matched the world around me. Even after Dad divorced Mom, when I was seven years old, although it was a cataclysm of cognitive dissonance for my sister and me, our souls continued to run wild and free. Dad’s family lawyers pressured Mom to give us up, so Dad got custody of my sister and me. Dad remarried when I was nine, this time to a Jewish woman. Ruth meant well and tried to be a good mother to us but she ended up putting our souls in a cage, a Jewish cage. Lest my words be misconstrued, Judaism is neither closer to nor farther from God than any other religion, as far as I know, but my little whippoorwill was caged until the day I finally moved out from under my parents’ roof.
Once again, my soul ran wild and free through fields of love and squalor. I finished university, worked awhile, was drafted into the US Army, sent to Germany for a couple years, and hitchhiked around Europe. I met my future wife (although I didn’t know at that time that she’d be the one) in Israel. After I was discharged back stateside, I married Talma. We had two children in America.
In 1978, when I was thirty-one, we emigrated to Israel.
Thus ended my Whippoorwill Years and began my Hoopoe Years. Talma is a third-generation Israeli, born during the British Mandate before Israel was declared a state, while it was still called Palestine, so she was just returning home. From the point of view of the Israeli government, as a Jew, I was also “returning” to Israel, the Jewish homeland, under the “Right of Return” which is granted to Jews around the world. After three years and three months living in Israel, I was granted Israeli citizenship automatically.
Around the same time, I was drafted into the Israeli Army, in which I served, a few weeks a year, almost until I turned fifty. I also volunteered for civil guard duty once a month in my hometown of Raanana. During my civilian life, I worked in computers as I had in America.
Our third son was born in Tel Aviv in 1984. Our sons grew up, went to college or university, served in the Israeli Army, married, and have their own children. We have seven grandchildren these days. The oldest just turned eighteen. The youngest is one and a couple months. Our oldest son moved his family back to America.
I have lived more than half my life in Israel. There are no whippoorwills in Israel. My soul tried to make the leap of faith from one bird to another but it ended up inside another cage, a cage of dissonance and loneliness, an unrequited love of the Holy Land, the land of broken promises, the hills and valleys, the rivers, lakes, and seas, animals and trees, the people, the language, the poetry, the music, and the skies.
He heard a call from the branches of a tree
Somewhere in the woods along the path he walked,
Stick in hand to steady his steps
Like a shepherd’s staff.
He looked around to see
Who or what had made that call,
Almost child-like, but not quite.
It called again.
He squinted his eyes toward the dappling shadows
The trees made with their leaves and branches,
Searching tree by tree for something half-hidden, half-seen,
And then he spied him –
He said, “Hope, oh! O hope!”
The hoopoe called,
Come follow me
And I will take you to Sheba,
Young Solomon, my sire,
For she’s the most beautiful queen in all of Africa!
The young man was only at the beginning of his wisdom then
But he knew the language of the hoopoe and his heart grew large.
Still, he asked, you can fly I can only walk or run –
How am I to follow you?
I will carry you on my back, wrapped in a dream.
The young and future king agreed
And instantly fell into the depths of slumber.
The hoopoe slung the dreaming youth over his back
And flew with his weightless load to Azeba
In the Kingdom of Aksum, seven days distant.
On the seventh day, the bird flew through the open window
Of Makeda’s palace in Azeba.
Makeda’s beauty was uncontested in all of Aksum
But when her eyes saw how fair was the dreaming youth
On the hoopoe’s back, she fell hopelessly in love.
The hoopoe said fret not fair queen,
He dreams of you!
Come to him in distant Jerusalem where he waits!
In Solomon’s dream, he saw Makeda’s sublime face
At the center of a whirlpool swirling round him.
The bird turned around and flew homeward.
When Makeda finally came to Jerusalem,
Solomon was King as prophesized by the hoopoe
And had built the Temple and a palace on Mount Moriah.
Although he had a thousand wives, he pined for Makeda of Sheba.
She came with six thousand camels
Bearing more gold and spices than Solomon had ever seen,
All of which were gifts for him.
Makeda stood in all her beauty before King Solomon
Who said, I’ve dreamed of you every night
Since first I learned to dream.
Makeda answered, as I have dreamed of you
Those same nights since the hoopoe
Brought you dreaming to me.
That same night they dreamed together,
Arms and legs entwined, a small seed
Of their son who would be called Menelik.
In the morning when the sun rose over the hills of Moab,
Solomon gave Makeda a ring
To signify their willing enslavement to each other
But before she left Jerusalem for Azeba,
A jealous wife of Solomon bribed a priest
To hide the Holiest of Holies,
The Ark of the Covenant,
On the back of one of the camels in Makeda’s train
Unbeknownst to Makeda or Solomon.
When she reached the shores of the Red Sea
A storm raged, making the waters
As treacherous as the wives of Solomon,
But because the Holy Ark rode in her train
She crossed the sea without event.
Makeda, Queen of Sheba, reached her capital, Azeba,
Where she raised her son, Menelik, of Solomon’s seed,
And continued ruling her people during the day,
But at night she dreamed of Jerusalem’s king
And he of her until the day she died.
Makeda’s wizened body was buried at Axum
And the Holy Ark was buried under the shifting sands of time.
That is how, sons and daughters of the land of promises,
The wise King Solomon first met his beloved Queen of Sheba
Of the ancient land of Kush, which today is known as Ethiopia
And whose men and women are still the loveliest in the world.
The hoopoe hopped onto another branch
And flew to a further tree where perched another bird,
And both took off somewhere beyond my ken.
I put my pen and notebook back in my homely pouch
And Daisy led the way we knew and loved
The morning breeze whispers over my balcony
Turning the pages of my notebook
Reading even the blank ones
In its apparent desire to reach the end.
Whether or not it was satisfied with what it read
I suppose I’ll never know.
My old coffee mug seems more patient,
Waiting for me to finish these lines,
But hoping I will pick it up to sip
Before the liquid cools too much.
Flags hang from our peeling blue banister,
Still moved by last month’s Independence Day’s breezes
Waiting for us to take them in and
Fold them lovingly into a drawer
For next year’s patriotic breezes.
A prism-burnished fly suns itself on our banister.
Birds chirp their urgent business
And fly from roof to roof
Making fragile friendships of polity.
Polls have it that the sparrows have
A slight lead on the crows
But things change here in a blink of God’s eye.
In the boulevard, the palm trees slowly wave their fronds
Trying to get our attention but they speak so slowly
When they pause from speaking
I’ve forgotten what they started saying.
They bear their frustration with my flighty mind stoically
And I realize I must be a slow learner
To catch their wisdom.
A crop duster has ceased its swoops and circling
Of the fields nearby, perhaps because it’s lunchtime.
There are more balconies on either side of me
All of which are quite empty of humanity
Just like my balcony,
Just like mine.
I wonder how long the echoes of my voice,
The shadows of my body,
And the ripples of my movements
Will outlive me
Like some wave of gravity from some long-gone hole
Still lapping at the shores of spacetime.
Poets, philosophers, and even scientists
Have wondered what a human is,
I mean precisely what,
And so, I offer ever so humbly,
Though it may be riddled with loopholes,
Non sequiturs and insufficiencies,
My poor view of what a human may well be
Whether or not one is made of blood and flesh,
Walks upright or can construct a proper sentence:
First of all, a human should be in possession of humanity,
That is, being sentient of what goes on around oneself
And caring for the sentience of other beings
Whether they bear one’s likeness or not.
Humanity is not a single thing with thumbs and brain
But a great chain of being extending
Far back to some imagined Eden
And forward to worlds beyond imagination.
Lastly, humanity is not measured by what one knows
But how honestly one deals with one’s ignorance.
A human might be able to whittle it down a bit
But it will always be infinite.
In times of great evil such as ours
There are no prophets like Isaiah
To block our paths to self-destruction.
It is the end of days for godless religions
And men will beat their plowshares into swords
And pruning hooks into spears again
And children will learn war once more
And they will walk in darkness
Believing it is light
But when it comes
The light will shake the earth.
Used to be
Evil was more personal.
You had to be there to do it.
Now just somebody doing his job
(Someone has to do it).
A small child all curled up
Hugging the floor
Because there’s nothing else to hug
Thinking maybe that will protect him
An old woman
Survived the Holocaust
The concentration camps
Peeling walled room
Filled with shiny new exercise equipment
Carrot peelers turkey stuffers satellite radios back scratchers
And other stuff she didn’t need
Because she couldn’t say no
To the nice lady on the phone.
The trees being cut down
And people cows factories and cars
Blowing carbon into the sky
Til the last one of us drops breathless
To the ground he made great again
While our world went to hell.
Used to be good
Though there always was some evil
But you could always see it coming
From a mile or two away
And the world was always greater.
June 25, 2019
My poor soul, bless its,
Well, you know what I mean,
Would soar like an eagle over dappled valleys
Dragging my body along with it if it could
But it has grown accustomed to the weight
And cumbersomeness of my body
Like a hermit grows accustomed to his cabin
Of rough-hewn logs and thatched twig roof
Lost in a wilderness of loveliness and terror.
The cabin protects it in a small way
From the vicissitudes of a heart’s seasons
And the uncertainties of our knowing,
But eventually the weeds send their tendrils
Through the chinks between the logs
At first admitting welcome daylight
But then unwelcome cold and finally
Strangling the logs with their slow sure strength
Until the hermit is forced to leave the cabin
Looking for another not too overgrown or exposed.
The old cabin will miss its hermit
Until the last log falls to ground
And the roof lies unthatched among the weeds, but
What cares the hermit for the cabin
Or the soul for its earthly body?
June 28, 2019
Ramses Two, Ozymandias, third king of the nineteenth dynasty,
Son of Seti One or the sun, as you would have us believe,
Conqueror of Nubia, Libya, Canaan, Syria, and the Hittites,
Enslaver of the Hebrews who carried your pyramids on their broken backs,
You built temples to forgotten gods,
Cities buried under shifting sand dunes,
And colossal statues of yourself in stone
Commemorating your colossal feats for all posterity
Striking awe and terror in your peoples’ hearts,
Intimidating those who would invade,
But all that remains are the colossal feet,
The rest resides in a British museum.
Your mummied body, five foot seven,
Hunched over ancient arthritis and abscessed teeth,
Is now in some Parisian museum viewed by
Heartless bodies with a plane to catch.
If you could see yourself as we see you now,
The submerged relics of your once and future greatness,
Would you have thought it worth your efforts
And not a waste of precious life?
Life crashes through all of us,
As through paper walls or
Trampling you and me like blades of grass
Under a careless runner’s feet
To reach some distant star.
July 4, 2019
Personally, I like maps.
The precision of the black line boundaries,
The colors of the bounded entities,
And the proof that only four are needed
To separate each entity, whether town or country.
Like I said, I like maps, but not too much.
Whether two-dimensional or globular,
I’ve never come across a bound’ry line so well-defined
Or patch of ground colored just like on the map
On any of my nature walks.
Besides, I don’t much care for towns or countries,
But forests, lakes, the seas, and mountains,
Clouds and animals, and kind-hearted people,
Those are the beacons for my soul.
I’d like a map to show me where
The people are friendly and where they’re not,
Where the place is good for raising kids,
Where animals are treated well,
And where the earth is well-respected.
I don’t care if the boundary lines meander
Like creeks and clouds are wont to do.
This would be a map worth having –
I’d tuck it in my travel pouch.
July 5, 2019
Supposing a car careened around the hairpin curves
Tacking up the Madonie Mountains toward Geraci Siculo
The driver drunk on the mist-veiled beauty
Tires slipping sideways on crunching gravel
Drove off the road and over a cliff
Into the Tyrrhenian blue below.
Supposing he was traveling through space
At the speed of time and supposing
It took his whole life from birth until this dying time
To see what mist unveiled.
Supposing his hair was long and white,
Would we have envied him?
Three in the morning
Jupiter stares through a crack in the ceiling
And Rezek has no time for dreams.
He gets out of bed fully dressed
And walks barefoot to the porch
Where his father pours him a small cup
Of scalding bittersweet coffee
Which he blows on and sips quickly
Slips on his shoes and runs through the night
To his uncle’s bakery.
Rezek works the furnace and the dough-cutter
Eleven hours a day and is lucky to have the job
Since his father’s bakery was destroyed by a bomb
And besides, he doesn’t have to go to school
Like those lazy dreamers! He’ll get breakfast
In another few hours. His best friend
Lost three fingers working the dough-cutter
Probably daydreaming about what could be
If it weren’t like this. Best not to daydream
If you’re twelve years old in Gaza City.
Three in the morning
A soft blue light emanated under the blanket.
His father stared into the darkness at the tell-tale light
And whispered, “Aren’t you asleep yet?”
“Wait! I’m fighting the Klaxons,” Yuval whispered back.
The twelve-year-old jinxed left and downward
Avoiding a thorg and racked up survival points
Passing safely through an asteroid belt
When the sirens started blaring through the walls
And the phone app blurted “Code Red … Code Red”!
His father shouted at Yuval to stop the game
But Yuval asked “Why? My room’s the bomb shelter”.
His father was already waking up his wife
And pulling the dog out from under the table.
A deafening boom broke the glass and shook the walls.
“It sounds like next door, I think,” his father said
And went to peer outside.
While Yuval strafed a death star
And the fires flickered on his father’s face.
Three in the morning
The shuffle of Rezek’s feet wake her from her thoughts,
Not that she was really sleeping.
Who can sleep with so much to worry about?
Her husband’s pillow is empty.
Soon Yousef will come to visit us,
My husband’s friend from madrasa.
These days Yousef is a big-time commander in Hamas.
He will ask about Rezek.
Why isn’t he in madrasa like the other boys, he’ll ask,
But he’ll mean why isn’t he on the front lines,
Why isn’t he at the fence with his sling and stones,
Like he asked for Omar, Rezek’s older brother.
They carried him back on a board, lifeless.
Abu Rezek, they call him,
The weak and indecisive father of my son,
The last and only son of my bloody womb.
Who will provide for us if not our son?
His legless father?
Who will stand up to Yousef?
Me? I died with Omar.
July 12, 2019
Three in the morning
It was half-time and she was a cheerleader.
All eyes were on her, but especially
Those of the team captain.
Suddenly she was at the prom
Dressed in white like Cinderella
When her husband’s voice intruded rudely.
“Shebi! Wake up,” he shouted, pulling her up.
“It’s another Code Red – run to Yuval’s room!”
He was already running to their living room.
She yelled to her husband, “Leave the dog!
We have only seven seconds!”
She barely made it to their mamad
When the blast shook the walls and broke the windows
While her husband was still coaxing the dog out
From under the table.
“We should move,” she told him later
While they drank their coffee together.
“Where to,” he asked skeptically.
“I don’t care. Far away.
Somewhere without missiles.”
July 12, 2019