Impossible to Tell
by Robert Pinsky
To Robert Hass and in Memory of Elliot Gilbert
Slow dulcimer, gavotte and bow, in autumn,
Bashō and his friends go out to view the moon;
In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter,
The secret courtesy that courses like ichor
Through the old form of the rude, full-scale joke,
Impossible to tell in writing. “Bashō”
He named himself, “Banana Tree”: banana
After the plant some grateful students gave him,
Maybe in appreciation of his guidance
Threading a long night through the rules and channels
Of their collaborative linking-poem
Scored in their teacher’s heart: live, rigid, fluid
Like passages etched in a microscopic circuit.
Elliot had in his memory so many jokes
They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture
Inside his brain, one so much making another
It was impossible to tell them all:
In the court-culture of jokes, a top banana.
Imagine a court of one: the queen a young mother,
Unhappy, alone all day with her firstborn child
And her new baby in a squalid apartment
Of too few rooms, a different race from her neighbors.
She tells the child she’s going to kill herself.
She broods, she rages. Hoping to distract her,
The child cuts capers, he sings, he does imitations
Of different people in the building, he jokes,
He feels if he keeps her alive until the father
Gets home from work, they’ll be okay till morning.
It’s laughter versus the bedroom and the pills.
What is he in his efforts but a courtier?
Impossible to tell his whole delusion.
In the first months when I had moved back East
From California and had to leave a message
On Bob’s machine, I used to make a habit
Of telling the tape a joke; and part-way through,
I would pretend that I forgot the punchline,
Or make believe that I was interrupted—
As though he’d be so eager to hear the end
He‘d have to call me back. The joke was Elliot’s,
More often than not. The doctors made the blunder
That killed him some time later that same year.
One day when I got home I found a message
On my machine from Bob. He had a story
About two rabbis, one of them tall, one short,
One day while walking along the street together
They see the corpse of a Chinese man before them,
And Bob said, sorry, he forgot the rest.
Of course he thought that his joke was a dummy,
Impossible to tell—a dead-end challenge.
But here it is, as Elliot told it to me:
The dead man’s widow came to the rabbis weeping,
Begging them, if they could, to resurrect him.
Shocked, the tall rabbi said absolutely not.
But the short rabbi told her to bring the body
Into the study house, and ordered the shutters
Closed so the room was night-dark. Then he prayed
Over the body, chanting a secret blessing
Out of Kabala. “Arise and breathe,” he shouted;
But nothing happened. The body lay still. So then
The little rabbi called for hundreds of candles
And danced around the body, chanting and praying
In Hebrew, then Yiddish, then Aramaic. He prayed
In Turkish and Egyptian and Old Galician
For nearly three hours, leaping about the coffin
In the candlelight so that his tiny black shoes
Seemed not to touch the floor. With one last prayer
Sobbed in the Spanish of before the Inquisition
He stopped, exhausted, and looked in the dead man’s face.
Panting, he raised both arms in a mystic gesture
And said, “Arise and breathe!” And still the body
Lay as before. Impossible to tell
In words how Elliot’s eyebrows flailed and snorted
Like shaggy mammoths as—the Chinese widow
Granting permission—the little rabbi sang
The blessing for performing a circumcision
And removed the dead man’s foreskin, chanting blessings
In Finnish and Swahili, and bathed the corpse
From head to foot, and with a final prayer
In Babylonian, gasping with exhaustion,
He seized the dead man’s head and kissed the lips
And dropped it again and leaping back commanded,
“Arise and breathe!” The corpse lay still as ever.
At this, as when Bashō’s disciples wind
Along the curving spine that links the renga
Across the different voices, each one adding
A transformation according to the rules
Of stasis and repetition, all in order
And yet impossible to tell beforehand,
Elliot changes for the punchline: the wee
Rabbi, still panting, like a startled boxer,
Looks at the dead one, then up at all those watching,
A kind of Mel Brooks gesture: “Hoo boy!” he says,
“Now that’s what I call really dead.” O mortal
Powers and princes of earth, and you immortal
Lords of the underground and afterlife,
Jehovah, Raa, Bol-Morah, Hecate, Pluto,
What has a brilliant, living soul to do with
Your harps and fires and boats, your bric-a-brac
And troughs of smoking blood? Provincial stinkers,
Our languages don’t touch you, you’re like that mother
Whose small child entertained her to beg her life.
Possibly he grew up to be the tall rabbi,
The one who washed his hands of all those capers
Right at the outset. Or maybe he became
The author of these lines, a one-man renga
The one for whom it seems to be impossible
To tell a story straight. It was a routine
Procedure. When it was finished the physicians
Told Sandra and the kids it had succeeded,
But Elliot wouldn’t wake up for maybe an hour,
They should go eat. The two of them loved to bicker
In a way that on his side went back to Yiddish,
On Sandra’s to some Sicilian dialect.
He used to scold her endlessly for smoking.
When she got back from dinner with their children
The doctors had to tell them about the mistake.
Oh swirling petals, falling leaves! The movement
Of linking renga coursing from moment to moment
Is meaning, Bob says in his Haiku book.
Oh swirling petals, all living things are contingent,
Falling leaves, and transient, and they suffer.
But the Universal is the goal of jokes,
Especially certain ethnic jokes, which taper
Down through the swirling funnel of tongues and gestures
Toward their preposterous Ithaca. There’s one
A journalist told me. He heard it while a hero
Of the South African freedom movement was speaking
To elderly Jews. The speaker’s own right arm
Had been blown off by right-wing letter-bombers.
He told his listeners they had to cast their ballots
For the ANC—a group the old Jews feared
As “in with the Arabs.” But they started weeping
As the old one-armed fighter told them their country
Needed them to vote for what was right, their vote
Could make a country their children could return to
From London and Chicago. The moved old people
Applauded wildly, and the speaker’s friend
Whispered to the journalist, “It’s the Belgian Army
Joke come to life.” I wish that I could tell it
To Elliot. In the Belgian Army, the feud
Between the Flemings and Walloons grew vicious,
So out of hand the army could barely function.
Finally one commander assembled his men
In one great room, to deal with things directly.
They stood before him at attention. “All Flemings,”
He ordered, “to the left wall.” Half the men
Clustered to the left. “Now all Walloons,” he ordered,
“Move to the right.” An equal number crowded
Against the right wall. Only one man remained
At attention in the middle: “What are you, soldier?”
Saluting, the man said, “Sir, I am a Belgian.”
“Why, that’s astonishing, Corporal—what’s your name?”
Saluting again, “Rabinowitz,” he answered:
A joke that seems at first to be a story
About the Jews. But as the renga describes
Religious meaning by moving in drifting petals
And brittle leaves that touch and die and suffer
The changing winds that riffle the gutter swirl,
So in the joke, just under the raucous music
Of Fleming, Jew, Walloon, a courtly allegiance
Moves to the dulcimer, gavotte and bow,
Over the banana tree the moon in autumn—
Allegiance to a state impossible to tell.
From The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966–1996 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). Listen to a recording of Robert Pinsky introducing and reading this poem.