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.