Dark Parlors Remind Me Of The Spanish Civil War
Sometimes when late afternoon shadows
puddle in the corners of my living room,
my face whitens and black crosses appear
on my eyes, and my white, gloved hands
lightly finger invisible arpeggios.
Dark rooms remind me of Lannie and Beauty Budd,
the Spanish Civil War, and my mother,
Anna, as a young girl, on the stoop in North Philadelphia,
dreaming of pennies and Yehudi Menuhin,
saving her lunch money to buy
the Untermyer edition of Modern Verse,
recommended by her high school English teacher,
who, yes—even hid a copy of The Worker in his desk.
She memorizes Eliot and Edna St.Vincent Millay
and transcribes Chopin’s Nocturnes in the library downtown,
because who had the money in those days.
We had an upright piano at the foot of the stairs,
in a brownstone row house in Oxford Circle,
built for the children of the victory gardens.
While my father played pinochle in the kitchen
and listened to the Friday night fights,
Rocky Graziano trading punches with Tony Zale,
I could hear the laying down of meld, the slap of trump,
cutthroat bidding and laughing, the ringing of a bell.
My mother played Chopin to put me to sleep.
All her faraway, beauty undone, every week
she read one less poem, played one less Polonaise,
until one night her hands rose and fell like stone birds.
The keys moved silently in the evacuated air,
to a slow-motion pavan, fading into overtones.
The keyboard cover dropped shut
to “The Moonlight Sonata.” and “ For A Mountain Rose.”
When I was fifteen, civil disorder erupted,
depressions, and all the signs of impending revolt.
My parents shipped me to my German uncle in California,
who fought with the Thaelmann Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
Hartwig put me on a reading program,
Hugo, Goethe, Brecht, Orwell, Freud,
Resist the overthrow of reason, Nephew,
There’s no darkness but ignorance, “di gedanken sind frei.”
I read Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth and World’s End,
marveling at Lannie, the loving son, who escorted Beauty
Budd, his mother, to the French seaside and the ballet.
They played Sonatas for four hands,
and Beauty taught him to ballroom dance,
with the privileged grace of station and ease.
Lannie loved her just before World War Two began
to strains of the scherzos and the “Military Polonaise.”
I came home wanting to be Lannie Budd,
but no matter hard I tried,
I couldn’t get the language right.
Some dark familiar was crimping my tongue.
I didn’t play the piano very well.
My mother wasn’t Beauty Budd,
and I certainly couldn’t dance.
When the afternoon blinds were drawn
and our living room stained itself with silence,
my mother would lie face down on the sofa,
waiting for my father to come home from the cabs.
Meanwhile down in my throat and heart,
fifth columnists and Falangists were on the move,
poisoning the wells and mining the bridges.
I heard La Passionaria shouting “no pasaran,”
but the saboteurs behind my lines always took me down.
While Lannie Budd was smuggling Republicans out of Spain,
and Beauty slithered into a black sequined gown,
our afternoon living room drained of color.
Madrid was carpet- bombed into rubble.
Anna, like a mime, pushed invisible walls,
struggled for air, palms out, feeling, blindly,
the thick rub and binding, the boundaries
of that soundless zone, thick as liquid amber.
She turned to me to speak words that hardly bore
her weight, light as the bones of a bird.
Then she glanced at the door, the one
that only she could come and go through,
a space that every serious mime has known.
The crosses on her eyes didn’t hide her fear,
and she didn’t need grease paint to move
over the border, beyond the fourth wall.
I wanted so to dance with my mother
til her eyes shone, and her loving senses spun,
wanted to show my father I could take a punch,
get up off the canvas and still dish it out,
and if it were 1936,
I would have gone with the Lincoln Brigade,
to the Jarama front and the Spanish Civil War.
But it was 1963, so I went south,
to America’s holylands and my own holy wars.
Upton Sinclair did run for Governor of California,
Only to be slandered and shouted down,
another undone, forlorn cause.
Between the yellow pages of Dragon’s Teeth,
Lannie Budd is still the loving son,
fights the fascists, as best he can, bears witness
to the great fires and the Second World War.
No more wild scherzos for Anna, no villanelles
She clutches her purse and waits at the corner
for the free bus down the shore to Bally’s,
the comp lunch and a ten dollar bill.
I duke it out day by day, take my shots,
tuck my chin and roll with the punches,
and when I drop to one knee for the mandatory eight count,
and look to my corner for any sage advice,
I see those black and white newsreel pictures–
Republican troops cross the Pyrenees into France,
Frank Capa’s soldier, frozen in gesture
midair between his life and his death.
At night I choose Beethoven.
Sometimes I even dance.
And the Lincoln Brigade marches out of Madrid
Saluting the crowds singing, “no Pasaran.”
Cutthroat: three people playing any game
Di gedanken sind Frei: Anti-fascist song—“Our thoughts Are Free”
No Pasaran! : They shall not pass. The slogan of the Republicans defending Madrid against the Fascists.
Falangists: Spanish Fascists
Fifth Columnists: Fascist saboteurs working behind Republican lines. The four Columns were the four armies of General Francisco Franco advancing on Madrid.
La Passionaria: Dolores Ibarruri, Republican political leader and orator
Dark Parlors Reminds Me of the Spanish Civil War was first published in Confluence, Vol. 14 Fall 2004
About the Author
Ed Frankel is on the faculty of the UCLA Writing Programs and adjunct faculty for the Antioch Los Angeles B.A. and M.F.A. programs. His recent poetry has appeared in Fugue, Confluence, The Dogwood Journal of Poetry and Prose, Nimrod, and The Kennesaw Review.
One of his poems was nominated for the 2006 Pushcart Best of the Small Presses Prize. He won first prize in the 2006 Winning Writers War Poetry contest. His essay, “In the Lap of the Angel of History: A Memoir,” is included in Cesar Chavez and the Farmworker Movement, 1962-1993 (Sal Si Puede Press).