Set a Course with Light

Oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store).


For Ely J. Sack

Tell me how my granddad took his coffee.
Not how he was blacklisted—that much, the archive said.
He fought Franco and fascism alongside blacks—
and so to America, he was dead.

Tell me where he went after the war,
why he came back with a bum leg and no wife.
Tell me how the communist freedom-fighter
cum accountant, had children—four? five?
How he lived out his quiet life.

Tell me how he talked to my grandma, his only wife.
Did he treat her like a chair to be used, as is fair
when you pay her room and board?
Or did he love her like a songbird
who brightens up the morning with her free and happy voice?

Tell me how they moved in the kitchen
when they thought no one could see.
Tell me why the FBI had destroyed his files
when they got a records request from me.

The university that housed his papers is all that remains.
Someone’s government destroyed another record of his life—
where he went, when, with whom; how he talked and moved,
how he loved; how he took his coffee.

In his archived postcards home, he confesses he was afraid to go—
          but went.
He had trained as an accountant first, with night classes—
          just to pay the rent.
In Spain, they put him in officer school, but he got bored with classes;
returned to machine gun fire, friends, and freezing rain’s lashes.

He was their resident optimist as Teruel fell—
saying without their gear, the fascists couldn’t fight a leaky well.
He missed haircuts. Pictures show his magnificent mane grown out,
my widow’s peak arching over his smile throughout.

He missed ham, so I guess he wasn’t practicing?
He loved learning Spanish, filling his notes with scribbling—
no hay muchachas—no hay nada—el frente popular—no tengo cambio—
mucho malo mucho bueno mucho calor mucho hero.

Tonight I go to night class, learning German in Berlin.
Everything is uncertain, without and within.
Will fascism continue to rise and rise again?
Will I settle down and drink morning coffee again?

How I take my coffee changes with the weather of my soul.
Sometimes it’s black, sometimes white, sometimes I can’t have it—
too much fight or flight. I’m not a soldier and I’ve never been.
I’m not a mother and might not be. Perhaps no one will want to know
how I took my coffee. Still, I like to imagine him sipping with me.

Set a course with light to bring him back to sip and talk.
Like he set a course with courage, going far away to fight.
                              It was a crime. But it was right.
When they came back, they had to ask to be let back in.
No passport stamps or permission for their useful sin.
They set a course that might have failed, and did not balk.

Set a course with light to make me brave like him.
In Germany, before the war, my passport stamped
“USA” no more. If I went back, the lawyers say,
they’d have to let me in.           I take my “Have to” 
          like I take my coffee:                     Black and white—
                              and not at all, depending on the day.