When the documentarian asks the sisters,
heirs to a smoked fish empire, what songs
they remember from childhood, one of them
starts singing “Sunrise, Sunset”
from Fiddler on the Roof.
They turn to each other as if this
is their shabes on some hot stage, their father
a sweaty baritone, their adolescence
embalmed in copyright. Never mind
the beardless man who came home Fridays
from the appetizing shop, hands lurid
with cure. Never mind the radio’s
persistent fever, graveside prayers
opaque to them as birdsong. You
might ask: how can they give away
their memories like the good china
of the dead, closetful of mismatched
plastic hangers. How can they settle
into someone else’s melody, wear
some stage-lit history off the rack.
A man tells the story of his survival
so many times it becomes a joke,
his body the punchline. His mourners
recite it over the ground that becomes
his grave, perform it in the parking lot
after the fistfuls of dirt. They
should be such punchlines.
Who wouldn’t want
to tear out such a room, gut
the whole twentieth century,
fluorescent hallway tiled
in easy-wash linoleum. Who wouldn’t
replace it with velvet and particleboard,
a wooden cart to drag your life around in.
Night after night, the same dress and boots
hauled up to the roof to air
after final curtain. Finally, a rehearsal
for a past that appeared without warning.
Finally, a proper ending: flush
of applause, potatoes and cream,
not a herring in sight. Then home to thumb
the program’s glossy pages, mouth
every actor’s name, exclaim how convincing
their performance, how very like
the living should have been.
Leah Falk’s poems and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, FIELD, Thrush, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She’s received support for her writing from the Yiddish Book Center, the Vermont Studio Center, Asylum Arts, and the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan. She lives in Philadelphia and runs programming at the Writers House at Rutgers University-Camden.