Living in the Pastby Philip Schultz
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Set in Rochester, New York, in the fifties, this extraordinary book-length sequence traces the year in a boy's life leading up to his bar mitzvah and passage into manhood. There is a lively mixture of ethnic groups here-many of them displaced by the war in Europe-with new hopes and dreams. It is a uniquely American place, where "no matter how far down you started from, you began again from the beginning."
As the alternately elegiac and humorous poems conclude, the boy has become a man with a family of his own, but memories of his childhood linger. The cycles of life go on, and Schultz continues to render them with wit, grace, and above all a sense of wonder.
I know what Mrs. Einhorn said Mrs. Edels told Mr. Kook about us: God save us from having one shirt, one eye, one child. I know in order to survive. Grandma throws her shawl of exuberant birds over her bony shoulders and ladles up yet another chicken thigh out of the steaming broth of the infinite night sky. -from "Grandma climbs"
"This is easily one of the strongest collections of lyrics published in the last decade."Library Journal
"Moving fluidly from desire to pain to loss, sympathy, understanding and love, the poems in The Holy Worm of Praise are haunting meditations on friendship and the world's forgotten."American Poet
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
You hear me speak. But do you hear me feel?
The Ukrainians hate the Romanians while the Poles hate the Germans but especially the Italians who hate the blacks who haven't even moved into the neighborhood yet, while Grandma hates mostly the Russians who are Cossacks who piss on everyone's tomatoes and wag their tongues at everyone's wives. She even hates her Lithuanian blue eyes and turnip Russian nose and fat Polish tongue; sometimes she forgets what she hates most and ends up hating everything about herself.
This is Rochester, N.Y., in the fifties, when all the Displaced Persons move in and suddenly even the elms look defeated. Grandma believes they came here so we all could suffer, that soon we'll all dress like undertakers and march around whispering to the dead.
No one in this family ever suspects they're unhappy;
in fact, the less happy we are, the less we suspect it.
Uncle walks around with a straightedge razor tied round his neck on a red string, screaming and pounding on things.
When he's angry, and he's always angry, he drops to a crouch and screams until the veins in his neck bulge like steam pipes.
Mother locks herself, Grandma, and me in the toilet until he's flat.
We spend a lot of time in the toilet never suspecting anything.
Didn't everyone on Cuba Place have an uncle who hides in a tiny room off the kitchen yelling at a police radio and writing letters to dead presidents while reading girlie books all night?
Didn't everyone live in a house where everyone feels cheated,
ignored, and unredeemed?
Grandma climbs a chair to yell at God for killing her only husband whose only crime was forgetting where he put things. Finally, God misplaced him. Everyone in this house is a razor, a police radio, a bulging vein.
It's too late for any of us, Grandma says to the ceiling.
She believes we are chosen to be disgraced and perplexed.
She squints at anyone who treats her like a customer, including the toilet mirror, and twists her mouth into a deadly scheme.
Late at night I run at the mirror until I disappear. The day is over before it begins, Grandma says, jerking the shade down over its once rosy eye. She keeps her husband's teeth in a matchbox,
in perfumed paraffin; his silk skullcap (with its orthodox stains)
in the icebox, behind Uncle's Jell-O aquarium of floating lowlifes.
I know what Mrs. Einhorn said Mrs. Edels told Mr. Kook about us:
God save us from having one shirt, one eye, one child. I know in order to survive. Grandma throws her shawl of exuberant birds over her bony shoulders and ladles up yet another chicken thigh out of the steaming broth of the infinite night sky.
Grandma peeps from behind her shades at everyone peeping at her.
The Italians are having people over in broad daylight, while the Slovaks are grilling goats alive (this means a ten-year stink!), and the Ukrainians are mingling on their porches, plotting our downfall. "Keep out of my yard,"
she cries in her sleep. Everyone sneaks around, has a hiding place.
Uncle's police radio calls all cars to a virgin abducted on Main Street,
while Mother binges on Almond Joys and Father sleepwalks through the wilderness of the living room, Odysseus disguised as a Zionist,
or a pickled beet-"With my hands in my pockets and my pockets in my pants watch the little girlies do the hootchie koochie dance!" he sings every morning.
Nights, I sneak into the toilet, where Uncle jumps out of the tub, yelling "Boo!"
I hide behind my eyes where even I can't find me.
Copyright © 2004 by Philip Schultz
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced ortransmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address:
Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive,
Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
Meet the Author
Born and raised in Rochester, NewYork, PHILIP SCHULTZ is the author of several collections of poetry. He has received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Academy of American Poets. He lives in East Hampton, New York.
PHILIP SCHULTZ won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his most recent book of poems, Failure. His poetry and fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, the Nation, the New Republic, and the Paris Review, among other magazines. In addition, he is the founder and director of the Writers Studio in New York.
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