Three Poems – Jamie Banks

TorahHebrew


Eavesdropping on My Intake

Why?
Did you mean to?
Describe.
On a scale of 1 to “I want to die”
Pi. Dunno.
No I mean I’m just so tired.
Three days.
Can you confirm?
Doesn’t look like it.
I DID want to die!
Why do you think you’re here?

Tell me
Flight of ideas racing depersonalization probably deluded I know I don’t know 
canyoumakemesleep?
Yes, I would love some toast.
Do you charge for that too?

The scariest thing is he’s so fucking smart.
He knew all of the clinical words.
I know doc, it’s how I deal.
I can’t tell.
I’m scared I’m tricking you too.
Family history of depression, grandfather developed the psychopath test, 
grandfather Grandfather
Was just as smart, often compared by self and others.
Considers self a psychopath. Paranoia from insomnia?
Actually recited diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality.

Bruises consistent with
Please don’t tell my parents
Patient overly concerned with emotional safety
I mean, I promise you, the guy is dead.
No harm.

We have to be careful with this case.
Why are you here?
I feel calm now. Is that the drugs?
You’ll be safe.
I shouldn’t be here.
We take care of you here.
Can you?



Nighttime on Ward 9

I really believed my home was where the heart monitor is. 
At the first sign of real fear I am ready 
to be inducted again into the brotherhood of the paper bracelet wearers, 
in this house where the kiddie chairs let fear loom only so large.
I dream the easy company of waiting room goldfish.

I never remember a thing 
between the hours of 7am (when I stop eating)
and 12am (so they say)
when I wake up in recovery. 

I don’t remember a thing and I’ve made this all up--
But I saw my name in red ink once,
as a cartload of case histories wobbled by.

It’s been a long time since I regarded the bloom of blood 
in hospital bowls as beautiful. 
I’m still learning depression is not artsier.

I have abandoned this home
But left the “Welcome” sign:
For others, I demur.

There is satisfaction as the lock clicks behind me,
As if there was a key and I now have it,
As if the locks keep all of us safe,
Which comforting idea
I quick forget that I unlearned.




Prayer for History

At ten I was a yeshiva boy
English name Katherine--
The boy was a girl and the Jew was a goy.

I scripted the Jewish male of my dream self every night before daring to sleep.

Now I quest for a new name with the Hebrew ciphers 
I hid under the sheets after bed
to build from the sacred piles of books of my atheist childhood.

In my second coming-of-gender,
I want to be a bar-not-bat mitzvah--
accent on male, not yoked by the commandments.

At my ceremony
I will not be able to swear belief in the holy name, HaShem,
Only my joy
That no-one in the five thousand year history of the People of the Book
Has thought you can find God in a word,
Believed you can pray by rote.
I will not be able to pray honestly.

In my speech I will address Freud’s ultimate question, why I dream a Jewish boy:

Because it is honest
in the mom’s-step-adopted-third-mother-is-Jewish way
the American Jewish way.

Because if I grow to be temple cantor
Maybe testosterone will spare all three of my octaves
Will not sever voice from soul and leave my inwardness bunched 
at Adam’s apple. 

Because I pray to be a man bookish, but acceptably so.
White man who tends his inner monologue
Straight man less all the privilege of no queerness assumed.

As a bar mitzvah, 
the tefillin I don to bless and hold the day will contain scrolls of my history,
Words of mine on my heart and my soul 
So I will not forget the story of this Exodus from binary.
So I am commanded daily to remember my jumble of maybe-true words 
insisting this new man is still me.
This is the price of untrue Jewishness.
For Torah commands that words of yours must be daily on my heart and soul
As I lie down, and as I wake.

You, Father, uncle, grandfather,
You, 
All the white, straight, goyische men I could ethically strive to be.
This time I swear I’ll hear the inner lives
I was too in love with queerness to hear wholly.

I wish to be read with history,
Am afraid the first history I will full-wittingly strike down is my own.

Your history, grandfather, 
I read in air force logs,
Now that you forget the stories I then would not hear.
Your brother’s whole history was on his dog tag
And I understood.

Imagining the war you still call great,
I bury my woman? in its remains--
Call this male bonding.

What’s left from reams of gender crowded in my margins as commentary
is more soot than candle of truth.
I take this to mean I am more you, my family’s men, than yeshiva boy.

See, the Jewish man’s Kabbalistic fire is holy and beautiful,
If I were more Jew,
Maybe this small, bright light could make me a gem for a gender,
Bound as a sign upon my arm, as Torah commands.
A gem that glitters when I need it to
And mostly sits forgotten in back pocket.
You could find my queer history in its fracture planes,
But only if I let you break me open.

But I cannot dream myself Jewish enough.
The flames I have are my grandfather’s.
Not holy. Destroying all the history they touch.

At least my family white men’s history is durable
Heard in the trapped song of coal mine’s canary
Scribed on dog tags that survived the fire.
At least it is too rough to be in the too privileged white man’s schoolbooks.
One day I want my tag added to our collection
Filed next to Grandpa Banks, Kenneth.
I will leave my sons to find a gender gem in this,
the only necklace I’ll be caught dead wearing.

They will find on my tag,
“Hydrocephalus, Too Much on the Brain. 
Patient at risk of a sudden buildup of cranial pressure 
due to her excess thoughts of gender.”
If they study close,
They will find a footnote in my commentary,
“Wishes to be buried in a body different, richer than the one that bore him.”

You will find me and my sons scouring what’s left
Grasping for my drafty gender 
Snatching the disappearing narratives of drafted men.

I can pray for a cough.
May it let in the smoke of history.
I pray for rescue breaths of history to give this gender life.
Like for my father before me, words are my very atoms.
I read myself from margins to center,
I pray to my God,
all the wordless space between atoms,
That is to say,
The whole world.

And say, Amen.
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About Jamie Banks

Jamie Banks is a high school teacher, poet, choir geek and linguaphile from Brooklyn, NY. He served as co-president of Speak Out Loud, Harvard's spoken word poetry group, and coached their 2014 CUPSI team, who received an award for "Pushing the Art Forward". He is thrilled to be teaching in settings where he can integrate arts and mental health advocacy with academics. View all posts by Jamie Banks

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