Letter to America by Jim Bodeen

One Poem

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Let Us Tell How Overwhelming is the Holiness of This Day

Un’taneh Tokef


A Description of the Day of Judgment, A Letter to America

Who by fire, indeed. I come from here, America,
from this rural diaspora. Town boy in farming country. North Dakota.
Clapboard house across the street from the Christian Church.
How I come to this old Jewish prayer begins
with my birthday: August 9, 1945.
That day of shadow sculpture and disappearance.

Sunday morning parking Church parking lot.
Skip ahead 70 years. Karen ringing bells.
The week of Leonard Cohen’s passing.
He teaches his teacher how to dress
and his teacher teaches him how to live forever.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Alone in the car with a notebook.
How does one lower the voice without becoming trivial?
How does one raise it without resorting to rhetoric?
The poet lives in the hope that life has meaning.

Aunt Mary begins her letters, Dear Ones.
She writes from the heartland.
Querida America, esta carta viene de los marjinados/as.
This letter, my country men, doesn’t teach a thing.
It comes from the margins, full of tears, llena de lagrimas.

Half a century ago, a young recruit,
I tell the Army chaplain, I don’t believe in the war.
To the contrary, he says, Christians believe in this one.
He puts me with the medics and saves my life.
Our job at the Evac hospital in Vietnam–Get the wounded out.
Tet and after Tet. Blood and bones of the very young from all sides.
Death and evacuation around the clock for seven months.

Living in exile after the return, women and immigrants take me in.
Who by fire. Who by water. Who by high ordeal. Un’taneh Tokef.
For me the ancient Jewish prayer isn’t about who will die–
but who called–the muse herself, demanding devotion.
Is this call to devotion apostasy?
What are the consequences of doubt?

Dear America, I came to the prayer through a song
called poem and prayer, keeping the volume down.
My countrymen, let me tell you about the prayer.
Rabbi Amnon lived more than 800 years ago.
He was the greatest of his generation and loved G-d.
The Bishop also loved him, but wanted him to convert.
The Bishop won’t let up. You must convert to Christianity.

One day while visiting the Bishop, Rabbi Amnon said he’d think about it.
Setting out for home, Rabbi Amnon immediately feels immediate guilt.
I have doubted the living God.
He returns to the Bishop saying,
Cut out my tongue for talking blasphemy.
The Bishop says, It wasn’t your tongue betraying you.
Your tongue spoke well. Your feet carried you to me.

We’ll cut off your toes and fingers.
The Bishop gives the order.
As each toe is cut off Rabbi Amnon is asked,
Now do you want to convert?
No, he says each time, Not by my living G-d.
The Bishop commanded Rabbi Amnon to be put on a shield
along with his toes and fingers and carried home.

When Rosh Hashanah arrived, Rabbi Amnon
asks to be carried to synagogue and placed by the Holy Ark.
Rabbi Amnon speaks, And so let Holiness rise up to you
while I sanctify the name of G-d
and he recites the prayer Un’taneh Tokef,
for this day is full of awe and dread.
Every one’s signature is in it.
Who by fire. Who by water.

As he finishes the poem, Rabbi Amnon
is taken up and disappeared from the world.
On the third day of his purification
he appears in a night vision
to Rabbi Kalonymos,
Who will be exalted
and who will be humbled.

The story of Rabbi Amnon is a story of the people.

An aside:

            Found Poem at the Fitness Center:

            Walking into basement locker room
            all these naked white men–
            It’s hard not to say,
            You pricks just elected Donald Trump President.

America, you are the birthplace of the blues.
These are the Talking White Man Blues.
White men don’t talk, they tell.
John Lee says, I’m not going to get out of these blues alive.

Bravucón. Abusón. Words from the women in the margins.
They tell me, Esta hombre es bravucón. This man is a bully.
How can this man be the President of a country, they ask.
¿Como es posible?
Odio cuando los ricos intimidan a los de abajo,
mandonéandolos y burlandose de ellos.
Amenazar a alguien para que haga algo.

Que grandioso. Yo sé lo que pasó en realidad.
Que mentira.
Que parece valiente pero no lo es.

Annals of the Former World, is the geology book for this week.
John McFee writes “Geology repeats itself.
If you want to see happening right now
what happened here two hundred million years ago,
you can see it all in Nevada.”
Slow it down, America.
When you pull a continent apart, there are consequences.
If you can identify a rock’s age within three million years,
you can begin to get closer.

Margarita is one of the women who took me in.
She cooked for me, and taught me las recetas, recipes
from the rancho in Michoacán. I opened some books
for the children, and helped them with language.
They gave me their country. The most thankful
daughter from this world, Luz María, llevando El Señor
en su corazón, was born in 1980. She came here in 1994.
Crossing the border without papers is a civil infraction,
not a criminal offense. Luz María has a master’s degree now,
but no papers. Her mother adopted me into the rancho
so that I could write the Arbol de Familia. The Family Tree.
They taught me names of plants that could heal. Harnica.
So her children could know where their abuelitos were buried.

They want to give you, America, all they have given me,
the beginning of the world, not the end.

Abrazos América. Abrazos y cuidado.


Jim Bodeen
10 November – 22 November 2016




Jim BodeenJim Bodeen walks with a given word, Storypath/Cuentocamino. He carries a camera and a notebook in the Mothership. There are no shortcuts on the journey. Atajos no existe. For the past several years he has been exploring West Coast rivers for suiseki stones. Suiseki is the Japanese art of miniature landscape stones. You can follow him on his blog: http://storypathcuentocamino.blogspot.com/.

Read poetry by Jim Bodeen previously appearing in Terrain.org. 
Header photo of mission bells by ardulei, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Jim Bodeen by Karen Bodeen.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.