February 1999

Daniela Gioseffi


Henry Taylor

Mark Bibbins
  Sharon Cumberland
  Philip Dacey
  Daniela Gioseffi
  Brent Goodman
  Mark Halperin
  Ben Howard
  Stellasue Lee
  Linda Lerner
  John McKernan
  DeWayne Rail
  David Rigsbee
  Peter Robinson
  Terry Savoie
  Joseph Stanton
  Mary Winters

David Grayson

Lloyd Schwartz

Rosa Shand
Daniela Gioseffi

Gioseffi.jpg (3329 bytes) American Book Award winner, Daniela Gioseffi, is the author of ten books of poetry and prose: the latest, Word Wounds & Water Flowers; poems. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Nation, and Prairie Schooner, among others.  She is the editor of the women's literary magazine: Wise Women's Web

Nebby Joins the Army    

We could invent love until the sea closed in. That's all us guys were sure of in 1936 in Greenwich Village. Those were dark years, wild years for me! My father already knew what Stalin and Hitler were up to, even if a lot of others didn't. We kids felt a vague threat hanging over us. I dreamed of being a revolutionary poet, when I wasn't dreaming of Molly—my pretty, plump and sexy girlfriend. She had a skinny brother, called "Nebby" who was nervous and decidedly unattractive to females. No one remembered that "Nebby" didn't get his nomer from nebbish, but from the first part of his name, Nebekovski. Girls never paid attention to Nebby. To become a big hero so girls would like him, he decided to run away and join the Spanish Loyalist Army—but he was afraid of guns and didn't know a thing about shooting one. Molly made me promise to teach him how.

I was ashamed of any nebbishy guys of my Jewish background who were scared of guns, woods and wild animals, scared of worms when you took them fishing. Being good at such sporting stuff made me very suspect among my friends in the city, but I fared better in the country than my friends who studied at Stuyvesant High School of Science. My father, a Turkish Jew, had made a point of teaching me to hunt and fish. He believed that every man ought to know how to defend himself with a gun. He expected that any minute a workers' revolution or Hitler’s' troops might arrive in New York City.

"Wars are fought to save rich peoples' money! Jews like us can get killed by their own governments!" my father would bellow. After Stalin's purges were known and Hitler started World War II, he said the same—with greater conviction and louder oratory. "So, why should only the government soldiers have guns? When the Secret Police come for your family, you've got to be ready! When the whole world is one country, one race, religion, and class, you can be a pacifist!"

He taught me to aim and fire the rifles he bought me on my birthdays. He gave me two hunting rifles—just like his. "You always need a spare—just in case— and you hide them in different places—one easy to find, the other impossible! You're not going to like the other Socialist nebbishes in this city —always expecting a workers' revolution and scared even to kill a chicken! They scream like girls at a poisonous snake if they only see one! They can't put a worm on a fishing hook without throwing up! What kind of a man is that?"

I always thought of poor Nebby when my father talked like that. I befriended him—because of his sister, Molly, but I called him Nebby, too. He was in no great position to protest. I was proud of being the tallest guy at Stuyvesant High School—the best public school for science and math in New York City. The German guys who hung around the park drinking beer called my Jewish friends "sissies," but they didn't dare do that to me. They knew I could bust heads with the best of them. The Jewish guys, to get back at the Germans, called them "Krauts," and "Beer bellies." Then they would retaliate with "Kikes" and "Jewbagels!" Everyone was calling the Italians "guineas," or "greaseballs," the Englishmen, "fruits" or "limeys," and the blacks, "schvartzes" or "niggers." Me? I was called the "Crazy Turk" because I liked guns and hunting. But no one messed with me.

"I'm gonna' be a hero when I get back from this war!" Nebby told me. "You'll see! Then all the girls in The Party will flock around me when I tell them I was a member of The Lincoln Brigade that won the Spanish American war for our side!"

I was crazy about Nebby's pretty blond sister, Molly. She had the looks of her gorgeous Greek mother, a nurse, and the brains of her Jewish father—a busy doctor who tended poor people's kids for nothing and taught courses in medicine at New York University. Just like my father did. Molly's family and mine were part of the same socialist group. The kids in that society weren't sexually repressed like other kids at school. Molly's parents had supplied her with birth control devices. We used to read Emma Goldman's and Margaret Sanger's essays and discuss "Free Love" as a high and mighty ideal—like Alexandra Kollantai of Russia! I was in the throes of the hottest love affair I'd known since discovering the difference between men and women. We were the only Jews with a house on Washington Square. My father was a physician who had written declamatory articles, for Emma Goldman's magazine, Mother Earth. He supplied me with all I needed, so I wasn't scared of making girls pregnant or catching diseases like other kids at school. Ours was the only house in the square owned by radicals and we had a tendency to shock the neighborhood. I felt like a man of the world—taking Nebby's sister into the attic of my parents' house as often as I could. Molly and I were living a life of nubile bliss—but Nebby felt very left out of all the fun in our crowd and Molly started distracting me from our love making with worry about him.

"Please help Nebby learn to shoot a gun," she pleaded with me. "I'm afraid he can't defend himself. He swears he's really going to run away and join the Spanish Loyalists. He's threatened to tell my parents all about us cutting school to come up here if I tell on him. I'm worried, because he's never even seen a gun in person for real!"

Molly was absolutely beautiful to me—with her blond curls and the roundest softest silkiest breasts and thighs and orgasmic sighs in my universe. So, I did as I promised her and showed Nebby how to shoot my gun. It wasn't easy to teach him. He tried hard, but he was too nervous and scared. The rifle made too big a bang and hurt his skinny shoulder when it kicked back. When we finished practicing with my rifle at the range upstate, he claimed he had a terrible headache and had to stop. Still, I did my best to teach him—poor, scrawny guy, dying for the girls to see him as a big hero with a medal on his chest!

To mine and everyone's surprise, he really disappeared one day, and Molly got a letter from him a few days later saying he'd joined The Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Loyalist Army. "I'm about to be the biggest hero on our block!" he wrote. One night, a few weeks later, when Molly was supposed to meet me for a trip to the attic, she called instead, crying hysterically.

"I can't see you tonight or ever. I don't want to see any boys ever again. We got a telegram today. My brother Nebby's dead! I'm going to stay home every night after school to be with my parents, because they are crying all the time. They said I should have told them what Nebby was planning to do. I don't feel like making love anymore—because Nebby never will get to!"

I guess I'm telling this story to make a little memorial to Nebby, I mean, Nevin Nebekovski, because now I'm sixty-six, and I still remember Molly. I remember wanting her for so many years that I became a poet who writes about how deep the fascination with the exotic other goes—no sentiment about it—this passion with the blood of the other which stains our hands and tongues—this desire to poke at the fruit until its juices run, to tear the rose from its stem, scatter petals to the wind, to pluck the butterfly's wings for the microscope's lens, to plunge a fist into a teetering tower of bricks, watch the debris sail, explode fireworks until all crumbles to dust and is undone, open to the curious eye. Does this or that creature die as I die, cry as I cry, writhe as I would if my guts were ripped from the walls of my flesh, my ripe heart eaten alive?

Always the probing questions of sacred exploration—as if science can be progress without empathy. Does a penis feel as a clitoris feels? Do slanted eyes see as I see? Is a white or black skin or sin the same as a red one? Is it like me? Does it burn, does it peel, does it boil in oil or reel in pain? The obsession to possess the other so completely that her blood fills the mouth and you eat of her flesh from its bone, and then know if she, if he, feels as you feel, if your world is real.

Maybe, because Molly was exotic to me—she a blond Greek, me a dark, Turkish Jew—long after my hair turned gray, she remained an obsession that no woman—not even my beloved wife of thirty years—could erase. I still have dreams about her.

Molly's mother decided to go to her Greek Orthodox Christian Church again after Nebby, her only son, was killed, and her father, a Socialist, didn't approve. It broke his heart when Molly entered a convent and decided to become a nun. Thank goodness she changed her mind and left the convent for college! Her father, by then, had given up his medical practice here, and moved to Israel. A few years later, her mother left the West Side to look for him. I heard they got back together again over there, and Molly, when she finished college, joined them in Tel Aviv. That's where she taught school for forty years.

Yes, I'm sixty-six, and I can't forget Molly, and I know now that erotic ideas are like flashy lights turning on in heads that echo from mouths and shine up secret places, and people can be greedy in their groins and ugliness can come even from the beauty of nubile bliss. Sex can be ripped from the blood as if the body were not a house of green moss, a vase of kindness, a space for greed set alight from the dark by the glow of hand on hand.

And there are still the word wounds, like roots of mushroom clouds that could rise now from the pock marked earth: "guinea, dago, spick, nigger, polack, wasp, mick, chink, jap, frog, russkie, red bastard, kike, fag, bitch, macho pig, gimp, dike!" The stench of murdered flesh could again follow the sprayed dust of children's eyes melted from wondering sockets, animal skin, thighs, men's hands, women's sighs roasted in a final feast of fire beasts caught like lemmings in a leap to Armageddon—false resurrection! Word wounds could rise from visions of charred lips, burnt books, paper ashes, crumbled libraries, stones under which plastic pens and computers are fried amidst the last cried words, smoke to pay lip service as all dust into dust returns....

I'm old enough to know, now, that the head is fickle like history. An orchard, the body is free and soul invents itself in smile and song. I had a letter from Molly. I tried writing to her about a year ago—a love poem of our youth, and she finally answered me.

A letter came in the mail this morning from Tel Aviv. "I've been a widow now for three years, like you," she wrote. Life has sped by us. I'm coming to New York to visit my grandson next month. I'll call you. Maybe, we can have dinner and a talk. Send me your phone number." She's thought of me often, too, through these many years since so long ago when we were young!

Nebby never got to be a hero—just a casualty of machismo—like me. "I'm worried," Molly wrote. "About my grandchildren here in Israel and in America. They live under the threat of nuclear winter. It will be worse than Hitler or Stalin, worse than anything Right or Left! Maybe, the world was easier for us even, than it will be for them!"

Yes, we'll invent love until the sea dries up or tides flood over or the bombs explode human blossoms to dust, and poets are only madmen talking crazy and making sense.


Daniela Gioseffi: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SixThe Cortland Review