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The Mysteries of Hannah and Ivar

A tall slender man sits at a rolltop desk
in the office of Passage Broker S. Jarmulsky,
32 Canal Street, near the west tower of Brooklyn Bridge.
His name is Ivar, my Swedish grandfather.
He wears a thin brown beard, a mustache, and works
on papers of immigrants like himself, traveling
back and forth from northern Europe.

His eyes are blue as ice on the winter streets
of his native Göteborg.
He has married a woman and sent her away
to live with her parents in far-off Boston.
Times are hard.

Why did Ivar come to this unruly land?

He was traveling with his tutor.
Perhaps the sea air would cure
his migraines.

The trip was a gift from his father
after long university study.

In love with a Christian girl,
he was sent away to thwart their marriage.

Stories, family legends. Each could be true
or not, or some combination, permutation.

He had a gift for languages, he even studied
Aramaic, yet never found a way
to earn a living.

He brought his cane down on the head
of a raw, sunburned man who popped out

from behind a tree in Central Park
and asked for a match.

On days when the black mood seized him
he would brandish that cane in traffic
like Moses at the Red Sea.

Once his mother sent steamship tickets
for the family to visit Sweden.
He burned them in a glass dish
in a kitchen ceremony.

Now from the home of a great-aunt, I receive letters
from Ivar to Hannah in Boston, and from Sweden,
letters from his younger brother Bernhard,
just back from a trip to America.
Both packets tied with brittle ribbons.

Ivar writes in elegant faded script on tea-colored paper.
He complains in graceful English of harried, ten-hour days.
He longs to see his mother and the dustless light of Sweden.
The fear he might lose his job to Jarmulsky's son
sends him to bed with a Migraine (capital letter).
He teases Hannah for being snappish, himself for being cruel.
"You know I am a very old young man."
He counsels patience, their separation will end.

Then this—like a slash—from Bernhard,
"I felt such joy when the mail brought your picture,
I kissed it and wept."
He hides the photo from disapproving eyes.

Why did Hannah keep these letters and a small photo
of Bernhard in a box that has gathered silence
for a hundred years?

Had she fallen in love too late with the melancholy smile
of the younger, more ardent brother?

Do I know at last why Ivar burned the steamship tickets,
never returned to Sweden, never saw his family again?

Enough. I weary myself and these subtle ghosts—
and think of what my children
will never know of me.

Mark Perlberg

Theater of Memory: New and Selected Poems
Louisiana State University Press

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