A seventh collection of poetry by a practicing psychiatrist is a unique event in English literature. It is also a timely one. Elephant Street offers a series of poetic responses to the vulnerability of the human urbanite in the Twenty-first Century. The full measure of this vulnerability was concretized on September 11, but has always been with us, as has the ages-old quest for some form of safe passage through an existence in which our loved ones, our bodies and our very lives are on loan to us.
Ron Charach has learned about terror — external and internal — at the side of patients whose exquisite sensitivity makes them, willingly or not, the antennae of the race. His understanding of the human condition gives the lie to wishful phrases like "homeland security" which are of little more comfort than scientific promises that our molecules persist forever after we die.
In this compelling book, we cross Elephant Street with its booming radios, smoky hot-dog smells and hurling traffic, with comforting Biblical passages ringing in our ears. We are in the company of a good friend who challenges us to lay aside our transcendentalism and enjoy the brief respite that comes from toasting the ironies of the human condition with an imaginary glass of wine.
Blue Sperm Whale
His patient brings in a dream,
to infiltrate his own:
I'm about five, I'm on a windy beach
dragging at the sand with my hands,
when suddenly, I bring into view
the rubbery brow of some long-submerged ocean beast.
My fingernails keep clawing, clawing
aching from the pressure,
till after what feels like hours
I unearth its entire body:
A blue sperm whale.
Is it alive?
Cautiously, he interprets
her painful struggle to expose
yet somehow contain an old Oedipal menace.
Now, after five years on his taut leather couch,
on a morning in late April,
she sits up and confesses, I love you.
Other images she shared
speed through his mind:
her mother's horrified scream
when she walked in on them
and her father urgently covered his naked wife,
vague memories of the thrashing that followed,
her back and neck lashed
with the pain of barbed ocean waves
and a terrible excitement.
Now, crowning up through the sand
shamelessly naked and blue,
this spent beast from the sea
and more, I love you.
He recalls that her dreams are often
mined with fish-hooks. Here too,
Each time I try to free their grips
they snare and bite at my fingers.
Mentors from his training
circle like pilot fish,
offering a school of evasive replies
from a feeble "I too have feelings for you,"
to a simple, suspect "Thank you,"
as if he were gaining, no, maintaining
an upper hand, as in the lament:
The patient has a vantage point,
the therapist an advantage point.
I love you too, trips off his lips
because of the truth,
because the risk of losing his license
seems banal against her gallery of ocean images.
And though he knows she has been raped
and repeatedly mistreated, this therapist
(The Rapist, she nicknamed a doctor from her past),
he rises from his chair as she rises from his couch
for a long silent hug.
Later he tells a frowning colleague
who specializes in physician abuse,
"Hugging a female patient is never sexual
for me; it only happens from the waist up."
But even as he defends his stance
he senses the stirring head of a blue sperm whale
desperate to free itself from the sand.
A nearby buoy shines bright as a cenotaph.
Stretched across the excavated pit
where once a whale tried to surface,
he grieves what little remains, lines of tiny barbs
glistening, twitching in the ocean breeze,
painted with freshly drawn blood.
for those who chart the red shift of galaxies
When Israel went forth from Egypt, Armand and I
wound our way through another spring.
The Jordan turned back a rush of hot-dog smells,
a pollen of street dust and car-stereos blasting through open windows.
The mountains skipped like rams past panhandlers and boutiques,
and Armand grinned down at me like a carnivorous fish.
"Judaism is an aesthetic choice," he said. "The sea saw it and fled."
An expanding universe is speeding up. My step slows.
I had shaken my head: "How can anyone be an atheist?"
"But you're an atheist," he thunders over the busy intersection.
"There are hundreds of Gods you don't believe in
—the elephant-headed Ganesh—and only one in which you do."
We're in for a lovers' quarrel.
I scoured the universe with questions, scrubbing until it was nearly clean,
but by the Gates of Prayer we stopped again to dodge the cars.
Half-heartedly, I switched back to science,
the "eternal molecules" argument, which he side-swiped.
"If a car were to hit you between here and Spadina Avenue,
would your family be consoled
to know your molecules were still here?
You wouldn't be forgotten, but you'd be gone."
The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth is given to mortals:
That made me look around and count
the number of streets on which a Jew could walk.
A universe was speeding up when it should slow down.
We parted the seas, as usual, on good terms.
The rock of his heart by then must have been turning to water;
we are just flints from which sparks are struck.
It is not the dead who praise the Lord, it is not those who go down to
It's like that, talking about God over lunch-hour
as the seasons change on the unforgiving concrete.
"To Fate," Armand calls back a final time,
raising an imaginary wine glass as he steps into traffic,
"no matter how we render it."
* italicized lines in "Elephant Street" are quoted with permission from Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book, by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.