… thief … flowing … longer… and the wealth… (of) mortals… (nor?)… --- Oxyrhynchus papyrus (c. 150 AD)
I. “Who does he think he is?” Boris Kahnonwitz spat, raged, railed, swaying on the lectern, his massive body, a body always as tense as his language, as taut as a cord about to be snapped. He teetered on the edge of some unprecedented violence.
Everyone in the room feared him, as much as they loved his poetry. For a man of such deadly living passions, as lethal as nightshade, on the page he could express the subtlest of emotion as if he was holding up a small, delicate flower for the edification of mankind.
“Who?” he asked again. He had been reading a poem, and had then taken some questions. Someone asked about the relationship between a particular line and his old mentor, Yasha Schuelvitz. Boris Kahnonwitz, who was drunk as a Cossack, began to pound his fist on the lectern like a mighty gavel.
The blows were not hard, but they appeared to knock Boris Kahnonwitz from his perch, and he began to slip to the floor. He continued to hold onto the lectern, either from the stubborn supposition that if he just held on he would not fall, or simply from blind habit. But fall he did; and then followed his stack of poems, partially covering him like leaves from the first gales of autumn. His associates came to his aid, but not too quickly. This was not an uncommon event.
“Get your paws off me,” he hissed from the floor. It was covered in sawdust, like a butcher’s shop. Boris Kahnonwitz, moist as he was from the dew of his own perspiration, looked like a fritter that had been dipped in corn meal.
“I’ll pull the arms from the sockets if you so much as touch my tunic!” So no one laid a hand on Boris Kahnonwitz, the famous poet. They let him rage on the floor. The vodka had set his blood to boil and the tumbled over, scorching the floor.
“You compare my line to Yasha Schulevitz’s!” he spat at no one in particular. “I’ll find that little mamzer and drag him back here by his side locks. “Reb Marx said,” Boris Kahnonwitz chanted, as if reading from the Mishna, “No man can escape history. Even the sainted Reb Yasha Schulevitz. I’ll pull him back and deposit him right here on this floor, among the sawdust and the scraps of treyf and your stinking, stammering poems! I’ll thrust a pen into his hand and make him write verse if I have to hold a revolver to his temple and dip his pen into the ink myself!”
“Don’t talk like an ass, Boris,” someone as the back of the room jeered on his way out the door. This caused Boris to sit up. He had lost his hat, and his great bald head shone like a beacon.
“Who is the ass. Who?” Boris Kahnonwitz taunted no one in particular. “When Yasha left Warsaw to become a ba’al tesuvah, to return to the Torah, I fought him tooth and nail. But you let him slip through your fingers! You let your mentor fall back into superstition and wizardly. You did nothing about it, but I held him by his zizitot…
“It’s a free country,” someone yelled, “a man can leave for the provinces if he wants to…”
“It’s only half-free,” someone else jeered, “free if you deny Christ but have a foreskin, and a house of bondage if you deny the Torah but are without…” and the men laughed. Boris formed his hands into two meaty fists, and swung forward. No one was in striking distance, yet everyone took a step back nonetheless. No one wanted to be hit by the Samson of Warsaw.
Boris Kahnonwitz wanted to swear to God that he would find Yasha Schulvitz and bring him back to Warsaw, but he did not believe in God, so who to swear to? History? He would sound like a buffoon. His mind, addled with drink, took up and dropped substitutes at a rapid clip. Finally, his mouth was moving.
“I vow to bring Yasha Schulevitz to this very room!” Boris intoned, thrusting his arms out, as if to encompass the entire space of the reading room of the Yiddish Writers Union, a former butcher’s shop cellar. He stood up, and leaned toward the door. A hole opened around him, and he was out in the street.
The next morning he woke up in an ally. There was the smell of urine and trash. Looking up, he noticed that a gentile boy and girl in filthy attire were poking him with a metal pole. He waved at them, “Fuck off, Philistines,” in Polish and tried to stand. A shiver ran down his spine. His head reeled. He had fallen asleep in a divot of slush and was wet from his shoulders to his calves. He pushed his way back on home.