The Coat

Here's one of those warm simple letters in that big six-year-old scrawl of yours, filling the whole page with your statement, clear, sweet, kind, associating values with detail with Nietzsche with the glory of poetry with some local flower or creature you bumped into yesterday and fell in love with, with the rich tweed coat I gave you last time you were here. "Jews understand coats, life-giving coats, protection against death," you say in the letter, and "It's easy being crazy when the house is empty, thinking of birds of prey wearing black hats." Jerry, the yellow Irish raglan-shoulder coat I bought with money from my father is yours now, it's draped on your beefy Hebrew shoulders in the sticks near Easton, Pa., where nobody has good taste, nobody will admire its nubby random unassuming weave, its hand-loomed itchy grain brimming with dots of pink. Where you live it's as if cities don't exist yet, all's primitive, all's survival. Your neighbors pace the canal near your house, naming weeds, studying the water level, diagnosing soil richness, filling plastic sandwich bags with specimens: butterflies, quavering nameless insects, leaves, semiprecious stones. But none of them know shit about coats, their cloudy bone buttons and waxed thread sewn crisscross over and over until there's a sharp lump the owner can rub his thumb across or comfort. It's a Burberry, you schmuck, and even you probably couldn't care less. It didn't fit from the day I picked it out, it's long tent-like form comes from the past of animal pelts and capes and blankets with a slit cut in the middle, for living in nature not the city where people love clothes that "enhance" the body. Russians know coats, don't they? and Jews, those death-fearing, Godless, touchy, maniacs of the world who need their vulnerable, paranoid bodies ecstatic wrapped in a heavy expensive coat–so gas fumes can't penetrate, so torture can't swell their ankles and wrists, so the ideas of clean rigid Gentiles who believe in social justice, in eliminating obstructions to justice, can't get in, so the hands of strangers on a bus or in a street crowd can't reach their delicate skin, so even the hands of tender love can't change their mood. Eliot, Pound and Joyce bought themselves coats, showed off gorgeous Isle of Skyes, Meltons, Sheared Camel hairs, hoping it would drop below zero just to test how absolute their coats were, whether they were true mortal coats that could give life, define life, save life. What a Jewish idea! But I believe it. A coat so well-made, so thick and fine it could actually prevent death: an immortality coat! Right now I want my coat back, Jerry, even thought it's late May, it's the only coat I know that might help me live forever, but I give myself a stupid effeminate kiss in the long bathroom mirror instead, down to my crotch, I begin to lather and shave, a kiss instead of a coat, and feel the just sadness of how much I'll miss that sack of stitched woven hair come December. Naked, I shave, an hour before leaving to teach, zipping the blue plastic Good News across cheek over chin up to the lip under a nostril and it strikes me that I should lecture on coats today not poetry, inspired by the coat I gave you, which has probably fallen off its cheap wire hanger by now, a blurred heap among gashed rubber boots, the vacuum cleaner, outgrown ice skates, dark twisted hats and whatever else you've chucked down there to be sold at a yard sale. My lecture should explain the coat's power to stop death and somehow should, I think, represent divine coats in an act that uses a real coat somehow. I'll wear one of my coats to class. I walk in. Take out my note cards, still wearing my coat. I keep it on. Suddenly they're quiet. I'm talking about the coat, your coat, the coats. Brilliant. Euphoric. Letting my mind speak, wandering in all its honest blindness. And I add, "Lusting for a hundred things this morning, I'd rather have a coat than anything, deep, unassailable wool to shield a back and chest on a cold night so securely that the man who wears it feels he can stand anything, do anything, survive even his own death, grateful for the feel of it, for the weight, the reassuring dense goodness against his bare hands, for the shiny trace of oil it leaves in a film on his palms and fingers." Then I call one student up and draw her inside my coat by opening it like Dracula, still lecturing, and button us in and feel her jump when my crazy stiff dick springs and pulses against her belly, still lecturing about coats, whispering, declaiming, gesturing, making scholarly digressions, invoking history, origins, fashion, cloth, hissing out of the side of my mouth to her–"Stay calm, don't let anybody know" as her hand slips it in a little and I sway a little, finishing, asking questions, answering questions, blithely in touch with their faces as she comes, three or four muffled tremors. All this time both our faces turned toward the class, and she's tittering as if the whole thing is merely a lecture on coats. "What a beautiful coat you have," she says, "so roomy, warm," and I thank her for the compliment, say "But you should see the one I gave Jerry," unable to recall one thing I've said to the class during the last few minutes. Ah, this life, which even the best coat can't protect us from; this death, too strong for the warmest coat there is. Nevertheless, there are coats that will never let us die–I know it. Every time I step into the hall closet and sniff its musty dark and rove my hands over the coats–first shoulders, then the long drape of the body–awed by their dark softness, and caress mine, I pray it's one of those coats, the holy ones, I close the door and stay in there as long as I can blindly nuzzling and singing.

Stephen Berg, New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 1991.