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Sunday, August 23, 2015


by Max Ochs

from Moby Dick or, The Whale. Illustrated by Rockwell Kent published by The Modern Library, New York, 1930

“I have no objection to any person’s religion, be that as it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person doesn’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; and makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him. “   —Herman Melville

Attending Eastport Methodist’s annual Interfaith
New Years Eve service, I hear an Imam’s lovely voice;
it hearkens me to myriad wondrous childhood hours
in the synagogue we called Shul, where I loved to hear
my Hebrew cantor in prayer. A number was tattooed
on his forearm; his fierce eyes had witnessed the camps,
unspeakable things. Blessed be Reb Hammer, who taught
me to sing: Boruch Atah Adonai.
This Imam was singing  in the same heartfelt, earnest
and strict way as Rev. Hammer. That made me love
the Imam, as he called upon Allah, as a cousin. As family.
He disappeared before I could shake his hand,
look him in the eye and say: Salaam, you and I
both spermed down from one ancestor, Abraham,
upon whom God called, demanding sacrifice;
the same son I call Isaac and you call Ishmael,
a name which now narrates Moby Dick.

The image of Ishmael looking to knock someone’s
hat off in New Bedford, summons the mythology
of my father’s stories of being a tough
young street fighter, ready and rough.
Sound his name, Isaac, as a sudden laugh aloud.  
In 1927, Izzy clenched his fists in Far Rockaway,
and felt just as  punchy as brother Ishmael had
100 years before, opting to up with Ahab, aside
a devout cannibal, the harpooner Queequeeg;
Ahab the white-whale-chasing monomaniac.

1927, in Queens, a politically dangerous time
and place to out as Hebrew, around rival gangs.
Don’t Jewish (you were white). Don’t signify.
Not only Medical schools, even city sidewalks
had Jewish quotas; the system was biased then,
we heard, in favor of [LOL] waspy men.
Don’t you wish you were not? All that singing,
with a crying voice, like gypsies! Opt for the above
and kiss shiksas under the Brooklyn boardwalk.
Let them play tennis, where nothing means love.

Neither today is it fun to be statistically sucked in
to prison by society’s vacuum for being like Queequeeg
or Huck’s Jim, a brown male. My friends, already tired
of Ferguson, can’t identify; Ebola hemorrhaging in Africa,
eyesore ISIS spreading down Levant its blue videos of death
by beheading. My friends still watch TV, but any more
news and they’ll get depressed. I start to spout
war-warn rhetoric, my sermon about our future.
Our weary globe’s a-warming; no peace for Arab, Jew;
holy elephants poached for tusk, rhinoceros for horn;
Chestnut trees, honey bees, cod fisheries disappear.
Old species gone, sperm whales sure as you’re born.

Queequeeg’s Black Yojo Doll, Ishmael accepts;
The entire world’s other brands of religion too.
As long as it doesn’t insult or try to kill him.
Okay, for once, irony: darkness escapes light.
Ain’t no fluke, an enemy compels us to war.
Again. Honey, I know, but this time, even if
this be our fathers again, looking for a fight:
Maybe we’ve got just cause, and we ought.
And Jim shall have a song in scary cells of jail.
One sermon sold “inherent dignity”; I bought.
Avast, thou!  Ye haven’t seen the white whale?

When the Imam calls the population to prayer,
so all may pray together to the all-powerful creator,
remember Ishmael’s example: tolerate anybody’s
faith if they will, in turn, tolerate yours. Don’t
you wish you were free? Then pray on your knees
in the hospital with Ahab and the other amputees.

For decades, Annapolis poet Max Ochs used “stolen moments” to scribble poems at night while working by day for his county’s anti-poverty agency and the local conflict resolution center. Like his famous cousin, songwriter Phil Ochs, Max has maintained a faith in what organizers can do for just causes. Many poems reflect on his career as mediator, activist and teacher; others chronicle an ongoing dialogue between a “failed atheist” and the gods. Archived podcasts of his poetry and music can found on Grace Cavalieri’s “The Poet and the Poem” (Library of Congress website).  A “primitive American” musician, Ochs learned his licks from some blues greats: Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Son House, all of whom stayed with him in New York City. Tompkins Square records, which depicted Ochs as an “Obscure Giant of Acoustic Guitar," featured four of Ochs’s poems on the 2005 CD, Hooray for Another Day. Ochs lives with his wife, Suzanne, on the picturesque Severn River, just north of Annapolis, Maryland.