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Poems


 
Eastern Europe after the War

Wisps of memory   ragged dips in the grass

A few years earlier, millions died in sub-zero
temperature     Stripped to their underwear,

they were whipped    beaten with fists
and rifle butts   their infants ripped

from their arms     Their prayers to God
changed nothing     Shot in the neck,

they were kicked   into ditch after ditch    
Those still living clutched at prayer shawls  

or thrice-blessed amulets   but their words  
their tears   called down no power    

Their deaths did not alter the sky, which continues
to shelter their murderers     The earth

that churned for days afterward has yielded nothing  
but fragments     The years swept by, blurring

the landscape   though, on occasion, something
in humanity   twitched     A list of the names

of the missing   slipped from official fingers  
and drifted into history     In Eastern Europe,

not a stitch was mended     The gash
in the abandoned universe   could not be healed  
 

Counting the Holocaust


He tried to get a handle on the Holocaust:
let others immerse themselves in questions
of time and intention    

He would leave the Nazis to history  
the endless litany of camps to architects
and statisticians    

Let the professors tussle over Hitler's evil
genius   the altruism of Schindler   the German
muse of Goldhagen

He wanted to know one thing only —
what six million of anything added up to . . .
and so he counted:

grains of uncooked rice   until the gallon jugs
he dropped them into filled his kitchen   un-
matched contact lenses  

newly-minted pennies   then soda pop bottle caps
battered shoe boxes   abandoned valises   and six
million periods in 12-point Gothic type:

thirty-seven hundred and four unconsumed
pages     He was counting the Holocaust   and he
kept counting.
 

Army Doctor, Unit 731


from the testimony of Yuasa Ken
 
His father had a practice in Shitamachi,
the old district of Tokyo, and a hunger
to be a doctor grew inside him.  When the war
knocked at his window, he was ready:
you can’t cure the soon-to-be-dead
without doctors.  Dispatched to Shansi
 
province in China, he flew like a night moth
to the hospital, where the bitter cold
did not daunt him: he was a warrior,
a samurai in a fresh white coat.  Still,
he felt his bones go cold and his will waver,
for he knew what manner of death lived there.
 
At the hospital, he stepped into the circle
of his destiny, where others had gathered,
but only to act out their supporting roles:
he was the one who would follow orders
or issue commands.  The smiling Red Cross nurses
had been over this ground before
 
but never with such a good-looking young doctor,
and their cheerful demeanor made him think:
What if this man tries to flee — if he dies
under the knife, without a last meal or a call
to his family, without his Shansi gods clustered
around him?  He thought these things, but they
 
were not his concern.  If he did not practice
on the living, how would he learn?  He would not
lose heart with everyone watching and made the log
lie down: he would not be embarrassed by weakness.
The anesthetic took effect, but the appendix
was hard to locate, and the opening of the pharynx
 
was a puzzle to resolve, like the opening of a gate
in a walled garden.  When this prisoner was neatly
dissected, yet would not die, he, Yuasa Ken, watched
the director of the hospital inject air into his heart.
This was the first time he understood the power
that lived in his uniform, in his surgeon’s tools,
 
in his hands, and each incision he made after this
seemed easier.  He practiced sewing up intestines
that had slipped from living bodies, and he watched
as the dentist excised healthy teeth   as the urologist
 
scalpeled testicles, and he took pride in these things:
he was a loyal servant of the Japanese nation.
 
Gradually, he came to enjoy his accomplishments
and, in town, would swing his shoulders: the girls loved
his swagger, and all the local men deferred to him —
everyone admires an officer!  The city moved
with the merest rise in his voice, with the merest dip.
Sake overflowed his cup.
 
                        *   *   *
 
After the war, he had eleven years to think, but then
he was released from prison, and the nurses
who had served with him took his face in their hands:
their words were softer and more fragrant than cherry
blossoms torn and scattered by the wind.  But an old pain
flooded him, and he asked them to remember:
 
they had been with him at Shansi.  Hadn’t they
held down his victims and complained, Sleep, sleep
drug give!, in that parody of Chinese?  Didn’t they feel
the same shudder he felt rush through them now,
as if death had brushed their hearts?
 

Names on a List


January 23, 1995

David Ben-Zino, Adi Rosen, Damian Rosovski
Who were these soldiers Islamic Jihad killed?
In Tel Aviv I had slept in a young soldier’s room
— my shirts hung for a while in his closet,
my head crushed his pillow, and my feet
drank the chill from his floor.  Was he
among the murdered, this only son of my friends?
 
No, he was not in Netanya in the third week
of January, he was not in Tel Aviv, not
in Israel, not in the Middle East at all. 
Then let us not speak his name, not even
in a whisper: who are we to trust the gods
or the unseen powers?  My friends shall keep
their son, and I will sleep without dreaming. 
 
But who were these young soldiers?  Rafael
Mizrahi, Yehiel Sharvit, Yuval Tuvya how did
they live and what did they live for?  A month
earlier, in Jerusalem, I saw two soldiers at ease
at the Haas Promenade.  They were there to guard
children and the teachers of these children
and Uzis hung at their backs in stark diagonals.
 
They looked like soldiers, but I could see
they were really older brothers and would-be
boyfriends, and one joked with the teacher
whose clouds of copper hair outshone the midday
sun; the other ate his lunch and half-sprawled
in the scorched grass.  I saw their sisters
and cousins in the Judean Desert, in the spillway
 
of light that opened into dark, conflicted Jericho,
and they were waiting in the alleyways of the Old
City where tribes of tourists materialized from stone
and filled their arms with Yemenite jewelry and Druse
cloth.  I understand, but who was Gilad Gaon? who
Eran Gueta? who was David Hasson? who Eitan Peretz?
I saw them in Abu Ghosh, wolfing down hummus
 
in olive oil, small hills of falafel.  And they
were at the bus terminal in Tel Aviv, hauling
their battered duffels   at the Bahá’í shrine in Haifa
keeping watch in the sacred gardens   and I saw
them anointed with fire in the sunset that blossomed
over Ashkelon.  But you know these words are lies
and your hearts are not fooled by my stories
 
for Yaron Blum is dead   Ilie Dagan is dead  
Amir Hirschenson is dead   Anan Kadur is dead  
Maya Kopstein is dead   Soli Mizrahi is dead
Avi Salto is no longer with us   Daniel Tzikuashvili
is no longer with us     All the bright young flames
of Israel’s sun are dying   and I am here speaking
their names to you.
 

Praying for My Sister


This earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.
                        — Bahá’u’lláh

     1
I went to Acco and prayed for my sister. 
It was a bleak day in January, the northernmost coast
of the kingdom.  The bus ride from Jerusalem took hours. 
What is a day to the heart that seeks absolution? 
I had taken this duty on myself:  I would stand in the Báb’s garden
where Haganah soldiers had been murdered by the British;
I would speak for her words of hope and comfort.
 
This was the realm of passionate martyrdom,
and I would read from Bahá’í scripture, The Fire Tablet
and The Seven Valleys.  It was late afternoon and the sky
was rapidly darkening — soon there would be rain. 
No one stood with me in this haunted place, but I reached out
to my sister through these words; I reached out to her God
for her, as the cool drops fell . . . and I felt the spirit of my sister
touch my lips, the breath of an old Spirit graze my cheek.
 
     2
In Haifa, too, I prayed for her: at the great temple,
under the gold-leafed dome.  Deep in the sacred gardens,
the sea stirred the ramparts; light blossomed
on the ripening fruit.  I took off my shoes and entered. 
The quiet approached me. 
 
I prayed for my sister there.  I asked for Bahá’u’lláh’s blessing
to descend on her like cool rain, to sweeten her days
with the scent of lush blossoms.  In that small chapel,
I could not tell if the Earth had, at last, become one country,
but I knew that my sister should be minister of a world at peace.
 
     3
I prayed for my sister in Acco and Haifa, and I prayed
for her again at the Wall, for this was the place
where the power of life fully spoke to me, where history
and heaven seemed entwined.  I prayed for her
in the Judean hills, where the zealots had known God
through the strength of community and isolation;
at Stella Carmel, where Christian missionaries offered Christ
to my wandering heart (and where I said grace for them
in my heart’s best Hebrew).  I spoke to my sister words barely spoken,
until what I murmured to myself felt like the sweetest blessing.
 

A Child of the Millennium


He’s five months old now — a little short
on experience — but if he could speak,
Jake would sit with the Dalai Lama on a red
and golden throne and hold forth on happiness
and compassion on freeing the mind from vengeance
and regret and living in exile from the sacred home:
he’s seen the end of days . . . and the beginning.

He doesn’t know about race or gender
or that we are murdering the planet that the earth
is smoldering with underground fires and with the bone-
fires of hatred He doesn’t know about ethnicity
or religion and will not take with him into the new century
memories of calcined corpses or an interior landscape
peopled with napalmed children.

What Jake is best at has nothing to do with genocide
or the acid tides of history He travels in realms
where tenderness is a face that brushes his face
He feels the strength of those around him and their love
and time ticks at his wrist like the gentlest rain His eyes
are the most translucent lakes, his smiles tiny suns
that shine a clear light on the living.
 

In the Woods, 1951

I remember how the light pawed down
through densely tangled branches
and how the narrow creek jangled
over its scatter of burnished stones  
worn to a smoothness in the cold churn
of water.  The day began when school ended

and our feet sank into fern banks
and leaf-mulch or squelched in bog-holes
of aromatic muck.  We leapt over moss-
crushed oaks   white-barked paper birches  
climbed wind-sheared hickories and beeches

and, in the green drench of summer,
swam naked in our garden.  In that clear water
that granted every pardon, we gashed our hearts
and came up gasping, the afternoon sun

encircling our foreheads with tendrils of molten gold. 
We heard drums in the leaf-tops that spoke of endings,
yet we lived as if time was not our master, as if

we were kings of the forest   and not its slowly drowning sons.  

 

Learning to Dance, 1956

It was the 50s, and all of us
were kids, but you were older —
almost a woman — and you would

teach me to dance.  You were
the dark-haired child in a family
of blondes, slightly exotic, wilder,

my best friend’s sister.
In your father’s basement,
you took my hand and showed me

how to hold you — how to hold
a woman.  I was fourteen and knew
already how to be awkward.  You knew

I was falling into shadows.  When I breathed
your hair, I was no longer in the forest
but had broken through

to a clearing where tall grasses whispered
and swayed, where white-petalled daisies
and violet clover blossomed. 

You moved me deeper into the music
and made a meadow spring up around me. 
Your body showed me that I had strength

to change the moment, if only the quiet
power of a summer breeze . . .
When you said I would be a good dancer,

that I had rhythm    that I could swing,
I held you close: some day,
I would find the one

who would pull me near to her in love,
not mercy; I would dance with her  
and learn her secret names.

 

A Summer Night

Dark country night,
how clearly I remember you:
grass on fire with darkness
the summer sky streaming
with meteors  
and slow-burning flares
at the tips of cigarettes
gripped in my parents’ hands
the cold flames of ice
in their drinks   glinting
as if from the signal fires
of distant stars

Such a warm summer night,
I wanted to breathe the darkness
to listen to the sizzling sparks
of words   that lifted
from those adult and familiar mouths  
to dream as ice made a soft clinking
in each glass     I wanted to crawl
through the black flames
of the grass   to feel the earth
slowly warm beneath me  
I wanted to be bathed
in that radiance

But Father said it was high time
I was sleeping   neatly tucked
into that nest of cotton blankets
It was time for me to sleep, said Mother
— wasn’t it long past the hour when a child
falls silent?  And so I was sent to bed
in the embered darkness   for flames
of the summer night
had entered the cottage with me
the dark beauty of the country night
had wound like a bright mist
around my life

And I called out in anger
through the dark window
to my parents who nursed
their drinks   who drew blue wisps
of smoke from their floating fingers
and spoke with the husky intonations
of oracles to their summer friends
I called out   I called out to them,
for these were the beings
who had showered me with perception
and I did not dream I was no longer
safe

But then the cottage door
banged open
and I heard the fall of her foot on the stair
and I knew a darkness I did not know
had come in with her   and I hid
under the silent blankets where I
forgot to breathe     And she swung her arm
as she scolded me
for filling the night with my voice
so that the buckle on my father’s belt
                   flashed
in the too-still darkness   flashed

as its brassy edge caught
the bridge of my nose   flashed again
as it sent cold fire
down my mother’s flesh
and again   as Father lifted me
from the bed   where my first screams
lingered     And then they saved me
with vinegar poured on the flaring wound
they saved me   with a torn flag
of ordinary brown paper
they saved me   with the cold torch
of their love

 

What the End Was Like

All I could see was my mother’s broken face.
It had the dry pallor of a desiccated leaf.
I forced myself to look closer, to stare 

at the pale lashes that barely clung
to the lids, at the thin lips that had lost
all color.  Her brow was mottled snow, her nose

a slender drift of whiteness.  The breath still lived
in my mother’s mouth, and a few last words
tried to form there.  I leaned nearer

to the bed where her soul was unhooking itself
from each bone   where the white spark of her life
was preparing for departure.  I saw her shiver then

and knew that the darkness of space had entered her.
The black ice of the universe had entered her.
The tips of my fingers burned.

 

Ghosts

God cannot be directly the cause
of sin, either in Himself or in another . . .
                        — Aquinas, Summa Theologica


I've heard it said that lives
are valueless as smoke,
that only God survives
the poisoned drink of death.

And yet I count these ghosts
and think of one who died
with a young child at her breast,
unnoticed and unmourned.

The ditch was nearly filled
with people she had loved
and it flared before her eyes
like the lips of a mortar wound.

Only her child seemed to know
how quickly time could run:
he himself was the sun
aflame in his mother's arms.

Only her child seemed to know:
here time would cease forever.
They tore him from her throat,
and then it was her turn.

And then it was her turn — 
she heard the loud report — 
again! again! again!
until her soul went deaf.

All night she lay with the bones — 
here, where the Old World ended:
Aquinas mute as a bug
and God with his left wrist branded.

 

St. Catherine of Siena


I am she who is not. And if I should claim to be
anything of myself, I should be lying through my teeth!

                        — The Dialogue


     I
On a country road, she saw Jesus. Only six,
she felt the world stop for her and draw her
out of time: in the bleak gray-streaked
north Italian sky, Christ sat in glory on his throne.
A year later, she knew she would be His bride
and entered the region of prayer and silence:

her family faded to shadow and solitude
wrapped her close. This separateness was a gift
she had not looked for, a sentient delight,
and she saw this movement inward with perfect
clarity, as if a cross of illuminated stones
had been set in the earth for her

and, at twelve, she sheared her gold-brown hair
and took a vow not to yield to the will of her parents:
she swore off jewels, gowns, silken tresses.
The sinuous threads of the marriage bed would not
bind her. When they punished her with menial chores,
with forced companionship, she bit down on her tongue.

Finally, she was given a small, cold, dark cell
where she could fast and pray. Instead of satin,
she wore horse hair cropped close to the skin,
so that it tore at her milky body. Instead of petticoats
and pinafores, she clasped to her soft breast
an iron-spiked bodice. And, at sixteen,

when nearly all of her childhood’s delicacy and sweetness
had been bled from her, she put on the black habit
of the Dominicans, as if she were a widow and not
the bride of God. And she went deep into desert stillness
but not as that Jewish wanderer had, in rough sandals
and a burnoose of white linen — not as He, to linger

in solitude under dazzling tapestries of night’s Egyptian
skies. Her departure from the sensory riches of the world
from the sweet pampering of flesh a simple day permits
took her instead into ever more stark yet intimate silences
where she pledged body and bone to her savior: her strength
and patience, her blood and spirit — His.


     II
As a child, she had known such pleasure in sunlight,
in the fragrance of food in the trills and tremolos
of laughter, she was for a time called by her mother
Euphrosyne — and the grace of joy had been hers:
the parti-colored shapes of the planet had spoken to her
had revealed to her the aura of a hidden realm,

kingdom with no earthly king heaven with no earthly sun.
Most of her life, she supped on the sanctified wafer
her drink the holy spirit. What sleep she had rose up
and departed from her in obedience to her will.
What daylight she allowed herself she dedicated
to caring for the destitute—the most disheartening

cases — the repulsive the maimed the incurably ill.
At twenty, during an outbreak of plague, she soothed
the stricken and buried them with her own hands.
She saved many, who otherwise would have gone out
of the darkened world a multitude of pale and flickering
flames. Soon there was a quickening of converts,

an ecstatic dance of souls that fell like leaves ripped
from wind-raked branches but that fell singing.
Because she denied herself rest and sumptuousness,
spiritual knowledge coursed through her — streamlets of dark
sweet wine. Bright and fragile as a lily, she spoke with passion
and acuity. Pope Gregory listened to her words.


     III
Five years before her death, she took communion
in the little church of St. Christina in Pisa and watched
as 5 blood-red rays streamed from the cross: 5 rays of light
with the dark radiance of blood 5 stars that shone down on her
and burned her 5 nails of light that pierced her —

hands feet and heart — so that she would be afire forever now,
though these wounds would remain invisible until her death.
Knowing this, who wouldn’t call on her, Catherine Benincasa,
to safeguard her health to shield his house against burning?
On her advice, the papal court abandoned Avignon

and Rome blossomed again as a garden for the spirit.
At 33, she rose up to regions of untrammelled light,
yet her body remained in the purgatory of living beings
who washed her and severed part from part, for Siena alone
could not own her for each fiefdom of Italy would savor
who she was.
 

European Movements

Córdoba to Hamburg   Bordeaux to
Strasbourg   Marseilles to Rome   Bucharest
to Belgrade   Kalisz to Lublin   Vienna to
Kishinev   Cracow to Lvov   Nomads,
why so restless?  Did you hear the voice
of Midsummer lightning?  All that back-
breaking portage: Granada to Corfu   Genoa
to Salonika, tireless!  Always hurrying
from one black patch to another: Cologne
to Bialystok   Prague to Kiev   Lisbon to
Amsterdam   Tallinn to Polotsk: ceaseless
in your translations!  Dear malcontents,
unsettled on dark nights under the moon
of horses: Soncino to Posen   Chernigov
to Frankfurt   Avignon to Tarnopol   Berdichev
to Worms   Exiles! Black Sea transports
Crimea Express   Zhitomir to Copenhagen
Helsinki to Antwerp   Starodub to Brest
whirling lights clustered at Satmar   in
the galaxy of Warsaw   starstreams   time
travelers on the dead continent   wrapped
in languages   in the Law's endless bindings
Why didn't you stay put in the whale's
belly?  Why didn't you pull the white sky
of silence over your heads?  Did the golden
bells of Chelmno charm you? the meadow flowers
of Majdanek bend their fiery cups?  Did you
rise to the black psalteries of Ravensbrück?
Wanderers! such desire for a life of Christian
culture! such anointings with sacred oils,
bathings in blessed waters!
 

Landscape after Battle

for Andrzej Wajda

To a nocturne accompaniment —
Chopin — they perform Liberation.
As they starved to Vivaldi.
As they burned to Bach.

You ask us to remember when a corpse
was esteemed 'incompletely processed'
that could not, of itself, rise
above the ashfields . . . and dance.

Andrzej, you understand the silence
of your poets: self-hate and catechetical
obedience; violent, unassimilable grief.

Life should taste sweet, milk warm
from the nipple, but in your language
it is salt and blood.

You give us a victim to remind us why we speak.

Her name is Nina and — offkey — she sings,
and we are moved by her bare legs
and her loose hair, and we are almost
ready to follow . . . Red leaves

build soft mounds under the emptying trees

Poland, here is your Jew!
She will swallow the wafer, translucent
as pale skin, and kiss your numb body
— unkosher meat!

And she will draw you out of your Christ-
blazoned prison, until each bloodied finger
wakens from its dream, until your strangled
voice bears witness:

One life is history enough to mourn.
 

The Death Mazurka

It was late — late in the silence —
yet a mangled tune still rose
as if from a needle trapped
in a warped and spinning groove:
an inarticulate moan
fragmented out of sense
but insistent it be known.

Footfalls turned me around:
a troupe of dancers spun
and kicked and dipped as one —
three score minus one,
and that one danced alone.
I watched them skip and prance
but followed only her.

And yes, the drum was swift
and kept a lively beat,
and violins sang sweet
then stridently miaoued —
a mocking sliding note.
She alone danced on
uncoupled, incomplete.

But the trumpets shrilled their tongues
and the saxophones crooned deep
and cymbals scoured the night
to a clashing brassy gleam.
How the women's earrings shined!
like sparks from a whirling fire
that never would be ash.

Then the men whisked off their hats
and bowed to the slide trombone
as though it sat enshrined.
But still she danced alone
at the edge of the wheeling ring:
I could feel the horizon tilt
when she veered close to me.

Then she turned   then I   then the night
blew back forty years:
I stood in a desolate place,
a reservoir of death
— I could kneel anywhere and drink!
Yes, here was the shul in its bones
and here Judenrein Square

and here a few scorched teeth
from some martyred, unknown saint.
The sky was a scroll of pain
— each star a sacred name!
I saw through time in that light.
But I turned and blood rained down
and I turned and dipped and drank

and could not take my fill:
I yearned to find her there.
And I turned toward darkness again
where dancers in masks like skulls
twirled in smoke and fire,
whirled in fire and smoke.

Now! screamed the violins.
And she was near as my heart
as we clasped each other and turned.
And Now! they shrieked.  And Now!
 

A Lost Language


for Natalia Sangama
Pampa Hermosa, Peru


She dreams in Chamicuro
but remembers to speak
in Spanish or no one
will understand her

The lake that floats
near her village — a deeper azure
than the sky — without her words,
no one will fully know it:

what poisons and obscures
can not open the shining leaves

She dreams in Chamicuro as her
ancestors did but she is the last
to feel this tongue in her mouth
the last for whom exact meaning

can not be expressed in Spanish
Who is this grandmother but the lost
soul of Peru and the Amazon
unwilling to vanish?

In her thatched hut, she can swing
her grandchildren and laugh

but she can’t keep out the pulse
of salsa or stop the Spanish sun
from entering like a powerful vine
that winds around her throat

She will be next to die to wither
into brittle twigs of imagery
Her grandchildren will recall a lake
but it will have no name in Chamicuro.
__________________________________

When she was a girl, missionaries made the Chamicuro
children kneel when they used their language. At least
half the world’s 6,000 languages will die out in this century.
 


She Remembers Winter

1
She remembers the overpass
along Sunrise Highway
where she would sled all day
with friends in that winter
of 1970: how the sled would freeze
in late December coldness
making it hard to steer, the way
her feet extended over the wooden slats
and her stomach and chest pressed
flat to them so she could breathe
only in shallow gasps as the wet snow
raced under her, how she would put
her whole being into turning
as momentum built and each small
adjustment became necessary

She remembers that downhill rush
as her first lesson in freedom:
how her heart raced with the sled
and beat with a frantic pleasure
that opened gates inside her.
It was heaven to let go, to feel
briefly supported yet unable
to control speed or direction,
to be lifted in a gentle rocking flow
or bumped along roughly
but released from confinement
and stricture, bruised and cold
but brushed with glittering whiteness

She remembers how she played
all day with friends that winter
at ease with herself and the weather,
proud of her white snowjacket and its
black buckles, in love with her
stocking cap and its rainbow colors,
and at one with the fleece-lined boots
whose scuffed toes she dug
into the hard-packed snow: how
the boots, cap and jacket — and cupfuls
of hot chocolate — had kept her
from totally freezing.

2
It all comes back like a rush
down a long white hill and she
remembers, two decades later,
mothering her own children
as if they’d been precious jewels
she’d misplaced in winter snow,
as if they’d been snow angels
whose ice-cold toes and fingers
she would hold to her racing heart
to her stove-warm body.

 

For Ilan Halimi


kidnapped & tortured by French Muslims
Paris, January-February 2006


We do not call our dead shaheeds.
They do not blow up planes or babies
or leap into flames to fly to the heavens,
not for sex with a dead universe
of virgins not for all the davening rabbis
of the holy land and not for God.

You, Ilan, will be recalled as a victim,
one more death in millennia-long caravans
of the martyred that trail from Babylonia
to Jerusalem and back. Your body
was more brutalized than many,
but little children in Treblinka and Ponary

were treated worse: nothing is left of them
but our will to remember: no bones, no
headlines, no somber marches in the halal cities
of Eurabia. Because you were tortured in French
and Arabic, you will be a symbol, but the children
did not grow into their names. What is the meaning

of such cruelty to us, who were born in the shadow
of Shoah? We who remain alive will mourn you
as a brother or as a son who left us wounded,
maimed on a highway, blind and deaf in a wood,
burnt and abandoned again, Ilan, by the God
in whom we ache to believe.

 
Broich's Boat

It was Frank Broich's boat, thirty-two footer,
three masts and inboard engines, he'd built
with his own hands. It was the boat
and the man — he was the image: capable, successful,
sarcastic, brutal — a father — and you, father,
were painfully like him, only less educated, less able
to manipulate the world, but just as violent: quick to whip
off your belt and threaten my life over practically
nothing. You were broad, brawny, bone-weary and bone-
angry from the bequeathed indecencies of your life.

It was Broich's boat that armed me for the next day
at school, for the failure of being your son,
for the shame-faced singularity of growing up.
Those were good hours we spent aboard
that boat: our shared mission, to bring back
a haul of snappers or porgies, white-bellied winter
flounder or "doormat" fluke, to find the mother lode
of fighting blues. Near the buoy, just off the rocks,
on the far side of the toll bridge, the rip tide
would listen to our wills and what we wanted —
adventure, friendship, freedom, even love — might leap
from the green-black swells of ocean and be hooked.

                        *   *   *

Father, I want to stand again at starboard as the boat
rocks down, to feel that sluicing energy tear through me
with each ripping nibble, the caution to wait, to pay
out line, the bait taken and run with, the smell of sea brine,
spider crabs, bloodworms drenching — soaking — us,
driving up into our floating bodies.

It is that connection with you I want again, that giving
of your knowledge, your desire — I want to learn from you
again, not a boy at a man's side, anchored by his weight,
his steadiness, but a man in need of you, aware of you.
Before you die, father, fish with me again, share
your secrets: let the tide of our love turn.

 

Speaking Island

for my daughters

1.
Wind seethes deep in the coconut palms,
weaves those spiky leaves into weapons
of samurai rain

then slowly unsheathes the sun — a changeableness
the blood gathers: pelican gulp of the breeze,
blue heron cloaked in mangrove root

and shadow. You drink deeply this moss-tangled
heaven, clasped securely in talons
of sun and air.

2.
From the yellow frangipani, joy in fragrance.
The red hibiscus flares. Welcome
to the sun, to bare skin, the realm

of the body, sweet odors of star-blossoming
hands, home still green and butterfly-
golden, aroma

of fresh coffee, vanilla bean, tapioca,
ginger. Your toes and fingers, lips and throat
sing.

3.
What language does the earth speak?
Perhaps tongues near to the equator know
bone-fire Gaelic or Upper Ganges Greek:

some subterranean text darker than Swahili
that bubbles up from a fissure deep
as grief.

It's something about the trees that gives
meaning: the way they sway, the way they lean
toward death.

4.
And the sea — what vowels or consonants
does the sea utter? Sunlight faltering west
cuts the night to ribbons, prisms

of light risen from the underworld
of the moment. It's the light falling
and the slashed night

risen, and the mind a full moon tidal
in its power: once again, to be cupped
in the palm of beauty.

 

The Voyeurs

They would not touch a Jew’s head
in anger or brush with their fingers
the soft skin of a Jewish child.

They were not disposed to wound
or batter with the sadist’s weaponry
or slay with a gun. For them,

there had been no fun in murder
nor satisfaction in shattering bone.  
Theirs was a gentler need: to watch,

unheeded, what the killers had done,
to take small pleasure from a distance
as bodies fell.

They stood, oh, so meekly, at their place
in hell.

 

Forgotten Songs

for Glory Sasikala Franklin

1
What links us together? Isn’t it untrammeled
energy, affinity, green shoots of the body?

Not long ago in India, the rare home radio
marked the passing of time. In Kolkata,
you had a small Telerad with a winking green eye
and started each day with the All Asia Service
of the Sri Lanka BC. At noon, you’d switch
to Burma Broadcasting and listen for a single
delicious hour, then jump to Yuvavani in Calcutta
for Lunch Time Variety.

The day would fly like that: to Vividh Bharati
for Hindi songs, then back to Yuvavani again.

Never mind the distances: each station zinged in
with true fidelity, so that Cliff Richard, John Denver,
Glen Campbell, the Everly Brothers, Elvis, George Baker,
and Susan Raye all seemed to sing    just for you.
Their voices spilled into your body and took up residence there.

Your favorite was Pussycat’s “Broken Souvenir”
and you still hum that song. And you still hear “Listen
to the rhythm of the falling rain . . .” You, too,
are on your own again. “Good evening, sorrow.”

2
Glory, you were so taken by the radio’s power,
by the songs that poured from it, you named your daughter
“Rimona” after Wolfe Gilbert’s “Ramona,” respun
by the Blue Diamonds in 1960. Remember the Carpenters’ song,
“Those were such happy times / And not so long ago”?
For you “Every sha-la-la-la, / Every wo-wo-wo /
Still shines.”

3
Before he died, your father taught you songs
and had you sing the words while he strummed his guitar.
You were not yet ten, but not a nerve in your body
has relinquished them.

There was “Lonely Cowboy,” “Goodbye Hawaii,” “Oh, Susannah”
and “Queen of My Heart.” Your father was gone too early,
but you recall each tune. “Beautiful dreamer,” he sang, “wake
unto me, / Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee.”

And you sang along with him.

 

In the Slipstream

for Lynne Cox

1
At nine, you swam laps in an outdoor pool
and didn’t stop when the storm came, when hail
teemed down from a hissing sky. You kept swimming

while ice pelted the water. It was like flying through a rain
of meteors or navigating in a universe of ice and fire.

You called it “beautiful and amazing” and dedicated
your immense energy, strength, talent, and courage
not to clawing your way up near-vertical cliffs,
 
but to conquering the seas. Instead of baking your bones
on a beach, you sought the most turbulent and frigid oceans.

At fourteen, in the shipping lanes at night, in deep fog,
with waves lifting their shawl of darkness over you
and leaking tankers threatening to sink you forever,
 
you refused to die and pushed toward the next black swell
and the next black hole that opened beneath you

between Catalina and the California coast. For twenty-six miles,
you swam.

A year later, you completed the fastest crossing of the English
Channel, and though your hands and knees  were sliced
by barnacles, you loved each moment. And you adored

each victory that followed — even on that colder-than-night
crossing of the Bering Strait in August ‘87, in forty-degree water,

when you finally knew you would never stop.

2
Twenty years later, you said “swimming through black water”                
where sea and sky meet is like “swimming across sheets                                     
of the cosmos.” And weren’t you as brave, as rare, an explorer                                                                                                                                                                
as those who flew into space or dove to the sea’s
dark reaches?                        

3
“One morning off the coast of Seal Beach,” you said,
a baby gray whale swam beside you. The sea went hollow
and you could feel yourself “sucked down.”

You were being “dragged along by the slipstream”
and turned toward shore, toward the surf line
where he could not follow,

but the whale was lost and searching for his mother
and moved still closer to you and looked at you
with his large brown eye.

4
So you stayed with him, and he was saved. A female gray
had been haunting the surf off Huntington Beach all day
but had finally heard his calls and was racing straight toward him.

At that moment, the reason for your existence became evident:
in the most dangerous waters, even in the icy extremes
of Antarctica, where you had survived a freezing December crawl

of more than a mile, each stroke of your powerful arms
had pulled all of us nearer to freedom.

 

Under Jerusalem's Sun

for  Frances Zalcberg
 

I.  1954
It didn’t snow when you entered Jerusalem
but the sky was gray, as if snow might fall,
and the buildings looked old and neglected
like abandoned ships that had been towed
to wind-swept beaches, stark stretches of sand
where only ghosts walked. But you were twenty-
three and felt the streets embrace you, even though
the city had been split in half: half in Jordan
and half in Israel, where you lived. Even Jaffa Road
came to a screeching halt at a dividing wall
Jordanian soldiers patrolled.

When you walked to work and again when you
walked home, you could see that shells and bullets
remained embedded in buildings where Jewish children
played, and — how many times! — while strolling
on King George Street, you heard shots ring out
from the walls of the city and crossed to the west side
where bullets might not reach.  
 

II.  1965
Your parents were in Jerusalem and you took them
as close to the Old City’s walls as you could. Like them,
you longed to walk on those narrow winding streets
which, for millennia, Jews had prayed to see.

But the Jordanians would not let you enter, and you climbed
to the top of Mount Zion instead, to that holy place
where Israeli soldiers held a few square meters of earth.
Yet, even there, Jews could not linger, so you and your parents
turned    and started back down.

                         *   *   *

On the slope of the mountain, you found a sheltered space
where a Holocaust memorial had been built. Burnt Torah scrolls
had been laid to rest there like the murdered bodies of children,
and your father was overcome. Memories of Ukraine, of Shoah,
washed over him, and he couldn’t take another step.

“Papa,” you said, “look around. Jewish soldiers are standing guard,
and they will protect us. They will make sure our people
won’t know such horror again.”

III.  1967
Two days after the Six-Day War, Jerusalem was no longer
divided. An Israeli officer escorted you into the Old City
where you stood very straight and made no sound.
Under the light of Israel’s sun, you saw the ruins of synagogues
and the empty homes where the Jewish Quarter had been.
The Jordanians had left only rubble.

It was eerily quiet, and you moved with extreme slowness.
You thought of your father then and wondered, If hed been standing
beside me, how would he have kept himself from falling down?

 

A Translator in Auschwitz

in memory of  Mala Zimetbaum

You were twenty-four, Mala, when the Nazis
came for you in Antwerp, Belgium, on the street
of yellow stars. It was then your old life ended
and you were swept downward by history’s
darkest whorl.

In the women’s camp at Birkenau, your command
of German helped you name the unspoken,
and you could sometimes intercede
between fellow prisoners and the immense power
that held them.

And soon, from fire and ash, from blood and darkness,
you drew a stunned few whose pain could not be quieted   
and moved them to temporary refuge: those broken twigs   
those scorched leaves     who only recently
had been people.

All your life, Mala, you were first to question, first
to fight injustice, and you were the first woman
to escape from Auschwitz. That you were captured
at the Slovak border and brought back to death’s embrace
— death that had been promised to every Jew —

was not revelation, but destiny. How fitting it was
that you slashed your wrists on the path to the gallows
and lashed out at the guard who’d cursed you.
Your blood on his face, a translation that defies
understanding.

 

Amelia in Vietnam

for Amelia Haselkorn

I.  Sa Pa Journeys
You walked in the rice terraces:
so beautiful. A few silent ducks.
A clamor of piglets.

Roosters and cicadas wakened the day.
A grandma stripped bark from a stick.
So peaceful.

Later, you hiked to the waterfall.

                        *   *   *

You hammered rocks into fragments
for a Zay family’s roof. With teachers
and friends, you chopped firewood,
filled in a ditch, and turned the soil.

Then you swam in the river.

Next morning, you devoured breakfast:
rice flour crepes with bananas, honey,
lime juice. You kept thinking this
might be heaven.

Too soon, you would trek to the road   
and the way back.

                        *   *   *

You were in Sapa: your village
was Ta Van, and you were there
two nights.

The second day was best: you helped
build a house and bent low in the rice
paddies. It was hard work hoeing the mud,
and when you slipped into the river,

 

you were tugged under and pulled into rocks.
Cuts and bruises rippled over your body.

Luckily, you survived. How else
would you have enjoyed banana crepes
the next morning?

Only chocolate at the French bakery
tasted sweeter.

                        *   *   *

You stayed with a Red Dao family —
Mrs. Phan Man May. Her wood-slat house
had a corrugated roof and pit toilets
but also herbal baths, and the rice paddies’
dark warm mud    sucked at your toes.

II.  Hue, Hội An, Hà Nội
You are in Hue, Vietnam’s ancient city,
but have brought with you memories
of Hội An: images and feelings so fresh
they will not stop whispering to you
or brushing against your face.

In Hội An, you fished, farmed, cooked,
shopped, bought skirts and dresses,
wriggled your toes in wet sand.
At the cooking place, you were served
what you prepared    but got sick anyway.

Maybe what made you feverish
was seeing a woman American soldiers
had tortured. Perhaps she was a carrier
of mortification and pain that could not
be softened, even in a beach town like Hội An.

                        *   *   *

You are in Hue, and tonight
you will be taking a moonlight cruise
on a dragon boat on the Perfume River.
You will wear your new ao dai, which is blue
and golden. The girls who cut and sewed it
praised the whiteness of your skin.
They loved touching you and played
with your hair.

                        *   *   *

Yesterday, you went to the Cham ruins,
which had been bombed during the war
yet remains intact. You saw how beautiful
and complex it was — how majestic —
and realized you couldn’t encompass
all of its parts or comprehend what held
its many thousands of bricks together.
                                                                                                             
Perhaps it was the breath of an ancient god:
god of the burning green mountains, god
of its temples, pagodas, and mausoleums.

You liked best the burial chamber of Khai Dinh —
a young king. Its extravagance enraptured you.

                        *   *   *

Today, you see the War Remnants Museum
and what you see disturbs you and makes
you sad. Yet you can’t grasp the anger
of that time or its pain and darkness, though
you do feel wounded.

At night, the shadows fade a little
and, like nearly everyone else who visits
this place, you feel tired and distracted.
Even the karaoke bar can’t help, even
the American Idol club can’t unconfuse you.

                        *   *   *

After your adventures in Sa Pa and Hue,
you take the night train to Hà Nội.

On your first day back, you watch a water-
puppet show and sit through a lesson
in meditation given by a Buddhist monk —
perhaps a brother to the monks who publicly
burned themselves during the Vietnam War.

At night, you long to fall into your own bed again,
to sleep deeply, as a child sleeps, but shreds
of fear and delight trail after you as you sink
into thick mud and slick, angular rocks.

 

A Bench in Tel Aviv

1
Have I grown so old that every young person
seems bright-eyed and beautiful,

or is it that young Israelis, especially the women,
are imbued with strength and brushed with radiance?

They must be beautiful, these dark-haired women,
because I can’t keep my eyes from them

Their eyes don’t look away; instead, they turn towards me.
Today, again, I think of home

2
A woman in her twenties talks to the air: the wire
of her earpiece snakes down her left arm    a phylactery     

Behind her, a newly washed sheet flaps repeatedly
against beige-yellow stone

The day is white with sun, dry and intemperate
as desert wind

More beautiful girls float in the green fire of afternoon,
straps of their handbags lashed across one shoulder

3
Later, two men move haltingly under the violet shade
of jacarandas, one as frail as a May cloud in December     

As they drift in a haze of tenderness and devotion,
something wakes in me and tries to follow

Father, I see now I am still mourning you!
For so long —the length of an eclipse on Jupiter —

the fact of your existence spurred me on:
like the silent God I complained to, you held back your love

and kept true intimacy in reserve, as if the history
of your inwardness was revelation enough

And when, in your eighth decade, you emerged,
like a new sun blossoming, so that rays of sweetness

reached out to me, winter came too fast
It is too late now to rise from this bench together
  
as the light of Tel Aviv pours down its beauty

 

Snow Is the Poem Without Flags

for Orhan Pamuk

What is whiter than stars yet darker
than cloud-sifted moonlight, softer
than the breast that nurtures a child? 

Only snow answers this call to mystery
and pleasure — the white snow of a winter’s
morning    that dreams itself gone.

And what is its name, this creature
of cold light and desire, where is the center
of its knowledge and longing? Clearly, its address

is history and the heart its blue-white body,
but who can tame it and raise it up from silence?
who can instruct its paws to brush like lamplight

against her face? Only the white breath of the wind
— the wind that moans in Arabic and Turkish    in Hindi
and Hebrew    and English    in the cold mouth

that prays in a thousand tongues and knows
no mother or father    that cries like a child
who thirsts for the breast    only the wind

brushing the face of the snow that was born
anonymous    the wind in the snow’s
white hair      And where can we find this snow,

immersed as we are in summer    in the heat
of war    with a hot sun blazing    and the whine
of rockets and bombs that fly like blown flakes

of darkness    everything on fire with a great
and unquenchable thirst? Only the wind can speak  
            and name its country.

 
A Dance on the Poems of Rilke

I remember a Czech dancer who danced on the poems of Rilke.
                        — Stennie Pratomo-Gret

In the particular hell of Ravensbrück
where Gypsy girls were sterilized and babies
were drowned at birth    where dysentery  
lung cancer and typhus    took life after life  
and grotesque experiments in the inducement
of infection and pain were cultivated as a fine art  

where women of every European nation slaved
for Siemens    through endless moonless nights  
and cut trees    dug pits    loaded and unloaded
railway cars and barges    where abortion was
inevitable    and sexual cruelty the rule    and where

a woman could be duly tortured for using rags
as tampons    or merely for adjusting her dress  
a certain Czech woman who knew every word
danced to the poems of Rilke    moving sinuously
to each of his Orphean sonnets    bowing gracefully
with the first notes of each Elegie: she felt the dark music

of Rilke’s heart    each soaring leap of the spirit    each lunge
toward grief      Though she is long gone    and we
no longer know her name    she is the one who showed
even a halting step could be a triumph    and a dance

on the poems of a dead poet    might redeem
 
Two Girls Leaping

They have a favorite color — this one:
this chlorinated aqua, this womb lunar blackness
drawn wholly into the light. The depth of the pool
beguiles them, the weight of their own bodies.

Mother is not near, so it is easy to jump in, to test
themselves against the cold liquid fire of the violently
blue water, to attempt flight, hands linked in a joyous
failure of suicide.

They wear no caps: dark hair spills black puppy tails
along their small tanned necks. Time lunges ahead, eternity
passes. A hundred leaps cannot tire them. They live
to jump: the heart of the water's coolness pulses in them.

In what way are they innocent? The fragrance of unawareness
stays on them: their fearful certitude about all things
perturbs the slow dark pools we swim in. In their nonstop
gab, the world's extravagant newness stings and clashes.

They are giddy with the ordinary, laugh in its cold blue
stranger's face.

                        *   *   *

Becky is still laughing, gliding like a seal
in her favorite aqua water; she is giggling and splashing;
but now Mother is here, now Mother pulls her, goose-bumped
and dripping, from the ice-blue pool; now Mother slaps her,

slaps her again, again slaps her.

And Jennifer has seen everything. Watch how carefully
she moves, how cautiously she holds her tingling body.
"Let's see who can go slower," she says, "Let's see who goes
slower."

                        *   *   *

The pool is empty now, a liquid rectangle. Water has its
own life, its own candor. Step back. Take a running start.

Now tell me: What is your heart's desire?

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