RUNE OF THE FINLAND WOMAN
For Sára Karig
“You are so wise,” the reindeer said, “you can bind the winds of the world in a single strand.” —H. C. Andersen, “The Snow Queen”
She could bind the world’s winds in a single strand.
She could find the world’s words in a singing wind.
She could lend a weird will to a mottled hand.
She could wind a willed word from a muddled mind.
She could wend the wild woods on a saddled hind.
She could sound a wellspring with a rowan wand.
She could bind the wolf’s wounds in a swaddling band.
She could bind a banned book in a silken skin.
She could spend a world war on invaded land.
She could pound the dry roots to a kind of bread.
She could feed a road gang on invented food.
She could find the spare parts of the severed dead.
She could find the stone limbs in a waste of sand.
She could stand the pit cold with a withered lung.
She could handle bad puns in the slang she learned.
She could dandle foundlings in their mother tongue.
She could plait a child’s hair with a fishbone comb.
She could tend a coal fire in the Arctic wind.
She could mend an engine with a sewing pin.
She could warm the dark feet of a dying man.
She could drink the stone soup from a doubtful well.
She could breathe the green stink of a trench latrine.
She could drink a queen’s share of important wine.
She could think a few things she would never tell.
She could learn the hand code of the deaf and blind.
She could earn the iron keys of the frozen queen.
She could wander uphill with a drunken friend.
She could bind the world’s winds in a single strand.
CREPUSCULE WITH MURIEL
Instead of a cup of tea, instead of a milk-
silk whelk of a cup, of a cup of nearly six-
o’clock teatime, cup of a stumbling block,
cup of an afternoon unredeemed by talk,
cup of a cut brown loaf, of a slice, a lack
of butter, blueberry jam that’s almost black,
instead of tannin seeping into the cracks
of a pot, the void of an hour seeps out, infects
the slit of a cut I haven’t the wit to fix
with a surgeon’s needle threaded with fine-gauge silk
as a key would thread the cylinder of a lock.
But no key threads the cylinder of the lock.
Late afternoon light, transitory, licks
the place of the absent cup with its rough tongue, flicks
itself out beneath the wheel’s revolving spoke.
Taut thought’s gone, with a blink of attention, slack,
a vision of “death and distance in the mix”
(she lost her words and how did she get them back
when the corridor of a day was a lurching deck?
The dream-life logic encodes in nervous tics
she translated to a syntax which connects
intense and unfashionable politics
with morning coffee, Hudson sunsets, sex;
then the short-circuit of the final stroke,
the end toward which all lines looped out, then broke.)
What a gaze out the window interjects:
on the south-east corner, a black Lab balks
tugged as the light clicks green toward a late-day walk
by a plump brown girl in a purple anorak.
The Bronx-bound local comes rumbling up the tracks
out of the tunnel, over west Harlem blocks
whose windows gleam on the animal warmth of bricks
rouged by the fluvial light of six o’clock.
SCARS ON PAPER
An unwrapped icon, too potent to touch,
she freed my breasts from the camp Empire dress.
Now one of them’s the shadow of a breast
with a lost object’s half-life, with as much
life as an anecdotal photograph:
me, Kim and Iva, all stripped to the waist,
hiking near Russian River on June first
’79: Iva’s five-and-a-half.
While she was almost twenty, wearing black
T-shirts in D.C., where we hadn’t met.
You lay your palm, my love, on my flat chest.
In lines alive with what is not regret,
she takes her own path past, doesn’t turn back.
Persistently, on paper, we exist.
Persistently, on paper, we exist.
You’d touch me if you could, but you’re, in fact,
three thousand miles away. And my intact
body is eighteen months paper: the past
a fragile eighteen months regime of trust
in slash-and-burn, in vitamin pills, backed
by no statistics. Each day I enact
survivor’s rituals, blessing the crust
I tear from the warm loaf, blessing the hours
in which I didn’t or in which I did
consider my own death. I am not yet
statistically a survivor (that
is sixty months.) On paper, someone flowers
and flares alive. I knew her. But she’s dead.
She flares alive. I knew her. But she’s dead
I flirted with her, might have been her friend,
but transatlantic schedules intervened.
She wrote a book about her Freedom Ride,
the wary elders whom she taught to read,
— herself half-British, twenty-six, white-blonde,
with thirty years to live.
And I happened
to open up The Nation to that bad
news which I otherwise might not have known
(not breast cancer: cancer of the brain).
Words take the absent friend away again.
Alone, I think, she called, alone, upon
her courage, tried in ways she’d not have wished
by pain and fear: her courage, extinguished.
The pain and fear some courage extinguished
at disaster’s denouement come back
daily, banal: is that brownish-black
mole the next chapter? Was the ache enmeshed
between my chest and armpit when I washed
rogue cells’ new claw, or just a muscle-ache?
I’m not yet desperate enough to take
comfort in being predeceased: the anguish
when the Harlem doctor, the Jewish dancer,
die of AIDS, the Boston seminary’s
dean succumbs “after brief illness” to cancer.
I like mossed slabs in country cemeteries
with wide-paced dates, candles in jars, whose tallow
glows on summer evenings, desk-lamp yellow.
Aglow in summer evening, a desk-lamp’s yellow
moonlight peruses notebooks, houseplants, texts,
while an ageing woman thinks of sex
in the present tense. Desire may follow,
urgent or elegant, cut raw or mellow
with wine and ripe black figs: a proof, the next
course, a simple question, the complex
response, a burning sweetness she will swallow.
The opening mind is sexual and ready
to embrace, incarnate in its prime.
Rippling concentrically from summer’s gold
disc, desire’s iris expands, steady
with blood-beat. Each time implies the next time.
The ageing woman hopes she will grow old.
The ageing woman hopes she will grow old.
A younger woman has a dazzling vision
of bleeding wrists, her own, the clean incisions
suddenly there, two open mouths. They told
their speechless secrets, witnesses not called
to what occurred with as little volition
of hers as these phantom wounds.
of scars, in flesh, in spirit. I’m enrolled
by mine in ranks where now I’m “being brave”
if I take off my shirt in a hot crowd
sunbathing, or demonstrating for Dyke Pride.
Her bravery counters the kitchen knives’
insinuation that the scars be made.
With, or despite our scars, we stay alive.
“With, or despite our scars, we stayed alive
until the Contras or the Government
or rebel troops came, until we were sent
to ’relocation camps,’ until the archives
burned, until we dug the ditch, the grave
beside the aspen grove where adolescent
boys used to cut class, until we went
to the precinct house, eager to behave
I count my hours and days,
finger for luck the word-scarred table which
is not my witness, shares all innocent
objects’ silence: a tin plate, a basement
door, a spade, barbed wire, a ring of keys,
an unwrapped icon, too potent to touch.
Is it the boy in me who’s looking out
the window, while someone across the street
mends a pillow-case, clouds shift, the gutterspout
pours rain, someone else lights a cigarette?
(Because he flinched, because he didn’t whirl
around, face them, because he didn’t hurl
the challenge back — “Fascists?” — not “Faggots…” — “Swine!”
he briefly wonders — if he were a girl…)
He writes a line. He crosses out a line.
I’ll never be a man, but there’s a boy
crossing out words: the rain, the linen-mender,
are all the homework he will do today.
The absence and the privilege of gender
confound in him, soprano, clumsy, frail.
Not neuter — neutral human, and unmarked,
the younger brother in the fairy-tale
except, boys shouted “Jew!’ across the park
at him when he was coming home from school.
The book that he just read, about the war,
the partisans, is less a terrible
and thrilling story, more a warning, more
a code, and he must puzzle out the code.
He has short hair, a red sweatshirt. They know
something about him — that he should be proud
of? That’s shameful if it shows?
That got you killed in 1942.
In his story, do the partisans
have sons? Have grandparents? Is he a Jew
more than he is a boy, who’ll be a man
someday? Someone who’ll never be a man
looks out the window at the rain he thought
might stop. He reads the sentence he began.
He writes down something that he crosses out.
ELEGY FOR A SOLDIER
June Jordan, 1936-2002
The city where I knew you was swift.
A lover cabbed to Brooklyn
(broke, but so what) after the night shift
in a Second Avenue
diner. The lover was a Quaker,
a poet, an anti-war
activist. Was blonde, was twenty-four.
Wet snow fell on the access
road to the Manhattan Bridge. I was
neither lover, slept uptown.
But the arteries, streetlights, headlines,
phonelines, feminine plural
links ran silver through the night city
as dawn and the yellow cab
passed on the frost-blurred bridge, headed for
that day’s last or first coffee.
The city where I knew you was rich
in bookshops, potlucks, ad hoc
debates, demos, parades and picnics.
There were walks I liked to take.
I was on good terms with two rivers.
You turned, burned, flame-wheel of words
lighting the page, good neighbor on your
homely street in Park Slope, whose
Russian zaydes, Jamaican grocers,
dyke vegetarians, young
gifted everyone, claimed some changes
— at least a new food co-op.
In the laundromat, ordinary
women talked revolution.
We knew we wouldn’t live forever
but it seemed as if we could.
The city where I knew you was yours
and mine by birthright: Harlem,
the Bronx. Separately we left it
and came separately back.
There’s no afterlife for dialogue,
divergences we never
teased apart to weave back together.
Death slams down in the midst of
all your unfinshed conversations.
Whom do I address when I
address you, larger than life as you
always were, not alive now?
Words are not you, poems are not you,
ashes on the Pacific
tide, you least of all. I talk to my-
self to keep the line open.
The city where I knew you is gone.
Pink icing roses spelled out
PASSION on a book-shaped chocolate cake.
The bookshop’s a sushi bar
now, and PASSION is long out of print.
Would you know the changed street that
cab swerved down toward you through cold white mist?
We have a Republican
mayor. Threats keep citizens in line:
anthrax; suicide attacks.
A scar festers where towers once were;
dissent festers unexpressed.
You are dead of a woman’s disease.
Who gets to choose what battle
takes her down? Down to the ocean, friends
mourn you, with no time to mourn.
You, who stood alone in the tall bay window
of a Brooklyn brownstone, conjuring morning
with free-flying words, knew the power, terror
in words, in flying;
knew the high of solitude while the early
light prowled Seventh Avenue, lupine, hungry
like you, your spoils raisins and almonds, ballpoint
pen, yellow foolscap.
You, who stood alone in your courage, never
hesitant to underline the connections
(between rape, exclusion and occupation…)
were alone and were not alone when morning
blotted the last spark of you out, around you
voices you no longer had voice to answer,
eyes you were blind to.
All your loves were singular: you scorned labels.
Claimed black; woman, and for the rest eluded
limits, quicksilver (Caribbean), staked out
Now your death, as if it were “yours”: your house, your
dog, your friends, your son, your serial lovers.
Death’s not “yours,” what’s yours are a thousand poems
alive on paper,
in the present tense of a thousand students’
active gaze at printed pages and blank ones
which you gave permission to blacken into
outrage and passion.
You, at once an optimist, a Cassandra,
Lilith in the wilderness of her lyric,
were a black American, born in Harlem,
If you had to die — and I don’t admit it —
who dared“ What if, each time they kill a black man/
we kill a cop ” couldn’t you take down with you
a few prime villains
in the capitol, who are also mortal?
June, you should be living, the states are bleeding.
Leaden words like “Homeland” translate abandoned
Twenty years ago, you denounced the war crimes
still in progress now, as Jenin, Ramallah
dominate, then disappear from the headlines.
Palestine: your war.
“To each nation, its Jews,” wrote Primo Levi.
“Palestinians are Jews to Israelis.”
Afterwards, he died in despair, or so we
To each nation its Jews, its blacks, its Arabs,
Palestinians, immigrants, its women.
From each nation, its poets: Mahmoud Darwish,
(who, beloved witness for silenced Kashmir,
cautioned, shift the accent, and he was “martyr”),
Audre Lorde, Neruda, Amichai, Senghor,
and you, June Jordan.
QUOI DE NEUF SUR LA GUERRE?
(Café Le Diplomate, rue de Turenne / rue St.Claude)
Five old men
dissect last week’s election.
Jacques’ student granddaughter bought
a studio apartment
— bigger than
the three rooms that he lived in
with his two brothers, parents,
in the rue du Pont-aux-Choux…
(two streets up).
Glasses folded on his cap,
Maurice fishes for a not-
quite-lost riposte in Yiddish.
is a familiar garment
on a neighbor, here or in
Strauss Park on upper Broadway.)
four worked here before the war.
Now they’re back in the rag trade.
An eleven o’clock break
black coffee and discussion,
the cheder relived later.
The one two decades younger,
at last bring up Israel
— sixtyish son asking his
elders what ought to be done.
the pouches around his eyes
creased deep in a sad smile, says,
having known wars, not much peace,
in Krakow in 1930)
“A solution? There is just
one. The final solution.”
Does he mean
the British had a plan in
’48: Arabs could finish
Hitler’s job in the new state?
Does he mean
genocide in Palestine
to be practiced by “our own”?
Victor changes the subject.
Please pay, her shift is over.
The watchdog of the café,
trails his young boss, stops at her
trim heels. He scowls, sniffs the floor
and gets sawdust on his jowls.
She took what wasn’t hers to take: desire
for all that’s not her, for what might awake desire.
With it, the day’s a quest, a question, answered where-
ever eye, mind lights. Desire seeks, but one can’t seek desire.
A frayed wire, a proof, a flame, a drop of globed hot wax,
a riddle solved or not by William Blake: desire.
Erase the film with light, delete the files,
re-reel the story, will all that unmake desire?
For peace or cash, lovers and whores feign lust or climaxes.
A solitary can evoke, but cannot fake desire.
Crave nothing, accept the morning’s washed and proffered air
brushing blued eyelids with an oblique desire.
There was an other, an answer, there was a Thou
or there were mutilations suffered for your sake, desire.
Without you, there is no poet, only some nameless hack
lacking a voice without your voice to speak desire.
Spring wafts up the smell of bus exhaust, of bread
and fried potatoes, tips green on the branches,
repeats old news: arrogance, ignorance, war.
A cinder-block wall shared by two houses
is new rubble. On one side was a kitchen
sink and a cupboard, on the other was
a bed, a bookshelf, three framed photographs.
Glass is shattered across the photographs;
two half-circles of hardened pocket-bread
sit on the cupboard. There provisionally was
shelter, a plastic truck under the branches
of a fig-tree. A knife flashed in the kitchen,
merely dicing garlic. Engines of war
move inexorably towards certain houses
while citizens sit safe in other houses
reading the newspaper, whose photographs
make sanitized excuses for the war.
There are innumerable kinds of bread
brought up from bakeries, baked in the kitchen:
the date, the latitude, tell which one was
dropped by a child beneath the bloodied branches.
The uncontrolled and multifurcate branches
of possibility infiltrate houses’
walls, windowframes, ceilings. Where there was
a tower, a town: ash and burnt wires, a graph
on a distant computer screen. Elsewhere, a kitchen
table’s setting gapes, where children bred
to branch into new lives were culled for war.
Who wore this starched smocked cotton dress? Who wore
this jersey blazoned for the local branch
of the district soccer team? Who left this black bread
and this flat gold bread in their abandoned houses?
Whose father begged for mercy in the kitchen?
Whose memory will frame the photograph
and use the memory for what it was
never meant for by this girl, that old man, who was
caught on a ball-field, near a window: war,
exhorted through the grief a photograph
revives. (Or was the team a covert branch
of a banned group; were maps drawn in the kitchen,
a bomb thrust in a hollowed loaf of bread?)
What did the old men pray for in their houses
of prayer, the teachers teach in schoolhouses
between blackouts and blasts, when each word was
flensed by new censure, books exchanged for bread,
both hostage to the happenstance of war?
Sometimes the only schoolroom is a kitchen.
Outside the window, black strokes on a graph
of broken glass, birds line up on bare branches.
“This letter curves, this one spreads its branches
like friends holding hands outside their houses.”
Was the lesson stopped by gunfire? Was
there panic, silence? Does a torn photograph
still gather children in the teacher’s kitchen?
Are they there meticulously learning war-
time lessons with the signs for house, book, bread?
And I grew up in patterned tranquility
In the cool nursery of the new century.
And the voice of man was not dear to me,
But the voice of the wind I could understand.
Anna Akhmatova “Willow”
translated by Judith Hemschmeyer
A sibilant wind presaged a latish spring.
Bare birches leaned and whispered over the gravel path.
Only the river ever left. Still, someone would bring
back a new sailor middy to wear in the photograph
of the four of us. Sit still, stop fidgeting.
— Like the still-leafless trees with their facility
for lyric prologue and its gossipy aftermath,
I liked to make up stories. I liked to sing:
I was encouraged to cultivate that ability.
And I grew up in patterned tranquility.
In the single room, with a greasy stain like a scar
from the gas-fire’s fumes, when any guest might be a threat
(and any threat was a guest — from the past or the future)
at any hour of the night, I would put the tea things out
though there were scrap-leaves of tea, but no sugar,
or a lump or two of sugar but no tea.
Two matches, a hoarded cigarette :
my day’s page ashed on its bier in a bed-sitter.
No godmother had presaged such white nights to me
in the cool nursery of the young century.
The human voice distorted itself in speeches,
a rhetoric that locked locks and ticked off losses.
Our words were bare as that stand of winter birches
while poetasters sugared the party bosses’
edicts (the only sugar they could purchase)
with servile metaphor and simile.
The effects were mortal, however complex the causes.
When they beat their child beyond this thin wall, his screeches,
wails and pleas were the gibberish of history,
and the voice of man was not dear to me.
Men and women, I mean. Those high-pitched voices —
how I wanted them to shut up. They sound too much
like me. Little machines for evading choices,
little animals, selling their minds for touch.
The young widow’s voice is just hers, as she memorizes
the words we read and burn, nights when we read and
burn with the words unsaid, hers and mine, as we watch
and are watched, and the river reflects what spies. Is
the winter trees’ rustling a code to the winter land?
But the voice of the wind I could understand.
A BRAID OF GARLIC
In memory of Mahmoud Darwish
Ageing women mourn while they go to market,
buy fish, figs, tomatoes, enough today to
feed the wolf asleep underneath the table
who wakes from what dream?
What but loss comes round with the changing season?
He is dead whom, daring, I called a brother
with that leftover life perched on his shoulder
He made one last roll of the dice. He met his
last, best interlocutor days before he
lay down for the surgery that might/might not
extend the gamble.
What they said belongs to them. Now a son writes
elegies, though he has a living father.
One loves sage tea, one gave the world the scent of
his mother’s coffee.
Light has shrunk back to what it was in April,
incrementally will shrink back to winter.
I can’t call my peregrinations “exile,”
but count the mornings.
In a basket hung from the wall, its handle
festooned with cloth flowers from chocolate boxes,
mottled purple shallots, and looped beside it,
a braid of garlic.
I remember, ten days after a birthday
(counterpoint and candlelight in the wine-glass)
how the woman radiologist’s fingers
probed, not caressing.
So, reprise (what wasn’t called a “recurrence”)
of a fifteen-years-ago rite of passage:
I arrived, encumbered with excess baggage,
scarred, on the threshold.
Through the mild winter sun in February,
two or three times weekly to Gobelins, the
geriatric hospital where my friend was
getting her nerve back.
At the end of elegant proofs and lyric,
incoherent furious trolls in diapers.
Fragile and ephemeral as all beauty:
the human spirit —
while the former journalist watched, took notes and
shocked, regaled her visitors with dispatches
from the war zone in which she was embedded,
biding her time there.
Now in our own leftover lives, we toast our
memories and continence. I have scars where
breasts were, her gnarled fingers, these days, can hardly
hold the pen steady.
Thousands mourn him, while in the hush and hum of
life-support for multiple organ failure,
utter solitude, poise of scarlet wings that
flutter, and vanish.