Four Poems

    by Charles Adès Fishman

    Golden Syrup

    She sees the label on a shelf
    in the Stockbridge Country Store
    and finds the sealed tin. Her hand

    feels the years change to liquid,
    so what has been frozen flows
    through her fingers.

    Yet she can’t grasp what wells in her
    and pours over. South Africa
    is so many years back, and the past

    spins away like a wheel circling
    in cold light. “Adrianne,” she says,
    in the dim swirl of memory,

    “I found it.” Her daughter smiles
    at her mother’s pleasure, at her happiness.
    She sees the years peel back like old shingle

    weathered by sun and wind, each with its dark-
    or light-winged narrative that opens
    with the turn of a lid.

    I can see how bright her mother’s face is
    and how muted her voice and I want to listen
    to each word she speaks, each syllable her lips reach for.

    I know she has been saving up for this moment,
    for this burnt field of seconds that have turned golden
    because, finally, she can be heard.

    A Translator in Auschwitz

    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.

    A Woman of Earth – for Charlene Dumas

    Even now, in this age
    of philanthropy, she
    and her sisters eat dirt.
    They buy dirt at market
    where meat is blackened
    by flies and rice, beans, and fruit
    are only for the rich.

    For her and her sisters,
    and for their infants,
    the yellow clay of Haiti
    is like mother’s milk
    (but it is not yet manna
    from heaven): mixed
    with shortening and salt
    and left in the scorch of sun,
    the cookies they cut from it
    are almost edible.

    For her, the cookies
    are something less
    than a feast, yet
    she likes the taste
    and her baby draws in
    that bittersweetness:
    for her and her sisters,
    a gift of life. Even now,
    their babies’ mouths pull
    at their nipples and their own
    parched lips are dry as dust.

    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?

    Charles Fishman’s books include The Death Mazurka, which was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and In the Language of Women (2011), recipient of the Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. The revised, second edition of his anthology, Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, was published in 2007 by Time Being Books, which released his Selected Poems, In the Path of Lightning, in 2012. Charles is poetry editor of Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators and, with Smita Sahay of Mumbai, India, co-edited Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. His most recent collection is In the Wake of the Glacier: New Selected Poems (Kasva Press, 2018).

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