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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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).