I shut that black wing from my heart. That bad bad bird. I slam the light. Wrong love, it flaps, wrong love. I slit the curtains of my eyes. If one more death makes room for one more death, I’ve died enough. I’ve died in rooms that bird screeched through, the blood-tipped feathers in my hands. The years of longing in its craw. The little claws like dangling hooks that ruined my nakedness for good. Wrong love, it flaps, wrong love. I wave my arms to make it go. As if the sky could take it back. As if my heart, that box of shadows, could be locked against itself.
You’re not a teenage girl but you feel the heat rising off these boys. Their eyes when you enter the classroom: lowered flame; the body curves. And when you lean across a desk to whisper good, you smell their necks. That animal distancing itself— but not too far; still innocent. The sharp cologne they wear says men to you, says: almost men. You think they have doused themselves for your sake; you straighten, swoon at their intent. At any moment they could strike the match of touch, they are that close. Boys, you tell yourself, they’re only boys. And toss your head. You’re thinking of wild horses, how the world will murder them.
My Mother’s Birds
My mother’s Polish nickname was the word for dried-up; sticks —Sucha, her mother called her. Little witch; Miss Skin-and-Bones. Fifth of eleven thin and startled children, all those mouths to feed. Okay: it was the Great Depression; everyone was poor. They baked potatoes over fires in the street, my mother said; dipped stale bread in buttermilk, ate what was put in front of them. And she was dark-eyed, dreamy, danced in vacant lots, played movie star. Tied her black hair up in rags; high-kicked through cinders, broken glass. Picked cigarette butts from the gutters for the pennies Dzia-dzia gave. Though CioaCia Helen down the hill, their crazy aunt, was better off. She gave them sweets, cheap sweets but sweet. She gave them Easter chicks one year. My mother took the tiny peeps and raised them tenderly, as pets. I’ve seen the photographs: their white wings all aflutter in her arms. As if such chickens could have flown, but they were meat, those birds she loved. Tough meat, and these were hungry years. And CioaCia raised the axe. My mother sobbed and couldn’t swallow, nor could anyone, I’ve heard. The story goes she saved a few stray feathers, hid them, sang to them. Knelt above them weeping in the attic, just like church. Fed and watered them for months, her sisters laughed; the ghosts of birds. The way, years later, always singing, she would try to fatten us. Her own strange brood of seven children, raised less tenderly, perhaps. As if, this time, she wanted to be sure we’d get away. She’d set the steaming plates in front of us, still humming, cross her arms. Don’t be afraid to eat, she’d say, because we were. We were afraid.
From Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem
“Oh Europe is so many borders
on every border, murderers”
— Attila Josef, Hungarian Poet
All night crossing the Tatra,
Krakow to Budapest, the train
only three cars long — where is my friend?
Ken, who calls me Regina Cecylia,
Queen of the Gypsies, Carpathia.
We’ve travelled together from Berlin
but now the dining car between our cars
is locked — I can’t get through.
In these couchettes, only one other woman,
the small boy who clings to her, hiding his face,
and the porter who’s taken my ticket,
refuses in Polish to give it back.
Lie down then, let this pass:
the window a square of black glass
in which bare trees, fields appear;
forests where I could be left,
this car uncoupled —who would know?
(500,000 gypsies burned in the crematoria)
At each border (which country now?)
a clapboard shack with its plume of smoke
and the guards in their high boots,
their stink of cigar, who throw back
the door of my compartment, flick
on the lights, demand documents.
What if I had no passport, no papers
to prove I’m American?
What if I’d been born
in the tiny village my grandmother fled?
What if I had no country —
would I be no one, then, to them?
Would they drag me into the woods;
would the quiet woman hold her child
a little closer, cover his ears?
Sleeping and waking and sleeping again;
disappearing into the dream, waking into the dream
of Budapest: it’s snowing so softly
the golden domes that crown the city seem to float.
At dawn, the grim porter reappears
with black coffee, sugar, two hard rolls,
my ticket, crumpled, on the tray.
I jump off the train with my suitcase
into the station’s soot and din,
into the arms of ragged men —
gypsies everywhere, suddenly, flocks of them,
chanting like sorcerers, surrounding me,
calling out, Taxi! Taxi! Room!
I’ve read that, in caverns under these stations
— Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest —
gypsy orphans live on glue, pimped
for candy, for cigarettes.
But no children greet me here —
only these dark men I turn from, refuse,
and my tall friend, rushing toward me
down the crowded platform now:
silently, given back, at last,
my name in his throat like a jewel.