above:  Etty Hillesum, 1939

In “The Sky, Full of Birds” Martin Steingesser reflects on the life of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who, before she died in the Nazi camps, was remarkable for her spirit of life and compassion.  How many of us have held up such people and hoping to learn from them how we might enlarge our own spirits?  This poem is republished in Steingesser’s second book, Yellow Horses, (Deerbrook Editions, 2015).   “Recuerdo” translates from the Spanish as “memory,” and in this poem Steingesser recalls a time when he was a stilt dancer and lived in an impoverished community, and yet  a community with hidden gifts, especially the generosity and delight of a small boy, who both admires the speaker’s dance and inspires him to see beauty in surprising places.

Betsy Sholl, MAJ Poetry Editor

The Sky, Full of Birds


The chink of spoons on china, background chatter, music piped in;

outside, the sky full of soaring birds, on the street passersby

walking to work, sun shining through the window on my face.


I have been reading letters from a Dutch Jew, Etty Hillesum,

about a transport she witnessed being loaded for Auschwitz,

planks pulled from the cars, hands waving through gaps,


the locomotive hiss and shriek, 3,000 Jews about to leave.

 “The sky is full of birds,” she wrote, “sun shining on my face,”

heaven and earth in her rushing head-on. What bewilders—


that sun on our faces, hers but weeks, countable hours

from the gas chamber, my own star a golden oriole

of spring, armfuls of sun to warm and nourish


what seed, what crop my heart might harvest.

Fate—karma, kismet, chance, luck, you bewilder me. Everything

bewilders me. Long ago, I thought one day life would open


her pockets, that I’d be able to answer a few questions like

What is this country I’m crossing? What station do I get off?

Where to from there? And still, I have no idea what the ground


under me is, no idea where I stand. And what do I do

with this word bewilder? The strange word bewilder. Be wilder.

Maybe wildness isn’t lack of restraint but an ability


to be in doubt, like Keats said, without reaching after reason.

Printed in blue on the pencil I am holding is the word Focus—

Focus and be wilder. For Etty, stakes were high, calling down God


into that circle of barbed wire. Sometimes I feel so pedestrian

shuffling the small ways I do to feed myself, keep warm,

clear away the daily messes, bewildered, wanting to be wilder


loving this only and one life, wanting to write a line of meaning

into it all, “lend the silence form, contours,” like she said,

like she did, even when tired, cold, hungry, frightened.



The Sky, Full of Birds Copyright © 2002 Martin Steingesser



“What do we say anymore

to conjure the salt of our earth?

•          •          •          •           •

Raise it again, man.

                 Seamus Heaney

“Leave ‘em go!” the small, six-or-seven-year old street kid

kept shouting, skipping backward just ahead of us, moving bigger kids

out of the way as we stepped forward in a giraffe on high stilts.


It was summer, midday heat paralyzing, a few Latina madres,

abuelitas framed in tenement windows, dark rooms behind.

A rough neighborhood with soft underbelly, salt of the poor, drugs

and money passing hand to hand in doorways, hallway stairwells.


My girlfriend and I the only gringos for blocks around, a gypsy life

maybe protecting us, ours the only apartment in the building

not broken into. Most weekends we danced on stilts with a brass band

in Central Park. I doubt anyone hadn’t seen us coming and going

in sombreros, colorful kerchiefs, flags, the stilts over shoulders.


That Sunday, roasting in our one-room flat, the band off to some theater

to perform without us, we took stilts and the giant giraffe

down five flights and around the corner to avoid being seen suiting up.


“Leave ‘em go!” the boy shouted, “He’s beoo-ti-ful! beoo-ti-ful!”


In the shower after, as 40 years later, I hear him, his voice above

the torrid lethargy of treeless summer streets. How dwarfed

I feel beside the distance grown between us. Don’t you also

wonder where what you’ve done, who you have been, has gone?

The giraffe lies under rubble in a demolished barn, the stilts

lean against a wall in the pantry—the boy going on. Beautiful.


Recuerdo Copyright © 2019 Martin Steingesser.