above: Etty Hillesum, 1939
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.
“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.