Letter to Sylvia
I praised the dead, which are already dead,
more than the living, who are yet alive.
For years, whenever I thought of visiting you, a certain
music distracted me: I didn’t know its final movement.
Last week, from the conservatory, that very tune beckoned:
I pleaded entrance until a girl with long fingers handed
me Beethoven’s Sonata quasi una Fantasia.
I have spent the morning fumbling with it. My husband questions
reinforcing my melancholia, but as we have been
squalling, I ignore him, stutter over this language I love
but cannot read. He takes children, picnic, swimsuits to the lake
by the far meadow. I switch on Mozart’s horn concerti, pour
a glass of scotch, wander our barn-house the fifteen minutes till
noon before allowing myself a sip. This makes me safe. For
days the youngest has refused baths, having heard me read aloud
a German recipe for soap, has been whining about a
woman with a broad patch of scar on her cheek roaming the hall
upstairs, silk cord dangling from her neck like a yellow cat’s tail,
about the sweet of amethyst gas seeping through the floors of
his room at night. Since our stove is electric, his father has
forbidden his sipping any more wine with dinner. When the
children unearth a Ouija board in the cellar that only
spells S-y-l-v-i-a, I begin to understand: the
Nacht und Nebel around you has been ripped. I bury the board,
along with your picture. You know the bottom — I have yet to
open my eyes underwater, claiming family and writing
obligations. Suicide is, after all, the opposite
of a poem, Sexton preached, then rowed in nagging rain until her
arms were too limp to drag her back. The Sonderkommando, who
were to pluck her out with their nooses and hooks, gaped. She should have
known better than to trust your claim that you would rise nine times out
of the ash: even the Death’s-Headers didn’t recognize themselves
in the clinker, ground to fine dust and sifted into the stream.
The Judengesetz did not affect you, yet that last time you
tried to shed your skin, your safe-conduct didn’t separate you
from others made stateless. Neither did Eichmann’s I can’t shed my
skin save him. Suddenly I have lost my children’s faces. I
stumble through grass to where they splash and squeal in the lake’s calm. What
is so real as the cry of a child? The screams that Höss timed: three
to fifteen minutes depending on climatic conditions.
Nightly, their cries seek me out: sharks’ teeth sunk into my flesh, then
retracted, waiting for the blood loss to weaken me. I snap
off one or two, but row after row of razored pearl clamors
beneath the swollen gun, anxious to tattoo. Frau Ilse would
covet this specimen. Arielle explodes from the lake, hounds
one of her brothers to the fluttering blanket where I read.
These children are after something, with hooks and cries. She leans, drips
on your book, damps my cheek. Her brother’s curls cool my bare thigh. He
sings one of his new hymns. Where were Frieda and Nicholas when
you entered your Kazett? Did you want to crush them back into
your body as petals of a rose fold in at night? Was your
greatest fear as Magda’s: that at the last moment you would be
too weak? There is no mercy in the dark. Unpeeling its gauze
layers does not mean truth. I see you, coiled teratism, on
the kitchen floor, lips and cheeks poppies against parchment skin. I
yank Arielle close, call my other son in from dark waves, scrub
the wine that stains my pale skin, inhale my children’s breathing, kiss
them. Even with six-pointed gold, hallucinations cannot
be controlled forever. Red on white doesn’t always mean love.
Read excerpts from
Where Lightning Strikes:
Poems on The Holocaust
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Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust
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