Yerra Sugarman
From "Lullabies for the Dead"

Cradle Song (IV)

                     —in memory of Primo Levi

Because you no longer extract nitrogen from shit
            at the death camp where your knowledge of chemistry

saved you and you no longer remove the pink
            from bougainvillea at the paint factory in Turin;

because you can’t brush breadcrumbs off your kitchen chairs
            and your hands no longer chart a geography of grief,

its molecules still staining your fellow prisoners blood-twilight—
            please accept my words impure as the zinc

you liked because it reacts with iron and steel.
            Before you were deported, you fell in love with Clara,

then Gabriella, who rode on your bike’s handlebars
            under a gallery of stars. Her braid skimmed the air.

At the detention camp in Fossoli, you watched women
            unloosen their hair and cook with spoons they’d brought

from home. The Psalms they recited took hold for a while—
            seeds in the dense dumb earth—their words converting

fear into song. Later, through a crack in a train’s freight car,
            you watched the names of Italian cities disappear, signs

smeared into clouds. You among the poor human dust
            on the way to a place whose name was still without significance,

its sound like a phrase stuck in the throat—

What remained? Language stitched together, barely holding?
            What you feared most of all: to speak and not be heard.

After liberation, you were sick with scarlet fever.
            On the cot beside yours, a three-year-old boy

who—like you—had stayed alive, who knew only one word,
            feathered and nettled, which nobody understood.

Cradle Song (II)

                     —in memory of my Aunt Faiga

Your bones burrow underground. They can’t keep still.
            Every day, they search for a place to sleep.

What stops the wind and puts your name in its mouth?
            How do I harness the right words for you?

Here, in Texas, I watch a woodpecker dive from an oak
            and strike, midair, a starling waiting to raid its nest.

The woodpecker’s head glistens like a drop of blood,
            the starling dazed with plummeting. Stunned

by their battle, I sit on the edge of my bed
            and wonder what it was like for you

when the air was no longer a lifeboat.
            How did you spend your last days? In Cracow,

in 1942, you were twenty-three. Did you wash greasy plates
            and listen for your kettle to whistle? When you pressed

your forehead up against your windowpane, did you see
            not only rain needling the apartment buildings,

but Germans gashing the veins of the streets?
            Maybe, you spotted a trolley on its hands and knees.

Or, maybe, you watched the purple vanish from asters
            and the city turn into a donkey led by its bridle.

I open the glass jar of imagination to see the ghetto
            in which you were killed. Your name, the Yiddish word

for a bird, is a ghost inside my throat. Night swallows
            the oak