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
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 tree. You wipe the dirt from your eyes.
Yerra Sugarman is the author of three poetry collections:Forms of Gone, which was awarded PEN American Center’s Joyce Osterweil Poetry Prize, and The Bag of Broken Glass, work from which received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her third collection, Aunt Bird, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. Her poems, translations, and critical writing have appeared in such journals as The Nation, AGNI, Literary Imagination, and Prairie Schooner. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston, and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Toledo in Ohio.