Miriam gathered strips of papyrus
trimmed from pages glued by scribes
cut her thumb-size dolls in folded
rows of sisters holding hands
Miriam painted their shifts with crumbs
of cast-off pigments wetted with spit
arranged her paper passengers
in egg-size boats she wove from reeds
like the belly-size boat her mother made
lined with linen and sealed with pitch
Miriam floated her dolls in the Nile
beside her infant brother, Goodbye!
She raced the current as far as the bridge
leaving her mother crumpled on the bank
When I tried to speak on the telephone
out of my throat came crows
in battle for the harbour.
When I tried to form words
out came the clank of masts,
the scratch of hooks,
hawser through a cat hole.
I used to work in lumber camps:
when a logger’s blade loses its edge
it whines, inch by shredded inch
through the base of a tree.
I choked on splinters,
I know the ache of a pine
that surrenders branch
by branch. I remember
spine, neck and trunk
buckling into silence
on the forest floor.
Woodman spare me.
Give me a pen:
my tongue, my voice
and all my songs are gone,
my larynx split like cedar kindling.
I’m checking the ways to say that Cyrillic letter
shaped like a Roman three with a heelspur
or cricket stumps with a ploughshare
to cut beneath the bottom line of text: Щ
One teacher suggests I pay attention
to the double thistle in the gap
scratched between two words
whose start and finish match: Welsh sheep
Another says, listen to the scrape
of the hinge in a folding pushchair
or the mother’s voice when her baby’s shout
drowns out the bus’s brakes: Hush child, we’re nearly home
Another wants me to try the sound of steam released
when you touch the pressure cooker valve
the cheery whistle of the sealed vessel
shortening the beet time for borshch: БOPЩ
I remember the steam train
screeching to a stop at the station
delivering everyone’s grandmothers, flesh-cheeked
babushka-wrapped against December’s harsh chill
I remember the shooshch
of my grandmother’s tongue and teeth
sucking her tea through a sugar cube
telling her stories in Finnish
Hush now, it’s the one about her sister
in Soviet Russia, how she barely survived
on watery cabbage soup: ЩИ
but was finally crushed lost she
the sound is a soft shchi
one wave in an ocean of millions
that receded but never returned
This is our honeymoon, so far so true.
We packed light: a single valise between us,
my new vanity case. Only the essentials
for a long weekend in Tripoli.
We leave on a wing and a whispered vow
never to return to Rome, our jobs
in plush quarters, hush-hush.
Never again to follow orders,
or smile at puffed-up little bosses.
Never again to see our village homes
or feast at our mammas’ tables. To praise
Il Duce for his gifts to Italy? Never again.
Yes, we are grateful for his first-class
tickets on Ala Littoria, his new airline,
that magnificent baby, futuristical, snappy,
better than any in Europe, even the world!
We will never forget his greasy speech
at our wedding feast, his liquid praises
to the bride. I’d rather have drowned
with a dozen virgins than listen to more.
When we are safe in the air we will laugh,
free as swifts or swallows, even eagles!
Not yet. We are still on the tarmac,
hat brims down, chins to chests,
your hands jammed deep in the pockets
of your trenchcoat, your belt knotted
tight as the grip I must keep on my
blood-red handbag. Such soft kid.