The narrow street rears up from memory—
let it be this poem’s larynx—
and the thick, gray smoke above the coking plant,
casting sparks into the sky like a volcano,
repaying its debt to the stars.

My street: two proud old maids
with narrow lips—they’d survived Siberia
and Stalin; a young actor, craving fame,
and professor G., who’d lost an arm in the Uprising
and wore his empty shirtsleeve like a sail.

I don’t know anything yet, nothing’s happened,
not counting the war or the massacre of Jews.
In winter gray snow lurks on rooftops
alert as an Indian, dreading spring.
Vacation comes, a peeled orange.

A greedy priest gulps Gospels
in the crimson, Neo-Gothic church;
oh, heart of hearts, Christ’s wounded breast.
Thank God for cream puffs after mass
to help erase your Latin tortures.

In the barracks new recruits are training,
one of my friends plays the trumpet
like Miles Davis, only better.
Young ladies promenade
in wide starched skirts.

The ugly earth, gashed by flat
black rivers, scarred
like a German student’s cheek,
held still all day; at night
it crooned in two languages,

and we also lived in two idioms,
in the cramped jargon of the commonplace, of envy,
and in the language of great dreams.
At noon the clouds’ eye gently
opened, the eye of tears and light.

This Issue

February 19, 1998