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Poems from In the Language of Women

  Forgotten Songs  

for Glory Sasikala Franklin

What links us together? Isn’t it untrammeled
energy, affinity, green shoots of the body?

Not long ago in India, the rare home radio
marked the passing of time. In Kolkata,
you had a small Telerad with a winking green eye
and started each day with the All Asia Service
of the Sri Lanka BC. At noon, you’d switch
to Burma Broadcasting and listen for a single
delicious hour, then jump to Yuvavani in Calcutta
for Lunch Time Variety.

The day would fly like that: to Vividh Bharati
for Hindi songs, then back to Yuvavani again.

Never mind the distances: each station zinged in
with true fidelity, so that Cliff Richard, John Denver,
Glen Campbell, the Everly Brothers, Elvis, George Baker,
and Susan Raye all seemed to sing    just for you.
Their voices spilled into your body and took up residence there.

Your favorite was Pussycat’s “Broken Souvenir”
and you still hum that song. And you still hear “Listen
to the rhythm of the falling rain . . .” You, too,
are on your own again. “Good evening, sorrow.”

Glory, you were so taken by the radio’s power,
by the songs that poured from it, you named your daughter
“Rimona” after Wolfe Gilbert’s “Ramona,” respun
by the Blue Diamonds in 1960. Remember the Carpenters’ song,
“Those were such happy times / And not so long ago”?
For you “Every sha-la-la-la, / Every wo-wo-wo /
Still shines.”

Before he died, your father taught you songs
and had you sing the words while he strummed his guitar.
You were not yet ten, but not a nerve in your body
has relinquished them.

There was “Lonely Cowboy,” “Goodbye Hawaii,” “Oh, Susannah”
and “Queen of My Heart.” Your father was gone too early,
but you recall each tune. “Beautiful dreamer,” he sang, “wake
unto me, / Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee.”

And you sang along with him.




  A Lost Language
  for Natalia Sangama
Pampa Hermosa, Peru

She dreams in Chamicuro
but remembers to speak
in Spanish or no one
will understand her

The lake that floats
near her village — a deeper azure
than the sky — without her words,
no one will fully know it:

what poisons and obscures
can not open the shining leaves

She dreams in Chamicuro as her
ancestors did but she is the last
to feel this tongue in her mouth
the last for whom exact meaning

can not be expressed in Spanish
Who is this grandmother but the lost
soul of Peru and the Amazon
unwilling to vanish?

In her thatched hut, she can swing
her grandchildren and laugh

but she can’t keep out the pulse
of salsa or stop the Spanish sun
from entering like a powerful vine
that winds around her throat

She will be next to die to wither
into brittle twigs of imagery
Her grandchildren will recall a lake
but it will have no name in Chamicuro.

When she was a girl, missionaries made the Chamicuro
children kneel when they used their language. At least
half the world’s 6,000 languages will die out in this century.



  Under Jerusalem's Sun  

for  Frances Zalcberg 

I.  1954
It didn’t snow when you entered Jerusalem
but the sky was gray, as if snow might fall,
and the buildings looked old and neglected
like abandoned ships that had been towed
to wind-swept beaches, stark stretches of sand
where only ghosts walked. But you were twenty-
three and felt the streets embrace you, even though
the city had been split in half: half in Jordan
and half in Israel, where you lived. Even Jaffa Road
came to a screeching halt at a dividing wall
Jordanian soldiers patrolled.

When you walked to work and again when you
walked home, you could see that shells and bullets
remained embedded in buildings where Jewish children
played, and — how many times! — while strolling
on King George Street, you heard shots ring out
from the walls of the city and crossed to the west side
where bullets might not reach.  

II.  1965
Your parents were in Jerusalem and you took them
as close to the Old City’s walls as you could. Like them,
you longed to walk on those narrow winding streets
which, for millennia, Jews had prayed to see.

But the Jordanians would not let you enter, and you climbed
to the top of Mount Zion instead, to that holy place
where Israeli soldiers held a few square meters of earth.
Yet, even there, Jews could not linger, so you and your parents
turned    and started back down.

                         *   *   *

On the slope of the mountain, you found a sheltered space
where a Holocaust memorial had been built. Burnt Torah scrolls
had been laid to rest there like the murdered bodies of children,
and your father was overcome. Memories of Ukraine, of Shoah,
washed over him, and he couldn’t take another step.

“Papa,” you said, “look around. Jewish soldiers are standing guard,
and they will protect us. They will make sure our people
won’t know such horror again.”

III.  1967
Two days after the Six-Day War, Jerusalem was no longer
divided. An Israeli officer escorted you into the Old City
where you stood very straight and made no sound.
Under the light of Israel’s sun, you saw the ruins of synagogues
and the empty homes where the Jewish Quarter had been.
The Jordanians had left only rubble.

It was eerily quiet, and you moved with extreme slowness.
You thought of your father then and wondered, If hed been standing
beside me, how would he have kept himself from falling down?




  Amelia in Vietnam
  for Amelia Haselkorn

I.  Sa Pa Journeys
You walked in the rice terraces:
so beautiful. A few silent ducks.
A clamor of piglets.

Roosters and cicadas wakened the day.
A grandma stripped bark from a stick.
So peaceful.

Later, you hiked to the waterfall.

                        *   *   *

You hammered rocks into fragments
for a Zay family’s roof. With teachers
and friends, you chopped firewood,
filled in a ditch, and turned the soil.

Then you swam in the river.

Next morning, you devoured breakfast:
rice flour crepes with bananas, honey,
lime juice. You kept thinking this
might be heaven.

Too soon, you would trek to the road   
and the way back.

                        *   *   *

You were in Sapa: your village
was Ta Van, and you were there
two nights.

The second day was best: you helped
build a house and bent low in the rice
paddies. It was hard work hoeing the mud,
and when you slipped into the river,
you were tugged under and pulled into rocks.
Cuts and bruises rippled over your body.

Luckily, you survived. How else
would you have enjoyed banana crepes
the next morning?

Only chocolate at the French bakery
tasted sweeter.

                        *   *   *

You stayed with a Red Dao family —
Mrs. Phan Man May. Her wood-slat house
had a corrugated roof and pit toilets
but also herbal baths, and the rice paddies’
dark warm mud    sucked at your toes.

II.  Hue, Hội An, Hà Nội
You are in Hue, Vietnam’s ancient city,
but have brought with you memories
of Hội An: images and feelings so fresh
they will not stop whispering to you
or brushing against your face.

In Hội An, you fished, farmed, cooked,
shopped, bought skirts and dresses,
wriggled your toes in wet sand.
At the cooking place, you were served
what you prepared    but got sick anyway.

Maybe what made you feverish
was seeing a woman American soldiers
had tortured. Perhaps she was a carrier
of mortification and pain that could not
be softened, even in a beach town like Hội An.

                        *   *   *

You are in Hue, and tonight
you will be taking a moonlight cruise
on a dragon boat on the Perfume River.
You will wear your new ao dai, which is blue
and golden. The girls who cut and sewed it
praised the whiteness of your skin.
They loved touching you and played
with your hair.

                        *   *   *

Yesterday, you went to the Cham ruins,
which had been bombed during the war
yet remains intact. You saw how beautiful
and complex it was — how majestic —
and realized you couldn’t encompass
all of its parts or comprehend what held
its many thousands of bricks together.
Perhaps it was the breath of an ancient god:
god of the burning green mountains, god
of its temples, pagodas, and mausoleums.

You liked best the burial chamber of Khai Dinh —
a young king. Its extravagance enraptured you.

                        *   *   *

Today, you see the War Remnants Museum
and what you see disturbs you and makes
you sad. Yet you can’t grasp the anger
of that time or its pain and darkness, though
you do feel wounded.

At night, the shadows fade a little
and, like nearly everyone else who visits
this place, you feel tired and distracted.
Even the karaoke bar can’t help, even
the American Idol club can’t unconfuse you.

                        *   *   *

After your adventures in Sa Pa and Hue,
you take the night train to Hà Nội.

On your first day back, you watch a water-
puppet show and sit through a lesson
in meditation given by a Buddhist monk —
perhaps a brother to the monks who publicly
burned themselves during the Vietnam War.

At night, you long to fall into your own bed again,
to sleep deeply, as a child sleeps, but shreds
of fear and delight trail after you as you sink
into thick mud and slick, angular rocks.