Night in the Former Yugoslavia
One officer behind a scarred metal desk under the yellow light
of the bare bulb in the stationmaster’s office. He places what’s
left of his cucumber, sausage, and bread, on crackling brown paper.
He rests the small sharp knife in his hand, on the edge.
He looks hard in my eyes for evidence of my American crime. I am
nothing but t-shirt and jeans, blue cover and gold emblem on my
passport, escorted from the train at the border. He inks a stamp,
attaches a parchment tag to a new page. I go back to the train.
In the compartment, we are six: a couple from Finland, two Flemish
Belgians, a guy from Chicago and me—none of us speak this language.
Tonight, we all stay together on the island of Hvar, in a farmer’s home
near Vrboska. For the first time I understand nothing from words.
But what language do you need, to understand soup with cabbage,
ma petite chou, and red wine in a jug, drunk from a jelly-jar glass?
Isn’t bread made in the old way a good translation? Its rough texture
We search for words to share our stories. We gesture in the air,
search for pictures in a magazine to explain, and point to objects
in the house. Each of us tries our own language. I translate the Finns
with make-believe understanding. Chicago uses his Spanish..
The Flemish are shy, but they try their French. We laugh and point
and all the words in a mix are a soup of language. The farmer opens
his mouth, teeth missing behind his smiles. I motion, hands prayer-
folded under my tilted head, and everyone understands.
I’m shown to a small bed with clean sheets. What does it matter
what anyone is saying? Why do you need to understand the words?
In any one night, there is always the language of wine, soup, and bread.
Must We Know All the Ingredients?
We are made to take a slice of the sun at evening,
pockets of our great coats full of barley grains—
scatter and wait for rain—first flower-laden, a field, a garden-plot,
birds and insects—underground roots at work above leaves.
And who knows what comes next? I wake among pilgrims.
We shall never put ourselves together entirely.
We will break the rules. We will silver our days in shine and live
in a country where language touches.
Every radio is a woman’s voice—is our wedding song. Oh bright-eyed
and benevolent absent God.
We will live together half curled fronds of the fiddlehead fern
in forests, shadowed.
Washed by the sun, we will sleep in each other’s arms, not one
of us fated or doomed to love.
I see a girl pelican-skimming fear, a mica lump split into sharp-edged
mirrors. I shall never put you together entirely.
Perhaps you are an oracle? And we are made to slice a sun—
at evening—to live in a lighted place. A gift, a candle in the house.
Outside: twigs, ringlets, assonance, cicadas, woodnotes.
I lived in the second century of world wars. I had two
older brothers. Only one went to fight.
I walked to church with my mother and father on Sunday.
I played with other children in the neighborhood: jumping
rope, imagining ourselves as Indians, or when I played
with boys I held a rifle conjured from air.
I was never was shot—I am not dead. The war was far away
and we wore uniforms for girl scouts.
We camped out. The war was even farther away at night.
The metal globe on my father’s desk spun on its axis.
My brother is a picture of himself that arrives in a letter
he writes of Shakespeare—he’s on a tin roof, his chest
naked, tanned, holding a hammer overhead in the air.
He writes of graves. I go to school every day, put my hand
over my heart, pledge and start my day. Desktop, chalk dust,
cafeteria food, and locker room.
Our uniforms for gym were pleasantly yellow, little skirts
that expose too much of our legs.