(I.M. of Czesław Miłosz)
We’re neither poems for you to fetishise
Nor emblems of the murdered of the twentieth century,
We don’t hold all possibilities in our Talmudic minds
Live burdened with the grief you want us to.
We’re not the monsters of the Middle East,
The devils of the diaspora, nor do we know
The selves we recognise in one another.
We’re in danger in your midst
And where you don’t know us,
A barometer of your pasts and futures
That you never consult,
And yet we ourselves live
By the tremble of mercury
Which we always ask ourselves to shape,
For which we’re quoted against ourselves.
There’s no monopoly of suffering,
What did the first victims know
Whose parents sent them with wobbly legs,
Gaped mouths, vacant grins, rage? The evidence
Of the trial they were to heart, hands, purse;
Yes, look I’m a Jew and I’ve said purse,
Judge me if you want; the first victims
Were piped away like Hamlyn’s children,
Only before the rats and other vermin.
(published in The North No: 53 Autumn 2014)
The smell of rice cooking is the smell of my childhood
and a house devoid of cooking smells is no home.
Sometimes I visited other houses which smelled like our house
heavy with the steaming of mint or dill
and tiny cubes of seared liver all seeping into rice,
which would become green and which was called bachsh.
We felt foreign, shy of our differentness
unable to explain the sweetness of brown rice called osh sevo,
where prunes and cinnamon and shin meat had baked slowly
melting into the grains of rice which never lost their form.
Our eggs, called tchumi osh sevo, were placed in water
with an onion skin and left to coddle overnight
so that their shells looked like dark caramel
their flesh like café au lait.
Our salad was chopped,
a woman appraised her refinement by how fast
and how finely she could chop cucumbers, onions, parsley,
coriander and trickiest of all tomatoes ‘no collapsed tomatoes’
a young girl would be scolded if she tried to get her efforts
into the large bowl that she and her mother
(and the other women, if there were a party) were filling.
The knife scraped across the raised chopping board,
always away from the body in a sweeping gesture.
The combination of ingredients never measured
other than by eye. Salt, pepper and lemon, vinegar
or Sabbath wine added at the last moment
so that this slota should not be asalak – mushy.
(published in Areté Issue 10/Winter 2002)
My Father’s Room
My father had an attic room where he did his books
when he wasn’t there I used to go and look.
There were scraps of paper torn off spiral pads;
auction house catalogues, text circled, pages dog eared,
reserve prices marked in code; a hard folding chair;
a splintered trestle table and always the smell of him.
Next to his room was a room full of books and bookcases;
books in them, on them and on the floor (my dictionary
a tiny Larousse covered in brown paper was my father’s
from prison camp).
I never sat in the book room when my father was there
I was afraid of him and anyway we weren’t allowed
when he was concentrating. He hated doing his books
but I think he liked being alone. I’d visit after he’d gone
as a way to be near him. Then I went to the book room
where so many abandoned stories gathered dust
until I opened them, powdering the tips of my fingers.
(from The Assay Smith/Doorstop 2010)
Yvonne Green’s poems will be featured in Haaretz on 27/1/15, Holocaust Memorial Day and she’ll read at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Road NW3 6ET on 10/2/15 at 7.30 pm. (Tickets £10, £6 concessions). To reserve a place or apply to read from the floor please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Yvonne Green’s work is included in the new Penguin Book of Russian Poets (February 2015).