Originally published in Massachusetts Review
Postcards from Babel
Is it coincidence that Warsaw saw the worst of the war?
Or that all the shrapnel of the heart lies scattered in the earth?
Mostly the world is not happening in our language.
Beside a fountain in a hillside park in Catania, Sicily,
a boy and girl face each other in a dialect of the sea.
As he steps toward her smiling, she steps back, uphill,
pushing his hands away without quite letting go, a smile
breaking like a wave across her censure. Mirrored in words,
a pantomime, they will walk her step by step uphill backwards
so slowly the curving six meter path around the fountain
that it will take five minutes before they disappear into the horizon
of what was I saying? The old ladies on a bench outside
Soviet-era towers on the outskirts of Moscow traffic hide
memories in sounds strange as acorns, but they might
just be praising Putin or calling all the young girls whores.
We forget, or never knew, there were 300,000 axis soldiers
on the small island of Sicily in the Summer of 1943.
Only in Italian and Spanish does the word for Winter so closely
resemble the word for Hell. And only`in English does the sound
used to raise a neighbor’s barn also raze a city to the ground.
In Poland, the worst of the war was najgorsze z wojna,
and could have been anywhere. I walked through Warzawa,
its old town rebuilt from 18th century paintings of Belloto
(after the Germans turned every block of uprising to rubble)
to where the trains parked at the edge of the walled ghetto.
In the tenth century, when the exiled Jews first entered
the fertile valleys of the Vistula, they kept hearing the word
“Polin” on everyone’s lips, which in their own language
meant “rest here.” And there they would.