Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
Maybe just vowels
Why risk a glance backward?
Why tempt the fate of Lot’s wife?
Why freeze in salt when warmer waters
of forgetting beckon?
Ancient Chinese rushed to drink
old Lady Meng’s soup,
broth of stupor to smooth passage
on the Bridge of Pain,
past two demons who lie in wait:
I hereby refuse old Lady Meng’s soup.
I refuse to sip the ambrosia
of oblivion from river Lethe,
the cave of Hypnos holds few thrills,
though sleep would be welcome
if only a guest each day.
Sleepless, I choose a desert landscape
where singed words seek their home.
“Dawn in Jerusalem”
for a start–
though this place and time
are cold comfort as I chase after
a thread of meaning in the muddle
of multiplying mother tongues.
No choice but to follow Lot’s wife:
Look back, meander through the rubble
of worlds left behind,
pick up a rock or two,
each bears the face of a dear one
lost beneath the ruins,
beneath years buried
in Romania’s mountains,
Words in many languages will come
calling, crawling out of the wreckage
to arrange themselves before you,
a table set with sweets you have
never dreamt of in dark nights
of doubt, despair.
Taste each word,
let it roll in your mouth like hard candy,
sour, invigorating, sacred.
Start a conversation with old friends,
Let one of them be Yehuda Amichai,
who named himself “My People Lives,”
though his folk, too, knew the taste
of ashes upon the tongue.
Let yourself enter the sick room
where Yehuda nursed his last days,
his last poems and inhale the scent
of holiness hard gained:
אני רוצה לחיות עד שגם המלים בפי לא יהיו עוד
אלא תנועות ועיצורים, אולי רק תנועות, רק צלילים רכים
הנפש שבתוכי היא עכשיו השפה הזרה האחרונה שאני לומד.
ואני רוצה לחיות עד שכל המספרים יהיו קדושים […],
וגם האין-סוף יהיה קדוש ואז אנוח מנוחה שלמה.
I want to live till even the words in my mouth are nothing
but vowels and consonants, maybe just vowels, soft sounds.
The soul inside me is the last foreign language I am learning.
I want to live until all numbers are sacred…
even infinity will be sacred, and then
I will find perfect rest.
I pray, you did, Yehuda my friend.
My lot is to linger a bit longer
in the schoolroom of the soul,
keep breaking my teeth
over this last foreign tongue—
numbers not all hallowed,
consonants still harsh, guttural.
Yet a softening of vowels
has hereby begun.
Rosh Hodesh Adar/March 7, 2019
(Vera Schwarcz is a China historian and poet focusing on comparative aspects of memory studies. Schwarcz received her BA from Vassar College, MA from Yale and Ph.D from Stanford. For the past four decades she taught at Wesleyan University in CT. where she was the Freeman Professor of History and East Asian Studies and also taught several seminars on Chinese and comparative historiography in the MA program at Hebrew University.
Her work was awarded several distinguished fellowships including the Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fullbright Fellowship, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and a Lady Davis Fellowship. Vera Schwarcz is the author of nine books about Chinese intellectual history, including Bridge Across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (Yale University Press, 1989) which was nominated for the National Jewish Book Award and most recently, Colors of Veracity: A Quest for Truth in China and Beyond (University of Hawaii Press, 2014). She has also written six books of poetry, including most recently: The Physics of Wrinkle Formation (Antrim Press, 2015).
Vera Schwar’cz most recent book—In the Crook of the Rock– focuses upon the theme of Jewish refuge in times of historical trauma. By focusing upon the life of Rebbetzin Chaya Walkin Small, who was a child in Kobe and Shanghai during the Holocaust, this book explores larger issues such as the current global refugee crisis as well as the spiritual resources of Jewish tradition in promoting survival with dignity.)