Ten Days

Department: 

Ten days a wisp of smoke
from one ancestral strum to the next
distant guitar on the horizon
stark like a city sunset.

*
After she had already fled tooth-plated umlaut
of barbed wire and bayonet crusted with old blood,
of gas chamber door’s guard-dog maw
and the boot-heel scuff of bone,
of so many she had loved down to dust
across leather bridge, wind through a ram’s broken horn,

she sat, atop a stack of decades, in silence,
waiting for voice to name itself.
It named her instead, reminding
of its presence in the absences between.

For her to write letter after letter
pamphlet after pamphlet,
paint sign after sign
for march after march.
Shout unfettered.
Stomp as hard as first light—

inspired until, rereading out loud
everything she had written,
she heard it a collection of hymns
inking useless more piles of paper
to add to the stack of years,

heard as nothing rougher
than a pebble to day-old rainwater
in the jungle-soaked pup tents a world-shore away.

Until, through silence another whisper,
and she lit herself on fire on the side of a road.

*
suddenly an old woman braiding embers in her hair
refusing to brush it away from her face
despite each spark an ant with jaws wider
than a screech of lightning

her throat betrays her for a shriek
until choked with smoke
she tries not to fear
sucks the marrow of it dry
tries not to think of the heat
the blister
the crackling skin
and her own screaming again
the smell of burning fat
before muscle splits
into the painlessness
of exposed bone

tries not to wonder if her makeshift pyre
will end the war basting every young man
of her neighborhood city state country
every man woman child
river pasture cow path
highway alley gutter palace plaza
half a world away

tries not to think of how she hated
having to flee her homeland decades ago
and the stink of her shame upon hearing
a whistle any whistle
after reading in a letter from her favorite cousin
sent years after the liberation
about the stink of rotting flowers
as they wilted along the tracks
of the train ride to the camps

of the shining curves of the brass bell
hanging at the doorway of her mother’s kitchen
her mother’s laugh
her mother’s hands
dusty with breadcrumbs
for schnitzel on her father’s birthday
her father’s arms
deep after returning from work each day
his pipe in a thin pool of tobacco ash
on an arm of his favorite chair

of the screaming slick of sweat under a cold moon
of vomit down the side of each boat
along every waterway of Europe
and across the ocean
up the Hudson
down the canals
from the Lower East Side to Eastside Detroit

of the first swell toward peace
and with it the urge to chain herself
to an aircraft carrier at its christening
so that it wouldn’t sail toward war

of the first time she walked into the quiet cool
of a Quaker meetinghouse
of her habit later of baking bread
once a month for the coffee hour after worship services there
and also every time she planned to march in a protest
to feed as many as she encountered
before joining in the chanted outcry

instead tries to pray for the end of the war
tries to smell sound taste silence
at the center of sputtering waft
*

Ten days after hearing its first verse
She dreams the rest of the poem.
Middle sequence of a renga

less remembered than the verses
before and after hers
despite all three lacking
the flair of later movements
of prophetic action
pretended in a circle of mirrors.

An old woman less recited
than the handsome young man
who sat in the middle of the street
in robes the color of sunrise
amid the mist of gunpowder and scream

than the handsome young man
under the window of the Defense Secretary’s office
the moment after setting to one side
his toddling daughter.

The first and last eulogized, street-named,
though all three lit the same prayer on fire.

No way of knowing this, and with no time to care,
she awaits the next beat between strums,
more lute than guitar
that she no longer has ears.

*
She survives for ten days
her hospital bed a footnote to competing histories.

None of her prayer circle of activist friends
anticipated her ministry would last so long

its call the smoldering of coals no longer knuckles
no more arthritic ache to be ignored

cheeks too charred to feel again
the first chill of a Michigan winter

no lips left to kiss, after the handshake
concluding a Quaker meeting,
whichever child was sitting next to her

no hands left to shake

never a thought as to what her fellow congregants
might tell their children
or stamp into a meetinghouse brick, years from now

not even a blink
if she had the eyelids to open and close.

No one to discern ten days
of a sermon more fiery
than any preached by the Puritan pastors
shouting brimstone, John-like, ahead of her,

instead the perfect stillness between eternal strums
of voice naming her and naming itself.

1 May, 2018
In memory of Alice Herz

 

Alice Herz was a Quaker peace activist of Jewish ancestry and German nationality. After surviving World War II and emigrating to the United States of America, she immolated herself on March 16, 1965, in protest against the Vietnam War. She died on March 26, 1965. The poem “Ten Days” – a fictionalization of her life and death – was written, in part, as a remembrance of Alice, as it seems to the poet that many Friends have forgotten who she was, despite more readily remembering others who took similar sacrificial, prophetic actions.

Carlos Valentin III is a member of Pima Meeting in Tucson, AZ (IMYM).