Susan Mernit - from "Tree Climbing"




Susan Mernit


The night sky
is going to burn clear all winter
watching a hidden sun
move light years away.

Leaving this world
the swan seems beautiful
behind the blind face of the moon.

The Veil Nebula is his jewelry.
A grid of tiny, diamond stars
set in a single bezel
pinned to the breast of swan
who wears the sky like a skin.

He is coiled in the hair
of comets. He is chasing exploding
stars. Through thick masses of vapor
he spins outward, away from Jupiter,
as he flies, courting his love.


She stands at the edge
of the silver pool

crying over the water
to her swan child.

She sits before the fire
and fans heat through the room
the swan-boy sleeps in the cradle.
dreaming of sugar and milk.

Icicles swim in the doorway
all winter.
A star arrives from the North.

They keep warm.


He wanted to come in
I would not say no,

He beat against the door.

'Swan woman,' he bellowed,
'Where is your soul?
The moon rises
and the dark seeps into it
Unlock your golden casket.'

My heart was seven swallows
it was small
My heart was seven swallows
they had flown.

There was no land for him
to enter.


The swan-woman sits in her doorway
in upstate New York
and strips the wormy apples,
flashing the knife
till she reaches new skin
cutting a star
by the core.

She watches leaves drop
She dries mint in the wind

She knits the needle's eye

into her heart
in the cold grasp of a sweater.

She can tell you nothing.
Do not ask her.


I pick my way
across the mud banks of the river.
The hills run to their backbone
in the dark, rainless desert.

I board a boat in the quarry
made of soft, cored stone
The ship swims like sandstone
over the plateau.


I lie caught
on this dry coast,
your swan queen

sucking soft jackal bones
through the cool, delicate night.

My hair grows black
in their shadow

I kiss the damp stone.


You dreamt last night
of my caress

There was no water.


Bend your head
and I'll move closer
just a few feet away
from the starpoints on your neck
each curved feather a constellation

Fold your wings
and I'll rest under them
use their shadow
like a cave inside a circle.

Nest here, if you are lonely.
Circle the lake under the trees
even if it is too small
to contain you.

Run your beak through the water
each drop becomes invisible
when it hits the air.

Come and rest
be one great planet
in an orbit greater than any pond.


At the first class we learn to say
Di bobe zet der bon,
the grandmother sees the train.

By the end of the course
we will speak 1,000 basic words,
be able to read the Forverts
and hear the different gutterals
in Polish and Russian Yiddish.

Di bobe zet der bon,
are our first five words:

The grandmother sees the train pass through her village.
The grandmother sees the train,

her children are on it.
The grandmother sees the train come to take her away.

She is the only one left who speaks Yiddish.


Everyone who stayed . . . . died there.

We will use you
Put you to work
So hard . . . . You can't jump over this wall

the filthy world cleared,
as it happens.

Here, this is the only train.
How else can you leave without money?

Get on it.

We will take you.


My family crossed through Moscow
when the Jews fled T'flis,
moved south near Kiev
and worked for a baker,
setting up house in his cellar
and turning his mill.

Grandfather left Russia at fourteen,
swimming downriver covered by a basket
heading straight for a boat to America
docking in Providence and then New York,
learning English in the dress business.

Grandmother's family kept boarders.
They spoke without an accent

and took dancing lessons.
She was seventeen.

Sheindele called Rose marries Nissel
ben ha Koyin, Nathan, patternmaker

-the only one in the family who owns a car.
He goes out to business. She works hard.
They have children and leave the Bronx
for a bigger apartment in Queens.


Torah says the body covers the soul,
skin is the first garment.

My grandfather cut dresses
molding the cloth to his pattern

the soul inside flying out
pale and transparent as a chiffon gown
struggling to live beneath the machine.


for Y. & S. Tilles

The light is here, do you see,
in the cornerstone of this building.
Up the stairs and in the kitchen,
at the table of our house.

The candles are only sparks of souls
There is no life to this water
The words are another language

yet they keep us praying
under the stars
for a light in the body's exile.

If the skin of the world could be turned inside out
you would see blood. Below the earth,
below the chasms and faults,
the horror plunges straight down.

The early morning light is grey in the rain.
The water falls without shadow.
Outside this house there are no roofs or walls.
What do we have to protect us?

Copyright © 1980 by Susan Mernit.

from Tree Climbing , published by Membrane Press and still available from Light and Dust.

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