The Innisfree Poetry Journal

by John Allman


Otok Krk, Croatia, June 1990

The bell tower's glagolitic script half-Cyrillic, half-hieroglyph, lost speech chiseled above the door, something he almost couldn't say stepping off the plane. Inside the church, the very seat father rose from in 1920⎯so many men departing, a field's fibers clinging to their pants, father's cracked smile dry as the land, while mother waved and cried. (Your older brother came first to America but his sponsor did not appear. They sent him back, to an Austrian trench, the gas, the yellow mist, the jagged verbs entering his lungs. He came a second time, with you. They sent him back coughing up shreds of empire.)

He's in Omisalj, the plaza, boys chased for playing soccer, the church with worn marble threshold that was being stepped on when Constantinople fell. Old as an Illyrian psalm, portico, he's bent like his brother Nikola, dead last May, the same leached spine, the same freckled hands. (You worked nights in Horn & Hardart feeling the warm bread, muffins, turnovers, the last of childhood. A wife back in the village drowning herself because your cousin who never sent for her lived with another woman two blocks from the Hudson River. That flow you couldn't understand.)

Of his mother little is said. Eyes fill. He shakes his head, saying his youngest daughter walks like her. On the patio that was once a stable, sister-in-law shows him the lambskin dress that mother's mother wore; a waist so small, the women laugh, holding it against their broad bodies. His wife not here, her different word for "bread" caught in his throat, her absence rising with the moon, a chill light, nephew Ive mumbling, still back in 1944, the Nazi grenade. (Your wife wrote every year, enclosing Christmas checks. They laughed if she used "what" with the vowels from the East, from across the Sava, out of her mother's mouth. Her letters to them like golden threads, while the petrochemical plant seeped acrid odors across the bay. She had such a way of saying you were not just a baker but a husband. A father. A man who could not afford to go back.)


Pula, Croatia, June 1999

A triumphal arch. An ancient church. But long before that, Medea prayed all night here, thinking the sunset a fleece. Her brother's blood smeared across the sky. His men in pursuit. These meat patties we're eating at a sidewalk cafe taste of remorse. Betrayed polis. But no one is chasing us, no one afraid to turn back, a crane swinging out over the blue harbor to hook onto a cargo of refrigerators from Slovenia. Opposite us the clerk in the Wechsel window yelling at an Asian man who stumbles through English like a thicket. That's what happened to Medea's pursuers⎯turning on strangers, where they were strangers themselves. The vengeful twitch Dante felt in his cheek when he walked through here⎯expelled from his city⎯now only the last reverberation of a water truck sprinkling cobbled streets.


On the Northway, 1995

I expect towns like Famine and Burnt Hills just before Saratoga; the cruise control jerking the Buick forward, pacing the roofing truck blowing a dirty snow of asphalt bits, old tiles piled in back. I flinch when grains strike the windshield, my attention still thin in the gravities of North, the poems read at Clarkson U. Words swirling into the eye like soot. Like boyhoood. The more I rub, the worse it gets. Streaked vision. A haggard grin. My father clutching the paper bag filled with Black Crows, mints, gum, Lucky Strikes. In his Memorial Hospital in the middle of Welfare Island, he tilts, and tankers leak past on the East River, the Queensboro Bridge sags a dowager's black lace. Words seep outward from a mildewed wall. His cane grabs an inch of floor and I follow in his wake, and he sways, as if still behind the wheel of his cement truck: redi-mix of broken youth, too much grit⎯like that 19th-Century stuff dug up on the far end of the island; old City Hospital a tumble of gray stones where he was first bedded, doves flown from his vacant mouth: his right hand forever asleep within mine; the driver of the roofing truck all smiles, waving me past.


"Today," she said, "the crows look like Hasidim," and I saw them in the maple, wearing black hats, their long curls like scrolls of text coming loose from their heads. One of them flew to a topmost branch and swayed on the tips of his feet. Another tilted his head and made a chuckling noise in the voice of a robin. She looked out and said, "There's no sense in misery, when juncos share this bounty with cardinals"⎯the feeder atop its long pole wobbling above the husks of seeds, a mild spongy earth. I saw laborers pushing wheelbarrows, dark bandanas around their necks, sweat trickling down their forearms. I saw a hawk grooming himself under his wing in the leafless catalpa tree, the sun gleaming on his beak, his nostril-hole a permanent wound. Then everyone flew off at once. "That's the way it is," she said later, her nightgown open, breasts full in the moonlight. I saw a man with chapped lips at her nipples and I burned, oh, how I burned.


You've got to include mosses and ferns. The green dampness. The star anise. The child gathering an armful of black-eyed susans like suns unpeeling themselves. Think of teen-agers taking Ecstasy in the club on Forty-Sixth Street, how the excluded girl's make-up streaks her face outside in the rain. Times also get tough (time is easy) for the amoeba, there's famine, no bacteria to eat. One amoeba protrudes to snag another. They ripple into each other. Even Einstein was confused in love. He wanted both his cousin⎯the mother⎯and her daughter (such lace around the throat!). Just think of him in Zurich, in a first-class compartment, holding a pungent, skinned orange in his hand, looking at his reflection in the window of a train on the next track pulling away from the station. He doesn't know who is standing still, who is moving. Who first woke to the scent of the other.


        Kurdish Camp, 1991

Howling in the mud of Uludere, six years old, eyes squeezed shut, woolen coat spattered, its one toggle twisted like a piece of bone. Her undergarment sweeps downward with floral patterns that wind hazards and shreds like a demented aunt. Stains splashed by treads of armored vehicles, a shoe visible only as a buckle, a footprint filled with rain. All this whiteness behind her. Sunlight glancing off lakes, a Presidential smile imperfectly faxed. Her left arm withdraws into a sleeve so invaded by wetness its fibers clump and squinge as they never do on sheep or goats. My fingers comb through short tangles in her hair. Her head pulled this way and that. Chin dimpled by the weight of a lower lip, the licorice darkness above. She screams. And screams.


Study Renaissance poetry, lose the fear
of death, he thought: miniature deer with
jewelled collars leaping toward the moon
and the queen exposing her bosom.

Staples that knit his chest together over a by-passed heart-⎯small knuckles warming in the sun. His blood no longer fed by the narrowest meanings. This year alone, his sister has died three times in Haifa. That crush of blossoms so near the evening tide, that ruffed white throat. She turned away last visit, ashamed to see him. He turns pages on the long flight home. The moon, always the moon.

For love, words lean together. For this, he reads on. One daughter pulsing through e-mail this very minute. Another paying tariff in the shadows of Parliament, the stamps on her envelopes depicting the river and the punting that strained Lord Essex's wrist. Her salutations late but sincere. But so many climbed the wet steps from the Thames in a perfect pentameter up to the landing, to the Tower, so many lost their heads, the extended hand kissed.

Speaking Yiddish, dressed in black, his parents always avoided passing the church. "Christians are not good to us." He thinks of the Jews who converted to Christ with their dying breath, their sonorous song lost in the light that breaks into quatrains, the sonnet without its ending, the coupling, the linking, the enjambment, the crowding of the damned to come. He feels a dusty, coarse fabric in his hands. The Queen sitting out there in the audience, in front of the curtain. A loutish rabble shouting, "Author, author!" The lopping off of syllables. The writhing of a perfect last line without its head.

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