Ellen Bass


Photograph:
Jews Probably Arriving to the Lodz Ghetto circa 1941–1942

 

Why is a horse here
alongside the train? Two horses

yoked with leather harnesses, light
silvering their flanks

in the midst of the Jews
descending? Where is the driver

taking the cart, loaded
with wooden planks?

What is in the satchel
that weighs down the arm

of a woman in a dark coat,
her hair parted on one side?

A woman I could mistake
for my mother

in the family album. Only
my mother was in Philadelphia,

selling milk and eggs and penny candy
because her mother escaped the pogroms,

a small girl in steerage
crying for her mother.

What are the tight knots
of people saying to one another?

A star burns the right shoulder blade
of each man, each woman. Light strikes

each shorn neck
and caps each skull. No one is yet

stripped of all but a pail
or a tin to drink from and piss in.

Dread, like sun, sears the air
and breaks over the planes of their faces.

Light clatters down upon them
like stones, but we can’t hear it.

Nor can we hear blood
thud under their ribs.

They will be led into the ghetto
and then will be led out to the camps,

but for now, the eternal now,
the light is silent,

silent the shadows
in the folds of their coats. The bones

of the horses are almost visible.
Their nostrils are deep, soft shadows.

And the woman,
who could be but is not

my mother,
still carries her canvas bag

and, looking closer,
what might be a small purse.

 

from Indigo (Copper Canyon Press, 2020)