Wednesday, May 5, 2010


The idealization of your homeland as a lost paradise is one of the two possible choices, possible distortions, that one encounters among immigrants. The other is the utter rejection of the “old country.” Of course it was both good and bad. But “lost paradise” is more common, both because it’s a more pleasant way to remember one’s growing up, and also because childhood itself, when everything is so new and vivid, and you aren’t yet burdened with the struggle for existence, seems a paradise. Another factor is remembering what it felt like to belong, surrounded by family warmth.

(CHICAGO 1983)

It’s sweet to lie awake in the early morning
Remembering the sound of five huge bells
Ringing in the village at dawn, the iron
Notes turning to music in the pink clouds.

It’s nice to remember the flavor of groats
Mixed with horse’s blood, the sour tang
Of unripe peppers, the smell of garlic
Growing in Aunt Stefania’s garden.

I can remember my grandmother’s odd claim
That her younger brother was a mule
Pulling an ox cart across a lapsed meadow
In the first thin light of a summer morning;

Her cousin, Irka, was a poorly planted tree
Wrapping itself in a dress of white blossoms.
I could imagine an ox cart covered with flowers,
The sound of laughter coming from deep branches.

Some nights I dream that I’m a child again
Flying through the barnyard at six a.m.:
My mother milks the cows in the warm barn
And thinks about her father, who died long ago,

And daydreams about my future in a large city.
I want to throw my arms around her neck
And touch the sweating blue pails of milk
And talk about my childish nightmares.

God, you’ve got to see us to know how happy
We were then, two dark caresses of sunlight.
Now I wake up to the same fur walls staring
At me blankly, and the same bare ceiling.

The morning starts over in the home:
Someone coughs in the hall, someone calls out
An unfamiliar name, a name I don’t remember,
Someone slams a car door in the distance.

I touch my feet to the cold tile floor
And listen to my neighbor stirring in his room,
And think about my mother’s peculiar words
After my grandmother died during the war:

“One day the light will be as thick as a pail
Of fresh milk, but the pail will seem heavy.
You won’t know if you can lift it anymore,
But lift it anyway. Drink the day slowly.”

~ Edward Hirsch, from Wild Gratitude
In the more recent poem, the speaker is the poet's father, remembering his own father, and his childhood in Germany. "War" is WWI. The burning bush and stuttering are references to Moses.


I used to bring the conductor his lunch pail
on the trolley that circled Mannheim

but I can’t recall now if he was my father
or my father’s brother who moved to California.

Maybe if he showed me his wounds . . .

Papa guarded French prisoners in the village
where we moved after he was shot down.

He had trouble breathing after the war.

Sometimes he marched them by our house
and sneaked them in for tea. My mother
made him keep his rifle in the hall.

Otto, she said, and he put his gun away.
Selma came from Enkirch, on the Moselle.

My brother Hans had curly red hair
that looked like the burning bush,
but I was the one who stuttered.

The prisoners sang sad French songs
and gave us pieces of chewing gum
because they missed their families.

I always liked those men who lost everything.

My father had a premonition about the Nazis
and followed his cousins to Chicago.

He was a spotter,
who never liked working in the dry cleaner’s.

We lived in an Italian neighborhood
and I had to fight every day
on the way home from school.

I didn’t know English at first
and we were refugees with something to prove.

Sometimes I crawled out my bedroom window
to keep the fight going.

I’d say God was a bully.

You know I can’t call up a single word
of German, the bastards,

or the name of that village,

but I remember looking out a window
and seeing my mother standing in a garden.

This was before the expulsion.

I wonder if she ever liked cities.

She was barefoot.

Paradise lived under her feet.

~ Edward Hirsch, from Lay Back the Darkness


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