Saturday, November 12

Festina lente

One of the many rewarding moments on my trip to the lovely and enthralling city of Krakow this summer was an unplanned visit to the Remuh synagogue and its Renaissance-age cemetery. Founded nearly 500 years ago in the 1550s and used until the end of the 18th century, the cemetery has a remarkable collection of  centuries-old stelae, headstones and stone coffins discovered during conservation works. It is surrounded by an outer wall built largely out of unmatched pieces of incomplete gravestones.

The site is located in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of the city, very close to the hotel where we were staying, so María and I decided to go with our daughters one morning. As it turned out, later that day we would visit Auschwitz, where, for reasons both hideous and obvious, there are no tombs or graves. So, though unintended at the time, the trip to this graveyard would in retrospect seem fitting and proper, a moment to visit and pay our respects to the ancestors of some of the so many who perished at the death camp.

While strolling amongst the gravestones, I was struck by a custom I had never seen before: visitors would place small stones on top of the tombstones and stelae. The inscriptions on the stones are largely etched in Hebrew and many are badly faded, so I had no idea who was in the graves we were filing past, whether man, woman or child, or in what year or century they had died. Nevertheless, I instinctively felt moved to search the ground for the right pebble and place it atop one of the tombstones, joining in a rite whose meaning was unknown to me, yet at the same time familiar, perhaps in much the same way that most ancient secrets are...

My bare Christian head
capped by a yarmulke,

I stand before
the undecipherable.

Strangers gather to string necklaces
of gravel whispers on a stone throat

and listen to its ancient tongue,
swallowed whole but still wagging.

Stones that clink like flint chalices,
vessels of mute blessings,

in each stone a word embalmed
(in the beginning was the word).

Soft stones of alchemists
quarried from secrets guarded

in the sliver of space between
molten lead and frozen mercury.

My own pebble is hewed
from poems I never learned

but have always known
yet fear I will not sing.

Worried fingers warm
my rounded stone

before I perch it atop
the roof of this tilting stela,

repeating a rite felt more
than understood,

above illegible words
chiseled in a language

I will only know
the day I meet

the stranger who today
for some reason

has chosen me
to remember him

in this petrified choir
on this verdant morning.

Come now, time.
Come blow on our ember stones.
© Lorenzo — Alchemist’s Pillow

Written for Tess Kincaid's Magpie Tales prompt for this week. Click on this link to see the other magpies.

Tuesday, November 1

Plea for Mercy

Long have I cherished the perhaps unoriginal but abiding belief that all art is a plea for mercy, that underlying all our poetry, music, painting, song, all our dancing hopes and rhymed and rhythmed rituals, is a plea for mercy, a petition to be reprieved, a pitch, if not quite for immortality, then for at least a new dawn, another child, for another day to see the harvest of what has been sown and hear new chapters in the unfinished story, an appeal for the circle to remain unbroken, the chain whole … just a little while longer, dear lord, just a little while longer…

Yes, all art is a plea for mercy.

On the shadow throat of the pilgrim’s path
each chanted step is a prayer,
at the bottom of the heart’s well,
each gulped silence
a plea for mercy.

Every saxophone solo that noodles the sacred night
as the moist nostrils of the newborn calf
nudge and nuzzle the silent udder
is a plea for mercy.

Every lullaby
epilogued by a rose-puckered kiss
on the fevered brow
of the sleeping child,

and every eve when a lover petitions
the stars with verse, a shepherd deflowers
the wind with song, a lone rhapsode
stitches geese into the clouds,
is a plea for mercy.

Every scribble in a tattered notepad, sighing
to capture the melt of frost by the canyon rim,
is a plea held up like the shield of Achilles
when the thhhwang of the bow reminds us
yet again that the great arrow is in flight.

The thrilled eye that dips the paintbrush
into the throbbing crucible before the canvas,
aching to capture the poplars panticulating
in the dusk purred breeze,
is pleading for mercy.

Every crooned blues sired by a whistling train
infected with the pulse of wind-polished stars,
every hand that skips on a goatskin drum
as the barefoot girl shadow dances by the fire,
every oboe bleating the memory of a mother’s scented breast,
is a plea for mercy,

is the compass of our wearied hero on the long trek home,
is a plea, a wince, a supplication,
a hiccup in the relentless countdown,
a fistful of seed hurled at the eternal soil.

* * *

Yes, all my adult life I have held fast to this modest belief and still do even as I struggle to make it up right here and now. Yet, though I would only discover this later on, this and all other warm fuzzy certitudes suddenly turned to salt stone in that one incalculable instant when I walked beneath a crooked metal arc that muttered in a foul-breathed whisper: “Arbeit Macht Frei”.

Photos of Lorenzo shadows:
Top: On the Rocío pilgrimage trail — Spring 2011
Middle: Drinking in the Duero river between Spain and Portugal — Summer 2011
Bottom: Snagged in the barbwire at Auschwitz-Birkenau — Summer 2011