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.

23 comments:

  1. When I think of festina lente, and making haste, slowly, I think of walking, and not riding in anything motorized. So strolling through a cemetery strikes me as the perfect way to move forward, while paying attention, and allowing the horrors of that history out of time to be absorbed in you. Maybe it’s why you, Robert and George do your caminos: you walk and bring together the world’s tensions into a realm of mind and heart that somehow redeems them and makes them whole again.

    But your beautiful poem leaves me with the mystery: Can these horrors be redeemed? You offer many ways to absorb the tensions of life and death, [undecipherable] horror and [perhaps hidden] beauty. That couplet of the pebble necklaces is such a perfect image, I can see them lined up across the cemetery’s headstones, as if laid on a bed’s headboard just for the night. (They remind me of the locks you see now on bridges in the cities of the world, where lovers leave symbols of commitment.)

    . . .flint chalices clinking (!) the alchemy of lead and mercury . . . all your imagery is wonderful, leading to what? to no answers, no words, nothing decipherable to say, but you felt it, and your pebble spoke for you and was joined with the all the others, transformed in the alchemy of your heart into the magic mystery of a gentle fire. This is what you do, and you wrote it in words that leave me with the feeling that there were no words, only feeling.

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  2. this is breathtaking, lorenzo, both your words and images. this past summer i was visiting a dear friend in israel and she took me to the kibbutz of her birth. before we left, we visited the graves of her grandparents, who founded the kibbutz and i remember watching in reverence as she picked up a stone and placed it on her grandmother's headstone. she explained the custom to me, as you do so eloquently here.

    you say: repeating a rite felt more than understood......to me, feeling a rite is the deeper communion, as some things are perhaps not meant to be completely understood.

    i am deeply moved by the way you have honored this individual's soul, both in the words of this exquisite poem and in the profoundly felt alchemy of stone upon stone.

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  3. nice...great play on the prompt...have missed your words so it was quite a treat...i grew up with a family cemetary in the back yard...a constant reminder...a place i played, contemplated and wrote...this was thoughtfully rendered...nice...

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  4. So so beautiful. You clinked your small chalice in salute and generations smiled. The best rites are those more felt than understood, perhaps, and we feel with you and through you and your exquisite images, perfect language. Thank you Lorenzo.

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  5. "... in each stone a word embalmed / (in the beginning was the word).... That you placed the second line of the couplet in parentheses seems so movingly fitting, for in that place at the time of which you write the Word seemed lost and yet gave hope.

    I have always been moved by seeing stones placed atop grave markers. It's a wonderful custom to honor the dead by leaving a token made from God's earth.

    Beautiful post, Lorenzo!

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  6. Beautiful and so very evocative. I especially like "...sliver of space between molten lead and frozen mercury". It's wonderful to see you at Magpie Tales, LLL!

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  7. repeating a rite felt more
    than understood,

    Truly... I often think that "feeling" of connection is the most powerful of prayers. The whole poem is so moving and I love how your start it with ..."My bare Christian head". I adore and believe in the idea of

    "the stranger who today
    for some reason

    has chosen me
    to remember him..."

    Beautiful and a poem that causes much reflection.

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  8. I'm not a religious person, or even a spiritual person but understand the urge and respect paid when visiting foreign climes. I've done the same in the past. It just seems like the respectful and courteous thing to do. I think the placing of stones is a wonderful and lasting commemoration, showing that whoever lies beneath hasn't been forgotten.

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  9. the stone is a symbol of remembrance...we were here and you are not forgotten. I love that particular tradition. I also like the one at Jewish funerals when the mourners shovel the dirt in and on the casket. that last final act of love, drawing up the last blanket. It is infinitely more satisfying to me than the christian custom of saying a few prayers and then leaving the casket there to be lowered alone and buried by strangers.

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  10. powerful and poignant poem....

    very fond of this:

    My own pebble is hewed
    from poems I never learned

    but have always known
    yet fear I will not sing.

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  11. Such a beautiful and thoughtful poem. The imagery drew me in completely. Thank you again, Lorenzo.

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  12. perhaps nothing exemplifies better the beyond language but a stone. perhaps, a river, or the wind, or fire, or light, or, ironically, a poem.)))

    these places are beyond all human understanding, i think, but demand witness nonetheless. you have witnessed for us all. thank you. (and so we must keep witnessing.)

    xo
    erin

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  13. Your words have moved me very much. I once visited the tiny Jewish Cemetery in the Prague Ghetto, where the grave stones are so crowded together and almost haphazard that it is as though an an attempt was being made to confine them in death as they were confined in life -- and thousands and thousands of pebbles and tiny pieces of paper inscribed with prayers.

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  14. Very moving, Lorenzo, your words, your sensitivity, your presence, and your willingness to move body and soul into a place beyond comprehension.

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  15. how beautiful this is, Lorenzo, the poem itself a stone necklace--xxxxj

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  16. Sweet, sweet Jesus, Lorenzo. Thank you for this. I am speechless - yet full of choked speech. You are a fine poet, my friend.

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  17. In placing the stone you are remembering the dead. And you did so in such a thoughtful, respectful way.

    My first feeling on seeing the photos of the graves was surprise that they were there. I know of course that not every cemetery was defaced and torn up by the Nazis and their collaborators but many were.

    Just this weekend I finished reading Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust in which historian Yaffa Eliach (herself a Holocaust survivor) compiled stories and reflections based on interviews and mealtime discussions by Hasidic Jews who survived the Holocaust. And the book showed me, yet again, how people use words, narratives to respond to tragedy and to convey hope and endurance in the face of horror. I think of this after reading the lines of your poem: My own pebble is hewed
    from poems I never learned

    There are words and poems all around, and then people come along and give voice to them.

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  18. Thank you for this, Lorenzo. Beautiful work.

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  19. Yes, pilgrims on the way to Santiago also place stones on top of milestones etc.

    I hope you can visit Palestine one day and honour the dead there....it's something we all should do....

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  20. Yes.
    If we don't learn the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat them. As in Gaza.

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