© Copyright to Kathryn Hellerstein, 2003, all rights reserved.
At home, we swam
boxed in by blue tiles, black stripes
guiding lap-swimmers among
bees blown down from awnings.
Here, we stumble over pebble jewels
and the purple gleam of jellyfish.
Heading out to sea,
your flippers barely
Breath labors in my ears.
I bite the mouthpiece,
peer through plastic.
The water's clear. Sun-caught,
chartreuse grasses sway in currents.
quicker than the eye. Sunlight reaches
even where waters deepen. I extend
and kick over the reef:
Coral beneath. Two more kicks the bottom
drops into blue. Black-and-yellow fish
at the side of living mountains,
silent parrots, finned clowns glide.
In a cave, a lion-fish: Touch its tentacles, I'll die.
I'm flying! I'm afraid of heights.
I tilt, jerk to shake off the mask.
Oh, air! Oh, safe pool!
Water enters. I breathe sea
bitter otherness. I can't
stand with fins. Pulling the mask,
spitting, I see your face panicked.
We must keep to the surface.
The palm shacks and our children
are far away.
Looking for Saint BarbaraA Yortsayt Poem
At midnight, in our new back yard, the air
is loud with crickets, clamoring cicadas,
and night birds' screams. Beneath the slivered moon,
one year and a day after my father died,
I stand, I bend. I'm looking for Saint Barbara.
These cartons, larger than a five-year-old,
are labeled Fragile, Up! and Dining Room.
Filled with reams of paper that the movers used
to pack our breakables, they've sat outside
for three whole nights, now emptied of their charges:
champagne flutes, china, a pock-marked African mask
a whale breeching on the North West drum,
the tiny landscape by our famous friend,
two crystal decanters that we've never used,
sterling mezuzahs holding God's scrolled words.
Still damp from last night's rain, the paper has
the texture of fine linen. Sheet by sheet,
I shake it out. I thought the paper would
turn moldy, insects eating into the folds
like maggots in smashed feathers on the gutter.
The paper smells fresh. There is no decay.
Tomorrow morning, city trucks will come.
With a crash, a tinkle, and a thud, strong hands
will sort and hurl into recycling bins
our cans, our bottles, and this mound of paper.
Deep in the carton, my fingers feel around
for a corner, a hardness, wanting the rough-cut.
Larger than a stamp but smaller than
a postcard, gaudy rectangle glued on glass,
Saint Barbara would bring a message from
that Cyprus morning, when I paid two dollars
for her suffering face suffused with peace.
My father was with me. Impossibly blue, the sky
continued the Aegean. Sun on hewn stones
blinded. Church bells spoke. The nuns were silent.
The night after my father's yortsayt, I
uncrumple, open up, smooth down, shake out,
and crudely double over a ream or two
huge newsprint leaves the color of old bones.
Sighing in starlight, each blank page inscribes
in the dark air a momentary flag.
I lie down beside you to die. Our coffins are ready.
It is time. The smell of earth hangs heavy
In the air. There isn't a war. We aren't sick.
We still love each other. More matter-of-fact
Than sad, I turn to you, and you to me, when
Suddenly the windows in the house before our grave
Light up with years to come. Scoreboards flash!
Lasers throb weird hues. Prompt cards shuffle,
And from the next room, our daughter's laughter
Trills through the night as she sleeps.
We empty our pockets,
Take off our shoes,
And place cell phones, laptops, keys
In plastic tubs, out of reach
On the conveyer belt.
My hand cream, my notebook,
My underpants, my wallet
Show up red, yellow, blue
Blotches on the screen.
We keep no secrets
When we go through security.
With trust in my heart,
I proceed through
The doorway with
In my hands but my ticket,
Barefoot as the day I was born.
Men await me on the other side.
They let me gather my things.
On August 27, 2003, Mars will be closer to earth than it has been for 60,000 years. The planets will not come this close again until the year 2287.
New York Times, August 25, 2003
At thirteen, we swore
We had not been born.
Our spaceship obliged us
To beam back reports on
Junior high populace,
On battles in brother-
Our study hall notes were
Stamped with antennae—
Creatures spiraling starward.
Messages reached us,
Coded in undulating tails
Of red squirrels paused
On telephone wires,
Fell, and faded.
The snows came.
When would the beings
We knew were
Out there show?
Up the wooden ladder
To the garage attic
We hauled flashlights,
A cot, two folding
A scratchy army blanket,
A box of Oreos,
A transistor radio, a thermos.
A watery sun set
Behind black branches—
Fiery shingled roofs.
The dimness of our lives
Shivered and expanded
With steam from cocoa in paper cups.
Through AM static, we listened
For Mother Mars to guide us
In our forgotten native tongue.