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Elaine Schwager

Elaine Schwager

What Will You Picture in the Haze?

There you are
in your hospital gown—
no glasses, hearing aid
makeup or jewels, stripped

to the hunched child you were
in the shadow between lives
in a booming city
and a bombed-out ghetto—

a warm face pressed against mother
as Nazis came to char your fables.
Your soft eyes are already smoke
in their minds. Here you are

waiting to be numbed and cut,
so the lens of your eye can be replaced,
your vision returned.
Around us are ordinary people

in surgical gowns. You see yourself
in their clean smiles
as someone too temporary
for them to know. They bring a wheelchair

and let me follow toward surgery.
At the double door, they say
"Take a left and a left
and the second elevator

down to the second floor. We'll call for you
in the waiting room." I could not tell
if the skies were darkening
or if the sun was gone.

Someone came in with a burger, chips and soda
in a cardboard box. By then you were under.
There's a history in that darkness. Maybe
I'm there, listening to you tell me

the loss of vision is nothing
compared to the loss of a mother
or father, a home, love
that should have carried you

through this continual drifting
in anesthetized space. I think you are
seeing your mother
sending you away

with no ticket back,
no last embrace that won't let you go.
Will it matter if one
lens replaces another?

What comes alive in sleep
you see more vividly than
anything you see
with open eyes.


Arrival

We got word,
via cousins,
that our grandparents
never made it
to a concentration camp.
Even though
they had paid for
their own one-way
train ticket,
they were slaughtered
brutally
before they arrived.

"Details
too
gruesome
to send
without
request.
Do you
want them?"
they ask
in English
so we
understand.

"Please," I beg, "send
everything.
Let the reason
I've been crying
and unable to cry
my whole life arrive."


Picking Pumpkins

The rain stops; shadows appear like holes
in the burnt red grass. We get on the hay wagon

headed for the pumpkin fields. A scent of green
is the absence of green. In your Old Navy

sweats and muddy sneakers, you four drop
like dark ink into my listening.

When the wagon stops,
Michi jumps off and becomes

one of the colors of the field. Leah
leaves her print in the steady air,

spots Christina and runs
to help her roll a pumpkin up the hill.

Julia's iridescent parka flickers
in a breeze, her limbs full

of play in this brilliant orange
and yellow world. We load the blue

wagon. I pull uphill, feeling
the tug back down. The not-yet-dusted,

soon-to-be Jack-o-Lanterns rest
in their muddy world. We all imagine

the crescent dark moon cut to smile
in an orange face around which will grow

party magic—crowds and candles fluttering
in a mist of music. In the smell of fire

hills sit close
to that electric violet

you find at the center
of a stove light. And the black

around the edges begins
to end all imagery.


Gerbils

They're born purple in large numbers
and sniff their way
to mamma's teat. "The first litter

almost always dies," the pet
store owner said," but they'll keep
trying." Sure enough, two neglected

in the far corner of the tank
lie like little burgundy livers on the ground.
The others wiggle, latching on

to the season that is their life
like thawing buds, the clement air
the only gap between them and

their dead sisters. Most of
the second generation survives.
It takes a while to learn to be parents.

Watch the young mother forgetting
the little blackened secrets
sprawled like dance positions

in the litter. Watch her panic,
while she looks at eight new wobbling hearts—
tiny volcanoes—that could splatter

on the edge of all she knows.
Will she eat these babies—
fleshy pink stars?

The father's off on the side
inspecting the ones
that died early, but she

is a mound of fur over thirsty red
mouths. I would never call her brave,
honest, dedicated, resilient or determined

to do her best. One could say
simply her body loves
and shivers.