from Issue #6: Poetry by Frank Russo

Photo (CC) Contando Estrelas @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Contando Estrelas @ Flickr

 *

Calvario

They found one of the blond twins to play Jesus—
the ones whose parents had migrated to the Ruhr
to work as factory hands. The ones whose chestnut hair,
like Renaissance Jesuses, passes for blond in these parts.

He’d ridden his motorcycle from Essen, down autobahns
which morphed into the Autostrada Del Sole
before it trickled into the Great Highway of Communication.
Passing the hamlet of Mammola, he remembered hearing

how the crumbled stonework now housed some of those
who’d arrived on Pantelleria by boat. He rode until
the hillsides became familiar, russet carpeted forests
giving way to steep ravines, their streams rock-swollen.

Seeing him white-smocked, an old woman cried,
He’s like a real Jesus, his hair straight from a painting
of the Stations of the Cross. The band of twenty didn’t
need much practice—the play etched into their fabric.

A cluster of women move through the square,
coat sleeves brushing to the soft chanting of Our Fathers.
At the fore of the procession, hooded men
in sackcloth, eyes flickering through slits.

Behind them the ones playing slaves,
barefoot, planks of wood spanning their shoulders.
On the hill outside the village, the spot marked
for Golgotha: an ancient olive tree for Judas to hang.

As Judas climbs a metal ladder, takes the carefully
knotted noose, a man recounts how
the best Judas they had was the one
that time in Ragonà: so possessed,

the guilt of betrayal stamped on his face—
when he took the noose and kicked away the chair,
the way he struggled appeared so real—
how his legs kicked and bucked,

how his hands struggled to untie the noose
—how could the crowd not burst into applause?

.

 *

.

When they call a hill a timpa

What’s left of the language of youth when its speakers
have all but gone? The grey-haired woman on dialysis,
what does she care if her word for orange

comes from the Persian, naranĝ? Or if the tafareja
where she stores her wedding ring, comes from
the Arabic for jar? The old man who seeks solace

in communion wafers and lottery tickets, what does he care
if the word he uses to name the mouse he snared,
has its origins in French? If the suriciu he trapped that morning

derives from souris, or the slice of nduja he used as bait
comes from the French, andouille?
What do the old women care if when they bake their pitti

at Easter they speak a word borrowed
from Albanian, or when they call a hill a timpa,
instead of rupe or collina, they speak the last trace of Oscan?

Do they care when they say ajumari
when lighting a fire, it springs from the Occitan,
allumar? Or when they call someone’s head
a capizza, it stems from cabeza? And what do they care

if the word they use for persimmon is the same in Japanese?
Do they care if they use these words instead of the ones
that came with nationhood? Capo, topolino, salsiccia, giarra
foreign words, all the same. What interest do the words of dominion hold?

What do they care when they use the word viatu
to describe how someone went quickly in their sleep?
Would they care to know its origins in an arcane
form of French? Are they mindful how the word

lends more dignity than using presto, so redolent of magic tricks
where loved ones might vanish in mist and vapours?
And why would anyone care for the word tambuto

their word for coffin? Would it soothe them to know
its Arabic roots? Tambuto!—like the sound of earth falling on wood.
Tambuto!—like the taam-buu-ra-taam-buu-ra-ta of a tambourine.

The woman searching death notices for familiar faces,
what would she care if time relegated her words to archive drawers
and to German philologists to catalogue and study? What would she care

if the word she uses for handkerchief—muccuturi, muccutur
were the bastard brother of a Catalan mocador?

.

 ***

 ABOUT THE POET

Frank Russo’s poetry and fiction have previously been published in Southerly, The Weekend Australian, Transnational Literature, Blue Crow, ABC Radio and in anthologies in Australia, the United States and Canada. Two of his novel manuscripts have been short-listed and commended for the Vogel/The Australian Literary Prize and for other awards. The poem “Calvario” was highly commended in January 2014 for the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition (Ireland). Both poems published here will be included in Frank’s collection In the Museum of Creation (Five Islands Press, 2014/15). He holds a Masters in Writing from UTS and is completing a Doctorate in the English Department at the University of Sydney.

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from Issue #4: Memoir and Poetry by Mira Peck

Photo (CC) Tobias Akerboom @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Tobias Akerboom @ Flickr

*

The Vaulting Horse

ON A BLISTERINGLY HOT DECEMBER DAY, I stand in a line of high school students, my first gym class in a new school and a new country. The vast polished hardwood floor and exercise equipment along tall walls remind me of the gym I left three months ago in Poland. In the centre, atop green rubber mats, waits a vaulting horse, a leather-padded bench on four wooden legs that reaches up to the waists of the two teachers stationed at each end.

The familiarity comforts me. I have made many jumps over just such a contraption, and I’m eager to resume my athletic life. I hear the instructions in the foreign tongue, and then watch each girl, in turn, trot to the bench, place her hands on its surface, and bounce to the top onto her knees. The teachers then grip her forearms and help her slide down.

It’s my turn. I inhale, sprint, jump high, clear the top and nail the landing on the other side. I’m happy I haven’t lost the skill during my idle months in transition. I stretch my arms in the dismount, straighten legs and back, and run to the end of the line, ready for my next turn.

Then silence. My classmates’ puzzled faces signal that something is wrong.  I gaze towards the teachers and see them both standing still, staring at me.  One of them says something in the noodle-chewing English that will take me months to comprehend.  An earlier Polish arrival translates:  “What you did is very dangerous for girls.  Next time watch the others and do as they do.”

But I’ve done this many times! I am bewildered. What’s gender got to do with it? Maybe they think it’s a fluke that I jumped over. If I do it again, surely they’ll realize I know this routine and change their minds.

At my next turn, I begin the sprint when a loud voice calls, “Stop!”

Too late. I’m already clearing the bench and landing. The teacher extends her arm to block me from returning to the line. I look up at her as she barks unintelligible commands and summons the interpreter.

“You’ll be suspended from school if you don’t follow the rules.”

My throat constricts. Being a functional mute has made me feel helpless many times, and this is one of them.

I want to bolt, fly back to Poland where I belong, where I can run and jump and become my country’s president. But I’m stuck. I’m only sixteen and ten thousand miles away.

How can I forget the exhilaration of the fast run, the high jump, the thrill of accomplishment on the other side? I don’t know how, but I must.

Some weeks later, mentally disengaged, I move forward in a line of girls, listlessly, without momentum. At my turn, I trot up to the vaulting horse and find it large, looming, so tall that I can barely muster the courage to hoist myself all the way up onto its precarious surface. Once I kneel on top, I grip the hands of the two teachers who ease me back down.

But there was a time when I was able to jump over this colossus. Wasn’t there?

Tears press under my eyelids. I squash them down, all the way down to my aching belly, where they will hibernate with my spirit.

Grandpa Ben

He lived in the days before movies

Horse-drawn carts clopped on cobbled streets
Bands of musicians braved heat and snow
trudging to play in distant towns

He wore a long black beard
black hat and long coat
and a Torah tucked under his arm
as befitted a wizard of his day

The town carousel that he built
whirled with swans and ponies
in white red green and blue

Young boys squeezed into its core
to propel the spokes with bike power
sending the carousel on its merry twirl
children’s squeals blending in happy dance

The boys were paid not in cash but in the joy
of riding bikes Ben offered for rent

The carousel soon burned like the town
the horsesthe childrenthe swans

Ben died to the sound of mazurka
kicked to his knees
dragged by his beard

He lies buried somewhere unknown
like the children and the carousel boys

Only we who would have loved him miss
honouring his name, marking the place
where he helped young men
speed on new machines.

 *

Ditta 

She is
Eight years old, 1944
Skipping down a Polish city street
Polka-dot dress, white patent shoes
Red bow clasping ponytail.

I am
Eight years old, 1954
She is on a movie screen
Skipping away from me

Dark shadow, German uniform,
Black-gloved hand with a gun
Steel grey, shiny death
Points at her flying tress

I grip the armrest
Scream a silent NO
The gun blasts staccato
She is me, I am her

The film blurs red and grey.
I walk out shaken
Crying inside for Ditta
Who could be me

Father tags my brown ponytail
Lovingly pulls me close
“Ditta,” he calls me softly
With a sad, vacant smile

He loves me, but she died!
Is he thinking I look like his mother?
Is he saying I ease his pain?
That I live for the children who died?

I force a smile, carry the burden
Alone, like a brave girl should.
I am eight, twenty eight, forty eight.
In unexpected moments I am still

Ditta.
And she is me.

*

ABOUT THE POET

Mira Peck is an author of poetry and prose that blend her interests in science, art, family and justice. Her inspiration comes from a wide range of experiences, including the fields of chemical engineering, business, music and law; living in Poland, Australia and the USA; and hitch-hiking across Asia and Europe. During her twenty years of creative writing she has edited and published a quarterly newsletter, arranged literary workshops and public readings, and coordinated local critiquing chapters. Her multigenre collection, Sour Cherry Tree, was published in 2012 and received recognition from the San Francisco Book Festival. Her first novel, My Men, was published in 2013. She received the annual Goldfinch Prize for poetry in 2011 and for prose in 2010. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children and travels widely.