A blizzard rustles, softly curtains each window,
But rails embedded in snow invisibly guide
Our rattling chain of coaches. With motion
Of her own, my giggling daughter animates
Her seat, defying the rumble of colossal wheels
In unison, all serious conversations.
I quell her with snacks and patter.
Towards Boston, we could be anywhere,
Shadow country, a pale trance of contours
Broken only by streaks of silver
Southbound trains. We doze in fits, jerkwater names
Half dreamed. By nightfall she degrades
Into a maw of tears. I tell her the rest
As a story, how much fun she'll have
When we get there.
But a frozen switch
Farther on stifles the diesel to a wheeze
In New Haven. We can wait until God knows when
Or take the local, which veers west to Springfield
And then back around. Herded across
The platform's slush swamp, mistral-singed
As we sift onto cars, I try to explain
What eight more hours of eternity mean.
60 years since those other trains, winter
A long hush, a terminus beyond Krakow,
Someone else's darling begging him Why
As he echoes the uniformed "conductor,"
Crumbs of an answer, the difference
Whose hand steers her nape from above.
We disembark for good. But memory seeks
Connections of its own, and her small life
Barrels on, a phantom juggernaut, shivering
Tons; I'm just her father, a passenger,
Powerless to make it go where it should.
"O my God, make them like the whirling dust;
As stubble before the wind." Psalms 83:13
Reaped to peach fuzz, the heavy-handed boy
Who pushes past me in front of a bar on South Street
Of all people, reminds me of my aunt
Bald from cancer. Strange to feel a lump
Of pity, to see her enormous, tired eyes
Behind his sneer. It's a visceral response
To a superficial resemblance, one belied
By the twisted cross tattoo on his right forearm,
The leather vest and jump boots. But there's no way
To glean deeper, to search his mind like Jehovah
With Jeremiah, to find the cachectic soul
In need of mercy. I don't dare rub my hand
Along the naked dome, as my aunt made me do
For the sad novelty, laughing as she unscrolled
Her white turban under the elm shadows
On her porch. I find it unjust that God chose her
To wither in place of someone who likely scribes
Vile words on tomb stones, some with the names
Of survivors already etched, indelible
As commandments. A gust of wrath howls
Inside me yet I walk away lost like a man
Through blown dust, the angel of death hovering
Before me, still an angel, and a helpless woman.
She shows me him shorn like a prisoner digging
His own grave in the winter woods, trimmed
To humiliate and prevent escape. What one does,
One does to oneself. I'm like that Polish farmer
Taught all Jews have horns, reduced to fear
And heritage when he finds a rare runaway
In the fields near Krakow, his first impulse
To turn him in or shoot him. Who saves who?
Compassion, if he has it, makes him squirm,
Unthinkable as the atrocity that demands it.
David Moolten's first book, Plums & Ashes, won the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize and was published in 1994 by Northeastern University Press. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Southern Review, New England Review, and Sewanee Review among others.