Thursday, January 4, 2018


I remember those times--
the August bird on the hollyhock,
the one-eyed landlord,
the angels reposed between the cobblestones--
when we had everything and wanted nothing
except a ticket out.

What else would we have done, in the City of a Hundred Spires,
but sing as if every lamp post were a tall stem,
and we the warblers in diklos and babushkas,
hearts as tiny and strong as the astronomical clock?
"New York!" was all that fell from other lips in moments between notes,
though none of us had ever been.
Only you and I still loved the dumpling and the sugar cake. 

In those days, we heard the horse hoof, the wagon wheel,
the ships with their deep bass calls that shook the docks. 
And you, my double and my simple bloom,
the favorite soprano among us all,
loved to watch them, loving the motion they made,
while all the time staying stock-still,
holding your breath--and my hand.

I remember all my family's things wrapped in patterned cloth,
the Orthodox cross above our church when I saw it for the last time,
in early winter, with only sparrows on the steps, and no music.
My father had our ticket in his coat pocket
and my mother silent at his side.
For many years, in Chicago, we made pastries and pies
for strangers, and in time
all the children spoke English and sang only before ballgames,
eating hot dogs and forgetting.

They call me Ba-boo-shka, and smile.
"She never left the Old Country," they say, but how could I?
I once licked crumbs of sugar cake slowly from your soft lips
as you stayed still and the whole world shifted. 
How could I ever love Chee-ca-go, having once, in warm summer,
loved you? Tell me that, little songbird.

babushka--a head scarf. Also, an old woman or grandmother.

diklo--a head scarf denoting a married woman

The City of a Hundred Spires--Prague

the poster--by Alphonse Mucha. It refers to the Moravian Teacher's Choir, 1911.

for Fireblossom Friday: That's the Ticket.



Kerry O'Connor said...

I inhaled a deep breath and let it out bit by bit as I read. This was totally immersive - I adore each part but the 3rd stanza won my heart. Just perfect!

Sherry Marr said...

Sigh. Like Kerry, I settled right into the magic of this story. As satisfying to read as a really good novel. Those two closing lines are bittersweet, poignant, heartbreaking, and utterly lovely. A gorgeous read. I dont know how you do it. I am just so grateful that you do.

Sanaa Rizvi said...

I agree, this is absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous, Shay!�� There is so much emotion and one reads through (I read it twice just to let it sink in) and let out a sigh at "I once licked crumbs of sugar cake slowly from your soft lips as you stayed still and the whole world shifted." Beautifully executed!��

angie reinspired said...

I'll join in the songbird chorus (you can't stop me)...teach us your locked & freedom ways, Babushka. And I will remember everything. everything:)

Toni Spencer said...

This reads like the movie we all want to watch, popcorn held suspended to our lips, forgotten. The last two lines, the scene fades. Gorgeous.

Kim Russell said...

I read the first stanza and was completely knocked out. It's an old familiar story told in new words and I love it Shay. So many of us have wanted that ticket out. I especially love:
the August bird on the hollyhock,
the one-eyed landlord,
the angels reposed between the cobblestones'
'hearts as tiny and strong as the astronomical clock' - that reminded me of my first ever visit to Prague, such a magical city.

Vivian Zems said...

You had me hooked from the start. Simply sublime!

brudberg said...

Having read the stories of emigrants so many times I can feel this... to leave and still feel that something is left behind...

One of the first books for grownups that I read as very young was the emigrants by Wilhelm Moberg... the character there Kristina sounds very much like yours... She could never grow into an American...

She never left the Old Country... so true.

hedgewitch said...

More a novel than a poem, more a poem than a song, more a song than've put an entire life to music here, and reaffirmed my belief in reincarnation. Not only do I feel that the writer of this stood on those steps, watched those boats, and savored those sweet crumbs, but that in some other life, I did as well. An amazing, luminous human document Shay--one of your best, which places it as high as poetry goes.

paulscribbles said...

A beautiful piece of prose that holds so much unsaid in the spaces between the lines and reminds me of my ancestors stories of leaving Ireland for the long arduous journey to America.

Frank J. Tassone said...

What a beautiful, powerful and poignant story! And you tell it so well, with lines that simultaneously remind me of both Carolyn Forche and Jeffery Eugenides! Brava, Maestra! Brava!