Abraham Sutzkever

(1913 - 2010 / Smorgon, Russian Empire)

A Nation Of Ten - Poem by Abraham Sutzkever

Remember how the autumn sun sent spiders
To spin our houses in a net of fire?
Remember people on that day, disheveled
Half-slaughtered chickens, straying in the mire?
In crucible of Jew-set melted down
A silver candlestick, a chimney dark with age,
A gutter, splintered panes, smouldering wood,
The slaughter-house, the sbul-yard, hatred, rage,
A child in cradle, rifle raised in terror,
And all the figures drowned inside a mirror.

A welding of that crucible, my body
Was buried deep, till night stood at my head.
Was it the rain, tin-tapping over me,
Locking the lightning into drops of lead?
Or did a dream command my sight to cut
Through layers, seek some meaning in the sight?
My every limb opened an eyelid wide
To see through agonies a blinding light.
Glass in my hair, like glowworms turned cold.
I slithered through the alleys ghetto-old.

Two-legged curse, who has invited you
To pose so slyly as a godly splinter?
My question broken off — I heard steps shuffle
Like dry leaves crackling on the eve of winter.
A woman stops, espies me in the ruins,
Life cuddles in her arm, as fresh as dew.
She stretches out her other arm: No stranger,

I am as rich as you, as poor as you.
If now you have no better way, or task,
Come to Clandestine City and don't ask.

What can I lose? I, soaked in searing fires,
Leaping in clay of silence on mute stages,
The last remaining man, the very last
In narrow streets set up like scorching cages.
The air still flashes lightning, stung with sparks,
Riddled by bullets, and with torments filled.
The woman, old and gray now, limped ahead
And lifted from the ground a rusty grill.
The sunshine was unable to pursue us
When we descended in abyss of sewers.

Now, would it ever have occurred to you
That there, where filthy sewer water splashes,
Our sole, our only sanctuary be?
You would have said, that prophet mocks and rash is.
But now, with silly skin on waist and thighs,
I swim in the thick stench, through sticky dark
Of mouse-hole cupolas. To whom to turn?
Where is a place for rest, a ray, a star?
We stopped, the waves rolled over us and moved
And giggled in mouse language: 'my beloved.'

My memory will not recall how long
I swam through pipes, some narrow and some broad —
An hour? A year? Eventually we came
Upon a clearing outside of the road.
Abandoned sewer, like a cellar clear,
Where murky waters hadn't coursed for years.
But human voices muted the dank calm
And figures faintly in the dark appear
Like shadows cloaked in fog, emerge cloud-gray.
And she who brought me here greets them: Good day!

Black eyeballs in the dark, they sniff my flesh
Like animals around a newborn babe,
Their fingers — graying motions, stretching out
To touch in me a kin lost with no grave.

— A Jew still living? — and a murmur thin:
Are we the last remaining ten? (Above,
An iron grate, we saw a speck of sky
Andhovering in air a sunny dove.)
— Of ten — a breath curled bluish in the hollow —
A nation will arise, to spite the Moloch.

The stripe of sunshine falling through the grate
Flees like a thief where murky pipes their war had.
I see: one shadow has a yellow patch,
Another — tfillin blooming on his forehead.
And in the dark, springs up a shimmering sound:
Swaddled in kerchief, singing baby-cries.
Behind the melody, the tear-filled echo —
A child! — How could we then believe our eyes?
But she who brought me here began to tell:
I found the trembling nestling in a well.

The child was sobbing loud. Its echo went
To seek redemption far, in other worlds.
— How goodly are your tents, Ma tovu, Jacob,
Somebody rumbles on, when tears are pearls.
That moment, what would be the baby's fate
None in Clandestine City dared imagine.
A hand swam in out of the cosmic shores,
Transforming our last minyan into legend.
Reality thus met me underground
When I departed from my slaughtered town.

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Poem Submitted: Monday, July 21, 2014

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