New Netherland, 1654 - Poem by Grace Schulman
Pardon us for uttering a handful
of words in any language, so cut loose
are we from homes, and from His name that is still
nameless, blessed be He. We raised a prayer house—
that is, we broke new wood for one, but some
tough burned it, snarling: "Carve only stones for the dead."
Damp ground, no fire, no psalm we all remember.
But tall ships anchor here, and at low tide,
people with wheat-colored hair look out to sea,
just as we'd searched for land. "Pray if you must,"
my father said, "and when prayer fails, a story,
if it is all you have, will do." Months past,
we left Recife's forced-worship laws in the year
of their Lord sixteen hundred and fifty-four, for our new
world, old-country Amsterdam. Leagues seaward,
Spanish pirates slaughtered our scant crew,
and all that was left of us (friends wheezed
their last while they ragged us on) rose up on deck
and tossed our bags in the sea. We watched the wake
turn silver: kiddish wine cups, hanging bowls,
a candelabrum for the promised altar,
carved pointers. Books' pages curled and sank,
prayer shawls ballooned and, soaking, spiraled downward.
Just as we stared, again we heard swords clank—
a French ship, the Ste. Catherine (her prow had shone
gold on a gray horizon), came to our
port side and rescued us. In that commotion
on deck, we crouched below—not out of fear,
I swear, but stunned by luminous words
that echoed oddly—beautifully—like lightning
flickering through palls of thickset clouds.
A jaunty captain rasped to us in hiding:
"Where are you bound?"
"Amsterdam. Old country."
"Yes, yes. Nieuw Amsterdam. I'll see
you get there safely." He meant well, bless him.
Ste. Catherine sailed to land at its tip no larger
than a meadow, fanned out at its sides:
Manhattan Island. Our new master,
Stuyvesant, lashed us with phrases, wheffs, guzzads,
that stung but were not fathomed, mercifully,
when we came on a Sabbath, more than twenty
men, women, a baby born at sea.
Still cursing, he let us land, and heard our praise,
then disappeared among lank citizens
with faded skin who stride to the bay and brood
on water that we trust and dread, and listen
to tales unstamped by laws and never sacred.
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