Lettera Lirica, Jerusalem
Because I see the shape
of your shadow in every city
Because you are on the edge
of every body of water
Because your language is tilted
towards the world
but you’ve kept some sentences
Because some words together
can frighten loneliness
like the lagoon moving aside
for the sea
Because you’ve chosen
the most crowded voices to hide in
Because you’ve chosen
the oldest wound to haunt you
Because I can’t show you
I walk this land
alone with you
Lettera a Damir
Remember this tune,
Is it you?
Is this happening in one of our dreams,
when you were a boy in Split,
I in my mother’s womb in Zagreb,
when it was still the Yugoslav-Italian border
and we composed requiems
for the Istrian Exodus
before we composed for migrations
we couldn’t have imagined,
or is this happening where war
is just a painting in an empty pool
somewhere in a foreign country?
and the men who began to live
the unspoken dreams of other men
but finally couldn’t?
Remember what was written on the earth
we neglected to love enough:
we’d give our life for an unknown world.
And here it comes again,
the beat we first heard in Dubrovnik,
city of red wings.
Let’s follow it—
where do you think it will take us?
Friend, we are only shadows
in our sorrow.
Nathalie Handal’s most recent books include the flash collection The Republics, lauded as “one of the most inventive books by one of today’s most diverse writers” and winner of the Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing and the Arab American Book Award; the critically acclaimed Poet in Andalucía; and Love and Strange Horses, winner of the Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award, which The New York Times says is “a book that trembles with belonging (and longing).” Handal is a Lannan Foundation Fellow, Centro Andaluz de las Letras Fellow, Fondazione di Venezia Fellow, and winner of the Alejo Zuloaga Order in Literature, among other honors. She is a professor at Columbia University and writes the literary travel column The City and the Writer for Words without Borders.
The Stories My Father Once Told
begin in Germany, the slog of a wet and late spring, last days of the last just war. The Iron Men of the Metz, having stolen a town from the Germans by hiding in the woods, waited on the banks of the Saar River, where the trucks sank into the cold mud and the nations melted around them. Engineers built pontoon bridges and the sergeants waited to smoke, when the displaced persons began to emerge on the other bank. To be a displaced person meant you were an upstanding citizen sandwiched between the chaos of advancing armies. In the stories my father once told, there were always men whose history is a history of terror, as peasant histories often are. Another word for peasant is victim. My father came from a long line of peasants, and took his place alongside the other peasants of this man’s Army. You may identify the approaching peasants by their generous coating of soot and mud. The displaced, first one, then three or five, carried a pristine flag of surrender, a sheet somehow starched, blued, near spotless. There should be more to say here about the displaced persons, about the gauntness of their ribs, the one man with stomach distended enough to see the aorta’s outline emerge, a blue afterimage in someone’s sunken chest. Or the yellow eyes. The missing teeth. The ghost mouth, an opening in all that mud. I assume that you have seen the photographs. It was a Tuesday. The displaced came dazed out of the woods, Stalin’s hellhounds nipping at their bloodied, shoeless heels. One of them pointed to my father, asked, are you one of us? Meaning are you my people? Meaning are you from the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, the villages overrun at the beginning of eight centuries worth of European wars? Because you are one of us, surely you must know our histories. This is the question that haunts, not knowing its meaning. Are you one of us men, fleeing from the obvious terror? Are you one of us men, sent on our usual urgent missions for help? Are you aware that what is left of the women has been left behind to watch what is left of the children, and are you aware that there is almost no one left? Are you one of us, meaning do you hear what we do, the thousand or so refugees plus ten carts, as many horses, one mule. This is the tableau. My father, to his dying day, wondering aloud why they did not eat the horses. The army waiting for the end. A river. Beyond, a defeated army, and beyond them, the pillaging third force, pressing for Berlin. The displaced identify themselves with pride, sons of Bolsheviks and Hussars and Cossacks all. My father offered the man coffee, water, a cigarette, all of which he took. There is never greed in desperation. This was what just war looked like, refugees on all sides, emerging from the burned-out village, raising a flag of surrender once they exit the ghostwood. The survivors told how a chorus of whispers chased them through these burned out fields, the looted mausoleum of central Europe, how they spent the last two hundred miles marching cadence to a chorus of voices, Slovak, Slav, and Pole, swelling and dirge-like, a liturgal song. The church calls it a hymn. Eternal memory, blessed repose. My father knew this plain chant for what it was, a song to learn and sing in all its tones, a summons to worship, the mating calls of all the dead.
Steve Kistulentz is the author of the novel, Panorama (Little, Brown & Co., 2018) and two collections of poetry, Little Black Daydream (2012), an editor’s choice selection in the University of Akron Press Series in Poetry; and The Luckless Age (2010), selected from over 700 manuscripts as the winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award. His short stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Quarter After Eight, Crab Orchard Review, and in a special issue of Mississippi Review focused on emerging writers, selected by guest editor Rick Moody. His narrative nonfiction—mostly on the subject of popular culture—has appeared widely in journals. He is the founding director of the graduate creative writing program at Saint Leo University in Florida. He lives in the Tampa area with his family.