Dialogues in Transit
I. On the Bus to Charlottesville
That child sure is loud; listen to him natter on.
Now he’s taking to howlin’; I don’t like the sound of it,
the way his breath catch at the end of each wail. Kinda wheeze like.
Umm. Umm. You know what I’m sayin’?
Why does she slap him like that? In the midst of his carryin’ on, too.
It’s not right. I’ve a mind to call Child Welfare Services.
Besides, I need to get to me some sleep on this bus.
That damn dog at Mattie’s kept me up all night. Crazy yappin’.
If it’s not one thing, it’s another; ain’t that what I was just tellin’
Mattie last night? Puttin’ up with Ms. Lizzie’s youngsters all these years;
it’s my time for some peace.
Why can’t he be like other kids?
Why does he question, fight me at every turn?
I told him he couldn’t have a snack just now;
he had one twenty minutes ago. I told him.
Good thing the licorice twists and Skittles were on sale.
Don’t know what I would have done if they weren’t.
He’d best stop with that howling; he can’t fool me.
Crocodile tears if I ever did see any.
Good thing there’s hardly anyone in this bus;
I can’t take this anymore either,
and he’s mine!
II. At the Charlottesville Station and on the Bus to Lynchburg
and Points South and West
My goodness. Look at that child go. Round and round.
I swear I ain’t never seen anythin’ like it. Wanda, you just got to see this!
He’s runnin’ up and down the whole station, now round and round.
She got him jacked up on speed or somethin’.
Don’t she have some books for him? Some toys?
She could get somethin’ at the Good Will. This boy he just bored. Lord,
I sure hope they don’t get on the transfer bus. Wanda, don’t you know it,
that’s exactly what they’re fixin’ to do. This bus is crowded. I’m gonna
put my things down next to me, make sure they don’t sit here.
Oh good, there’s a nice young lady comin’ on; I’ll move them for her.
Good Lord, it’s gonna be a long road to Nashville, Wanda.
Good thing he’s getting to blow off some steam in this bus station.
Did I ever run like that? Doubt it. Mama wouldn’t have let me.
If things were different, I could ask her. If I hadn’t run away with Jamal
and produced this here “blue-eyed child of dusk come of no good, come
to no good” (her words, I swear), then … Well, then, I wouldn’t have
had those years with Jamal, good and bad, until lately mostly bad with his
breath stinking of liquor and his fists floating freely, I think I heard someone
say that once on Oprah. And I wouldn’t be on this bus. Will someone please
give us a seat? I paid for a seat. I’m going back to where it all started.
Will Mama will take me back? I swear I’ll go to services this times.
Bobby, give your Mama some sugar. Baby, you’re all I’ve got.
Dreams of Declamation: an Invitation
(a screening of Night Train by Jerzy Kawalerowicz at the National
Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
We chat in the ancestral tongue and await the curtains parting on the film
in which, we will learn shortly, a character who eluded the tentacles of
genocide, figures peripherally but critically. The series of masterworks
from the (New) Old Country, of which this film is a part, has been curated
by an auteur known chiefly for unflinching visions of the city. We’re keen
to see today’s offering, and how we will be changed. The light is already
dim, a transition into the study in shadow and dark soon to unfold. We
expand into the cool of this crepuscule, vibrant with coils of anticipation.
Suddenly a woman turns around and asks whether that’s Y we’re speaking.
We assure her that it is indeed, granting her the stage to launch into what
will surely follow (and does): how she was never taught Y, how her parents
spoke X only when they wanted her not to understand, how the sounds of Y
are familiar to her, how sometimes she almost thinks she understands Y,
how she wishes X had been taught to her, and underlying it all,
the unspoken refrain: how she really wishes it had all been different
than it was and now can never be.
And then the lights darken entirely, and we are ushered onto a train journey
dense with love impossible and ambition dashed and history unbearable.
There are so many signs at play in this claustrophobic zone moving, ever
moving. There is the clang of wheels on tracks, and the trains coursing
through the proverbial tunnels. There are trees that flit by—pines, birches,
and those that are only whirr. And there are branches of said trees
swaying against the heavens as the perpetrator is pursued by passengers,
crushed by their zeal. And then there is the passenger, noted above,
who remembers even more crowded trains some fifteen years or so prior
and warrants this second mention. And I think back now to the woman
who turned to us, like untold others, in recognition immediate but partial,
blurred really. She who sat in the dark as sounds ricocheted around her, as
she was kept apart, made to embed in not-knowing. She who reached for
sleep, tossing and turning as partial comprehension pummeled her dreams.
As she turns to us, this system of signs, at once a representation of love and
a method of exclusion, hovers in ambivalence. Even more than the film,
I turn now to her, to usher her elsewhere, to say: Perhaps this won’t be
the Paradise of Knowledge envisioned as you lay rigid with fury in your
girlbed. The going will be staccato: the irrational gendering of the nouns,
the pesky adjectival endings, the word order. And the words themselves
thickened by a tongue that will (now) never be native. Yes, there were the
words of your parents and grandparents and of a ship journey in steerage
and of aunts and uncles who never did flourish; yes, symbols of not-quite-
ness, the cringe ongoing of being new and poor and still unripe, di grine.
Yes, but also were there words of others who chronicled dislocation, lyrics
that lead you to the time when our people formed battalions against
bloodshed and organized against injustice pervasive in ways wide-ranging
and unpredicatable, in rallies and picnics and lecture halls and reading clubs.
And sang those verses at those events so that there was no wall,
or even membrane between word and deed, song and action.
And all of this in sounds only whose outlines remain familiar.
But also you, quietly, a place for you.
For here you are in a clearing, in late morning light,
under a hat wide-brimmed and burgundy-ribboned,
in an ivory linen sundress to which a lace collar has been affixed.
And yes these details are crucial.
And here you are, I see you, as you touch that collar, as you speak,
no recite, no declaim words from a small journal now
no longer forgotten, words that might have been whispered to you
had fate willed it so,
had that constellation of family and history practices in that home in
Great Neck, Long Island been otherwise.
Only you have chosen them now,
have found them, in your determination,
your will to be other than the woman
who happened to hear Y spoken in a gallery auditorium
but rather one who turned to establish a way station against
history’s demon of indifference.
Here is a place—an ashes-of-rose damask chaise lounge, in fact—for you.
Here, let me remove your hat;
let me bequeath you this ticket pressed between crumbling brown pages,
let me observe your travels from family to the cafes of the Marais and
Union Square and Whitechapel and then back to the front porch,
only now, your aunt and uncles (if not your parents) are beaming with pride,
let me heed your declamations of fire,
let me weave these wild flowers through your summer morning curls.
Love in the Reign of Raining Rockets
As the rockets rained down over the land,
as the bombs crashed into buildings, kiosks, roads,
onto all that was animate and equally onto all that was not,
as the sirens commenced their song of terror,
as the world largely sided with the other side,
as the neighbors scurried like cockroaches into darkness,
(but never like sheep to the slaughter,
as someone observed in the descent),
as the population shifted into horizontality when possible,
or hovered when not, as the parents considered the care
of their children when they themselves were underground or stranded,
someone suddenly suggested Madame Shoshanah.
True, no one really knew from whence she came or from what she had fled
or how she had become someone who whispered to souls invisible to others.
And she was getting on in years. But her person was still presentable,
with traces of refinement evident in her dress and chignon.
As was her apartment, with quick access to the ground below.
And when she was asked, she clapped her hands in delight.
She was surprised to be remembered, to be invited to contribute,
in however small a way, towards mitigating the national crisis.
And so she became giddy in response, to the consternation of the delegate
who was extending this offer (request) with some reluctance.
And so the parents brought their children to Madame, if not with ease of
mind, then at least with a sense of having done the best that was possible.
But it turns out that she was outstanding with children, especially the
younger ones who still knew not to look askance upon her ways. She sang
to them songs from long ago, when there was a unity of purpose in the
country, and also songs in another language from a country far away,
passed on by her mother who eluded somehow the rockets of her day and
was herself in conversations with partners not visible to young Madame.
She played games with the children from a time before toys were automated
and danced with them in circle formations at once attainable and intricate.
Passersby marveled at the figure of Madame sheperding her flock through
detritus and din and dust to and fro shelter.
And Madame seemed to have found a new calling.
In the deluge of rockets, in the company of children of today,
with their urgency—Sarah needs pee-pee, Uri lost his teddy bear—
Dafnah can’t eat nuts—she was able to initiate new conversations.
No longer was she speaking unrecognized to her mother in her final days,
no longer was she speaking to a husband
who abandoned her before her son was born,
trying to imagine reasons for that abandonment,
trying to make herself more comely, more appealing,
more adaptable to his ever-growing list of demands.
Trying, trying, oh how Madame did try.
But with her son himself, killed in a raid of some sort—
she couldn’t take in the details—she found she could suddenly converse.
After years of silence, she heard the sound of his voice
as they sang together the songs of her mother.
She remembered his touch, the weight of him in her arms,
fatigued from a day of sand and sun and sea. Madame Shoshanah
remembered how handsome, how sleepy he was on the morning he left
for what was supposed to be a routine mission. The invisible friends, to
whom she had of necessity turned, who never condemned the longevity
of her grief, who never told her the period of mourning was over,smiled, waiting in the shadows of her apartment and her mind.
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