Bio Note: I am fortunate in that I have no personal experience of war. But I have known several refugees from war, and "Boat Woman" combines the experience of two of them. It's from my 2021 book Mutt Spirituals. The Eva Braun poem, from my current manuscript, is an attempt to understand and even empathize with a mentality utterly alien to mine.
Boat Woman, Towson
1. Tadpoles The neighbor’s girl brings me a jar of tadpoles. On the bottom is a layer of silt. Above the silt the tadpoles swim, they are quicker and blacker than the silt, they are black like ink, writing the history of Asia. Sir, when I was very small, there was a ditch I played in, rimmed with banyans and thorn flowers, that filled in the spring with rain. When I dipped my hands in the mud, singing, Come, tadpoles, tadpoles, come, the tadpoles came, writing their names in the water… Later, when the soldiers came, we hid there. We had carried too much with us from Phnom Penh and we were afraid. I squinched against the bank, hearing the jeer of orders, earth over me scuff into dirt… Now I lift the jar from the hands of the neighbor’s girl, and I watch the silt kick up, the tadpoles dart this way and that, the tadpoles dive for cover, writing tadpole, tadpole, tadpole. I watch them dive into the kick of silt, the old mud-sack of memories. 2. Name This is how I write my name. How I wrote it, when I was called it in its language. Sir, before your ballpoint pen, there was my father’s quill— so quick, like swish-things underwater! Then slowly and more scratchily, with his hand round mine. As he guides me across the page, he speaks: back of each sound he makes, the old called names— come, tadpole, come—come spilling from their sack. My brother, as he mends his bicycle. And back of him, the dust the cart wheels kicked up. Of that, the trees, and roofs jostling the treetops, and streets, that stream into a map of side streets, to green hills, to a moon of rice-paper. 3. Bat A bat got in my bathroom. That day, I had received a letter. As I read, the room my father sat in, lit by one lamp, opened like an arm. Refolding it, I looked, I saw this crease of blackness, panting, on a bag of donated blouses; I took in that it moved; I screamed. Sir, what did I think I was fighting, where did the darkness come from, was it back, or out, or in? When it was almost dead, I thrust it in the bowl. It would not flush. It lay panting and I wept. What did I think I was killing? My neighbor saved me. When I came back round, my wrists clasped in her hands, I could feel her feel the fight go out of them. She let them loose. She slipped her fingers through my fingers. So gently… But sir, her husband. Looked at me. As if I were a piece of blackness. He had just seen move. 4. Tadpoles Now their daughter brings me tadpoles. All day, I am a girl again! I watch them chart the spirals of the jar, and write my name, and wait for them to turn to something else. Sir, translate it for me, this figure for trapped things, from this my alphabet, whose twists reroute me to lost cities, from this my own sweet tongue, whose jar of dark syllables for me alone throws edges, shadows, light.
Originally published in Blue Nib
Eva in April
~ married April 29, 1945, died May 1, 1945 Today, after 16 years, they are to be married. She is 33. She has loved A. her whole grown life. Which seems acceptable to him? Oh, he rarely touches her. But he has installed her in his mansion in the mountains; has declared her (to his intimates) to be his mistress. (To no one else may she exist.) Alas, (but "alas" is a lie; he has loved being so necessary to his country, and to the glamours of this war) alas, he can spare her so little time! So that twice she has failed to kill herself. And twice failed to trouble him by the attempt. Yet today, because here she is— because for her love of him, she has disobeyed an explicit order— she has come to him— A. is tickled; A. will marry her. So she does her hair. She more perfectly repaints her nails. She unpacks his favorite black dress, collared with roses. While he, fretting over his vials—will he wake later, will he be taken?— goes to test his poison on that cosseted dog of his. But all is well. The hound dies, and here A. is. So they attest to their purity of blood; they proclaim their vows, signing their names. Which Eva botches! Eva Braun, she has written! She stops. She grimaces. She signs, abashed, a wife’s name. But A. laughs; they all laugh; so all is well. And it is done. Go toast with our guests, A. says, go dance—drink your champagne! As for him, he must write his will. It's the last gasp of April. The gardens (she is ready, this time) exhale. When the Russians arrive, it will be May. They will be found as a pair, as a couple, her head laid on his shoulder.
©2022 Derek Kannemeyer
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