Burnt Wood

Burnt Wood - for Bubi


1 - Charcoal.

The twigs I gather as a girl are consumed, as intended, by fire.

With one partially burned stick I draw lines in the back of the only book we own. 

I use the pads of my fingers to spread the charcoal on the page,

Thinning it, stretching it, creating shade and shadow,

Revealing another dimension, like my father’s rage.

At finding the holy book, not meant to be drawn in,

But there was no other paper in the cold cottage outside Warsaw.

Then I drew on the walls, sweeping my arm like tree branches,

Brushing the charcoal in wide arcs to reveal animals running and people in battle.

Mother tried to clean it before he came home, but could not

So she took me into her lap and whispered

I will tell him you will never ever draw again and you mustn’t. 

It is the will of God.  So I did not.  And here I am, one hundred and thirty four years later.


2 - Ink.

He was my husband

Before I knew what the word meant

He broke the glass and my hymen

And he loved me, or so he said,

Before I knew what love meant

Before there were children

I went to the mikvah where women bathed and talked

Of blood

And rules

Of inequity and injustice and fate

There were those who accepted everything as the word of God

And those who questioned everything

I told no one that I imagined my blood was ink.


 3 - Childbirth

I had no sisters, no teachers, no schools

No mother I knew after age eight

No photographs, and a father more absent than present, 

But my mother-in-law took me as her Ruth

Loved me as her own, talked with me about my husband, her son

Of her wishes for him

And for me

Aided me in my time

Prepared warm cloths to soothe me

Sat behind and held me as I cried in terror and pain

“Mother,” I screamed

“Push child,” she told me

“This is what we do for them.  For God.”


4 – Somewhere a Czar

I had his name, his seed, his children

But the Czar wanted his body

Which he yielded reluctantly, leaving for parts unknown.

I was destitute, did not hear from him

Or know of his fortunes for eight months

And then he returned, said he had walked for weeks

Deserted them to find the children and me

We laughed and cried and lay in bed with the boy and girl

Until the soldiers came.

We hid him under the table with the Sabbath cloth pulled down to the floor like a tent

But they shot him anyway, under the table, in front of the children, his mother, his wife

Left him there, his blood seeping into the floorboards

A stain forever


5 – And then America

America is an English word that means,

“And then thy children shall depart from you.”

Leaving the village to take a boat to heaven knows where

To a place called “I shall never see them again”

Even when I get a letter I cannot read

In an alphabet I cannot write in ink or blood.

I am plucking dead chickens to live

I am cold in winter, and immensely alone

But there is bread to eat

And warm water flavored with an onion and chicken feet

To soak it in

And my menses have ceased, and my tears have dried

And across vast salt oceans float my children


6 – I Arrive in the New World.

There is no word for the misery of the crossing

The anxiety, the quarters crowded with sick strangers

An adventure beyond my wildest imaginings on the vastest sea

To leave all that I had, which was nothing

And all that I knew, which was nothing

For something I could not imagine

Because the rabbi’s wife, who never talked to me outside the mikvah

Gave me a piece of paper she said was a ticket paid for by children

Who would meet me on the other side of the World

And although this was impossible I knew

With my three dresses and one pair of shoes

With my 2 undergarments, my shawl, my brass candle sticks

With all that I owned, I stepped across the water.



7 - My Daughter’s Husband

We cried together, we mourned our losses

And then we laughed.

It is all a miracle

She is a mother, with a son, and another on the way

In an apartment, with a husband who is never home

Except to complain how hard his work is, and then to sleep

A good man she tells me

Who never goes to shul

And neither does she

There is no mikvah, and neither can she read

But this thing called a radio speaks in Yiddish

And although nothing makes sense

We are all together


8. Seven Grandchildren

My seven grandchildren produce five marriages

Ten great grandchildren

The husband is hospitalized 

In the East River forever

Three kids go to War

Two become firemen

Another a pilot and policeman

Every child leaves home but one

Who I fear for

Though I have my daughter, and she has me

And we make sweetbread each New Year

And are visited by a great spirit

Wrapped in honey


9. Great Grandchildren

We visit their grandfather, my son in law

On Welfare Island

Going down a huge freight elevator

From the bridge at 59th Street

My grandson, the fireman, who should have been a rabbi

Takes me and his mother, my daughter, and his sisters

He and the two girls, the loyal ones

I lived with him when his wife was ill

Passed my hands through the Sabbath candle flames

Brought warmth into my eyes and heart

Saved the young boy who knew only criticism and terror

With my shawl and black clunky shoes

With unconditional love and a roll of life savers


10. The Old Age Home

They speak some other language the people here

And I cannot see them

When they move my form

To sit me up and lay me down

To make my bed with clean sheets

Cool and firm

And the visitors who fall in upon me

Dropped from heaven.

I do not know if I am living or dead

When the fireman places the wet washcloth edges in my mouth so I may suck them

And folds the cloth with love to place it upon my forehead

And gives me my great grandson’s hand

Which by its feel I know him


11. Reflection

Many years ago I drew the animals in the holy book

I remember everything about them

Except how I knew of them

Or knew of anything outside our hut

What is “know” anyhow

And how do we know it

The great teachings in the Book -

Love the lord

Be kind

Know the rules and never break them.

There was an ark I was told

And inside the ark devoted couples

I knew a man, I was a child


12. Death

I am ninety two years old they tell me

When they bring me to the party

I have never had a party before

I see only shadows, but hear everything

The rabbi says my name

People are singing

Each one gives me their hand

Which I feel and know

They bend down to kiss me

As I lie perfectly still, cold to their touch

She was a saint the rabbi says

As he places pieces of thick blue glass from a broken bottle

Over the lids of my closed still eyes




13. After Life

Once more I pass my hands through the flames

Bring the light and the warmth into my eyes with my fingers

Sand passing thru the egg timer

Turned upside down to count again

A grain who understands her purposes

To flow, to rest, to be the tide

Here I am 75 years old in the apartment in the Bronx

Now 50

Now with charcoal staining my fingers

Shading the she wolf and dog

Now inside my mother

As she receives the semen

Now again swimming


B.R. Taub

© 2007