Two poems, “Interview with Aduri and Translator, Shubomoy Haque, in Savar, Bangladesh,” and “Sisters,” were published by Portland Review for their Labor Issue.
After a morning highway ride
to Savar, passing roadside piles
of white bags stuffed
with broadcloth pockets,
gingham shirt fronts,
of cotton remains
after riding past smokestacks
rising through dirt,
from buried kilns
baking handmade bricks,
after watching, in Savar,
Rana Plaza survivors
push pant legs through
loud as machine guns,
after reaching, by afternoon,
Dhaka’s public cemetery,
to see how microbes
Rana Plaza dead,
after sunset dims my view
of Dhaka’s women garment workers
to silhouettes climbing
on fire escapes, like worker ants,
from one factory floor
after sitting in starless night
on a mattress in a muddy yard
opposite Pamina, who says:
I have no way out
of the garment industry,
I am confined
with the betterment of my children,
I lie in my hotel bed,
awake to American techno-pop,
a nearby disco.
Red, white, blue, flash
into the night with every beat.
Soldiers at the hotel entrance
guard guests—potential targets
for handmade bombs.
After two weeks in Bangladesh,
I long for this country’s
five a.m. call to prayer,
my own country’s music
If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head
is Alison’s collection of very short stories
published by Red Bird Chapbooks.
Each story of one thousand words or less in Alison Morse’s If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head offers a tiny universe. Here, original voices bring their distinct circumstances and compelling troubles to life with honesty and humor. We embark on a wild and glorious ride, immersed in perfectly rendered specificity: food and drink; art supplies; ancient and contemporary history; multiple Jewish cultures; popular music; and climate change. Across time and geography, these characters each seem to wonder: how can one live out goodness in this eternally flawed world? Thankfully, Morse offers no easy morality or pat answers. Instead, her rich images and intimate details add up, and the work is elevated: each line a captivating poem, every story an illumination.
—Beth Mayer, Editor of If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head
The night before my mother died, she opened her eyes, sat up, and vomited her hospice dinner. I wiped her chin with trembling hands.
She whispered: “Honey, you’re already forty one. I should have taught you how to kill a chicken. Maybe then you wouldn’t be so afraid.”
I tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t start an argument. She fell back asleep.
“I don’t want to lose you,” I said.
She did not wake up, and stopped breathing at five a.m. Three hours later the mortuary attendants zipped her body, emaciated from breast cancer, into a rubber bag. I forced myself to watch—determined to prove to her how courageous I could be.
For the funeral, my husband Josh made a poster out of my favorite photo of her, taken when she was thirteen on her parents’ farm in North Dakota. In it, she’s smiling, wearing jeans. A cowboy hat tilts over one eye. Hens peck the ground by her feet, oblivious to the Jewish farm girl who took pride in cutting their throats with one clean thwack.
The rabbi from the funeral home, who’d never met my mother, conducted the service. I had fed him her story: the promise of freedom that led my Polish Jewish grandparents—who had never tilled a field—to cheap land in North Dakota, my mother’s birth and farm girl childhood; her senior year of high school adjusting to Minneapolis after the farm inevitably failed; her first love, which led to me; my father’s early death; her nursing career. When the rabbi mentioned my mother’s prowess as a kosher chicken butcher (there were no official shohets near the farm), I looked at the poster of her.
“Wimp,” her smile said to me.
My face grew hot; tears welled. I turned away and locked my arm around Josh’s. We were both Minneapolis born and raised, web designers whose closest ties to farming were our trips to farmer’s markets.
When we got home, I burst out crying, told Josh about my mother’s last words, the feeling that I’d failed her.
“You can always learn to kill a chicken,” he said.
He googled “chicken kill Minneapolis” and found Fresh Feather Organic Poultry Farm. They offered a class called “Total Chicken Preparation.”
“We could go together and learn to slaughter, pluck and clean in one session.”
The idea was unfathomable. I could barely stand to touch raw supermarket poultry.
All the next week I had nightmares. In each one, my mother ordered me to kill a chicken. I always failed: the chicken ran away; the knife was too dull; the chicken pecked my hands. My mother would cluck her tongue and say, “such a disappointment,” her real-life reaction to many of my life choices: to do drugs and party; to not choose a career in a helping profession, like a good Jewish woman—even a secular one—should; to not have kids. By the week’s end, I was exhausted.
I returned to Fresh Feather Farm’s website. Under the class description was a quote from a New York Times food writer: “The best way to be completely responsible for what you put in your mouth is to process your own meat.” I, too, needed to take responsibility—for silencing my mother’s voice.
The next Saturday, Josh and I drove the half hour to Fresh Feather Farm, a compound of aluminum Quonset huts and cement block buildings. Plump brown hens wandered in the newly mown grass. Behind a wire fence, turkeys picked at raspberries.
Our teachers, Mark and Mary Fleischman, whose sun-puckered, pink faces looked nearly identical, stood in the driveway while we parked, then led us inside a windowless building.
We donned rubber boots, gloves and aprons and entered the “Preparation Area,” a room with a drain on the floor and a large, steel, wheel-like structure that held eight upside-down traffic cones. In one corner, in a crate, sat four fluffy hens that our teachers called “The Broilers.” Mark Fleischman took one of the broilers out of the crate, grabbed her by the feet and held her, head first, in a traffic cone. The bird squawked shrilly and beat the air in protest. Feathers flew. When Mary Fleischman handed a knife to her husband, my throat constricted. I stumbled to a wall and leaned against it, short of breath. Josh tried to hug me. His big body blocked the air. Gasping, I ran out of the building.
Outside, I breathed in pungent fowl odor, and remembered a story my mother told me. One Yom Kippur on the farm, her aunt asked her to participate in Kaparot, a ritual where you wave a chicken over your head and recite a prayer that transfers your sins to the chicken. Then you kill the bird and give it away. My mother, though still a child, refused to participate. She said: “Why shouldn’t I eat the chicken myself? I’m responsible for my own sins.”
After a half an hour, Josh walked out of the extermination building holding up a pink chicken body in a plastic bag as if it were a trophy. “I’ll grill this tonight.”
“How can you eat something you just killed?”
Josh’s face turned red. “I thought you wanted this.”
I hated him then.
When we got home, I asked Josh to put the chicken in the freezer. “How about another night?”
The next day, while Josh was out running errands, I opened the refrigerator, hid the frozen carcass under my shirt, walked twenty blocks to a trashcan, and slipped the bird in.
I told Josh I had donated the chicken to the Second Harvest food shelf.
“It’s for a good cause,” I said, and offered to make us lentils for dinner.
That night, while undressing for bed, I was horrified to see a red blob of frostbite on my stomach.
“What’s that?” asked Josh, already in bed. I wanted to blame him, my mother and the chicken for the swelling. I couldn’t.
a story in Alison’s chapbook If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head
originally published in The Potomac
We found him first.
One Saturday evening, a few of us wandered into a neighborhood Starbucks and saw him facing a group of empty chairs. He bit his lip and twitched, first one eye, then the other. Then he thrust around the rest of his body, curled and unfurled his limbs, spoke as he wobbled. We agreed: he was very awkward.
We felt so sorry for him that we sat down and phoned more friends to come join us. His performances soon became our weekly ritual.
Often he would spill his coffee, blush and stumble, smoke too many cigarettes, spit as he spoke.
He spoke about the celebrities on the cover of People magazine, the beautiful ones who inhabited his dreams—particularly Winona Ryder. He loved her butterfly nervousness, her predilection for shoplifting, swore she was a kindred spirit.
He spoke about his overabundant chest hairs and farts; demons in the shapes of his boss, his wife and his mother that appeared when he drank too many Grain Belts; all the women he wanted to fuck. The women among us liked that part best. When he talked about how the soccer mom, whose quiet dissatisfaction with her life of laundry, hot pockets and TV football filled her jeans so entirely that he swooned with desire whenever he saw her, we women spilled pearl tears and applauded until our hands were numb.
But us guys applauded too. We saw ourselves in his greenish pallor, hunched up shoulders, thinning hair, in the paunch beginning to develop above his belt, the red-rimmed lids from too many wide-eyed nights spent worrying about his sub-prime mortgage, the cost of Ritalin prescriptions for his ADHD kids, the fantasy of robbing the nearest Super America to pay for his dream car: a Hummer.
We all wanted to hear him whine about how the war in Iraq was bad because Bush’s presidential speeches preempted episodes of American Idol. We wanted to see him shake his fist at a god who refused to make him anything but ordinary. And, most of all, we wanted to see him twitch. He twitched with a desire to leave his skin behind, to have us see how his insides worked: his heart’s contractions; his blood’s capillary action; the filling and emptying of lungs, stomach and intestines; the flapping of his glottal stop. Seeing him so uncomfortable helped relax us. After his performances, our smiles were a little broader, our spouses more attractive. Soon we became a penumbra of viewers crowded around him, clamoring to see him teeter.
He decided to charge admission. Of course we agreed to pay; we wanted to keep his twitchiness warm in our embrace. When he spoke of his desire to be seen by the wider world, our expanding club—which had reached three digits-—encouraged him to perform past the confines of the coffee shop. Why not? Even if he came to nothing-—and we knew he would come to nothing—why shouldn’t he be given a chance?
We helped him book an evening at a real theater and bought every ticket ourselves, except for the expensive front row seats. We sat together, one whispering, giggling, fidgeting mass, waiting for the performance to begin. But before the lights were lowered, a line of people entered the theater in single file and filled all the front row seats. No one looked familiar except for one girl, as graceful as a bamboo reed—the spitting image of Winona Ryder.
Who were these intruders into our universe, we grumbled to each other.
Then the lights dimmed and the curtain rose. There he was. A veil of sweat already covered his face. He stood behind the microphone and stared into the darkness. He scratched his head. He fumbled in his pockets. He walked to the edge of the stage and squinted as if he were searching the dark for our faces.
“Lights,” he shouted, his voice cracking. The houselights were raised. He took his hands out of his pockets and relaxed his facial features. We sighed with relief.
The performance began in earnest. He started with his familiar sequence: the twitch of an eye, a spastic flick of the neck, an arrhythmic jerking of arms and back and shoulders in sync with his litany of sins.
And then he stopped. He stood stock-still and stared straight into the front row of the audience (later we swore he had fixed his gaze on the Winona Ryder look-alike). His face trembled; tears streamed down his face. His whole body shivered in a fluid ripple that flowed through his arms and caused them to figure eight like eagle wings. He flapped and flapped until he had lifted himself off the ground and was spinning in the air.
It was a miracle; and frankly, we were upset because, with each spin, he became more and more transparent until we could clearly see the blue and green and gray of his organs, muscles, ligaments, and bones. All along we had been fooled: we thought we were doing him a great big favor—but we were simply a means to an end. He was circling toward a light beyond us. All we could do was sit in our seats and watch.
first published in Poetry City, U.S.A.
reprinted in The News, Mexico
Under the metal wing
of another plane leaving home
a field of clouds, moisture
no one can hold
under the clouds
a white page of snow
under the snow
roofs like book covers
under the roofs
our cranial bones
our songs remembering
life after leaving:
in the city
we walked in rags
wrapped around our feet
hunger held us;
we did well
if we had potatoes
new laws took
our fathers’ work
then took our fathers
they aimed at our elders’ hearts
with God’s enemies”
led us to clothed bones
in barrels; yes, we said
these are our sons, disappeared.
Certain of always losing
we stand on the Strong Cliff
ready to strike.
Our tongues tremble
with this exile.
Yet, under our songs of the separated
our roots sing through soil
to other root clusters
feeding trunks, branches
leaves of every shape and language
under the leaves, the word
under the word
published in Poetry City, U.S.A.
made into a song by composer Sarah Miller
On the scan of her after-stroke brain, we see her alien graymatterscape
darkened by pools of dead neurons we dub The Great Lakes of Dementia:
Lake Nonsense, Lake Lost Way, Lake Can’t Be Left Alone,
Lake Scrambled Space and Time, Lake Black Hole.
She greets the plumber, sock on one hand, pants at her ankles, oh, the turmoil
in Ukraine. From her chair into walls she can’t see, she bolts,
rebounds, shuffles over her big toes on the way to her piano.
The Chopin etude she first learned more than sixty years ago
clangs atonal until one arpeggio, two, three, harmonize past her plaques and tangles,
hammer a chain of heat through the piano’s lacquered burls, wires, ivory keys,
the yolk-yellow finches perched like grace notes on the feeder,
our helpless hands in our laps as we listen, submerged with her
in Lake Pleaseanneal, Lake Inexpress, Lake Sing Hilarity, Lake Nothing, Lake Boundless.
published in Water~Stone Review
part of The Price of Our Clothes
Red threads protrude
from the tips of my fingers,
weaving loom warp
attached to the clucking tongue
of my mother. She says,
why are you wearing that shmattah?
Her words steer my hands
to the nearest fashion outlet,
rifle through rack after rack
for the cheapest blouses, skirts
and trousers to make me
more slender, more
modern professional, more
American shikse, less
and under this warp,
threads of the years
my grandma and great aunts
made by hand
in garment factories,
work to trampoline
my mother and me
shoot through the skin
of my fingertips, fan out
like scarlet highways
past my American horizon,
touch down in Dhaka
as running stitches
so red, they vibrate
a green kameez,
its label, Made in Bangladesh,
We Care, promises
artisans paid enough.
To meet Khadija, twenty,
factory shirtmaker since fourteen,
I wear my green kameez
embroidered with threads
as red as gashes
marking the palms
of women and men
at Lifestyle, a factory
contracting knifers to cut
deep through the hands
of workers who, together,
marched Dhaka streets
roaring for human workday
goals and wages. Change.
Khadija tells the translator
to ask me: why are you here?
I say: I come from a family
of garment workers.
A century ago, the same
things happened in my country.
Kadija says: Bandhu, Friend.
Bangla and English
hum through the fabric
under my skin.
winner of the 2012 Tiferet Fiction Award
2nd Prize Press 52 Open Awards, 2012
published in Press 52 Open Awards Anthology, 2012
“Arrayed at night, like fingers stretched through bars
To clutch the lit air of freedom,
We made for the press plates, to seize
The lead plates at the Romm printing works.
We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,
And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.”
Yes, I wrote those words in 1943. Now, if I’m to understand you correctly, more than sixty years later, you want to know if I, Abraham Sutzkever, was actually telling the truth? Did the Jewish underground in Vilna really melt lead type from the Romm Press into bullets, or did I simply make the whole thing up just to write a poem? It tickles me that you’re still interested. I’ve heard scholars are still giving lectures and seminars on the subject; they hold debates about Sutzkever and his Romm Press poem in chat rooms and blogs, discussions that have lasted for years. If I printed out all the arguments and laid them end to end, they’d be longer than the Vilna sewers. Of course, Holocaust scholars make a living out of questions like this. “There’s no way Sutzkever and those partisans melted the Romm Press letters into bullets. Ghetto furnaces couldn’t generate enough heat to keep people warm, let alone melt lead printing plates.” I know it’s always been an academic’s job to (pardon the cliché) miss the forest for the trees. What I love are the rebuttals. One imaginative blogger insists: “The partisans didn’t need any more heat to melt lead than they had to cook cholent every Sabbath.” I wait to see a chat room claim that you can melt lead plates with the farts you get after eating cholent. But I’m digressing. You say you want the truth? Let me tell you a story.
When I was a boy, I watched my older sister skip the fourth year of school, then the fifth and sixth. Her brown eyes were glazed from sitting up nights memorizing—in their original Russian—Pushkin, Lermontov, even Blok—not just our own Yiddish poets. I’d pass her room on the way to bed and would see her black braids curtaining whatever book she was ingesting. I wanted to pull one of those night colored ropes just to get her attention.
At eleven—just three years older than me—she wrote her first verse in Russian. “Genius” is what the teachers and my mother called my sister of the long black braids, ends likes pen nibs, skin as pale as the pages she read. She wrote in a fever in our little hut in Vilna, by candlelight, her braids lying dangerously close to the dripping wax.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“It must be a very bad dance.”
She giggled and threw a balled-up piece of paper at me. Her laugh was a melody in B Minor.
Our father was already dead. One night, while fiddling the old song “Thou, Thou Thou,” his violin began to shake. Then he collapsed on top of me. I was seven, the family baby with arms too weak to catch him. Within seconds, his white skin turned blue. I could no longer hear his breath.
My sister and I inherited Father’s white skin.
Sometime after her thirteenth birthday, my sister began to turn purple: first her toes and fingertips then her arms and legs, as if ink had seeped underneath her skin. She lay in bed shivering, sweating, stiff, but did not complain; only said the candle flame was too bright.
One night I woke up to loud thuds against the wall that separated my sister from me. It was the sound of her bed frame banging into the wall while invisible hands gripped her in a convulsive partner dance. “Brain fever,” is what my mother whispered to our aunt. The doctor said “Meningitis.” My older sister swelled. She could no longer answer when I asked how she was doing; she had lost her ability to hear our world. But she did sound out mysterious words as if she were conversing with someone I couldn’t see and followed this phantom’s spasmodic lead with the jerk of an arm or leg.
On a warm summer morning, while sitting alone with my sister, she looked at me and opened her mouth as if to speak. Then she turned into a ribbon of ink that flew out the window on a traveling breeze. I know this because I saw the word eternal purpled on the window above her bed.
As soon as this happened, I ran out to the bank of the Viliya River and wrote the word eternal in the sand.
You look at me incredulously; but it’s true. In the sand I wrote my first poem. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. Not even when I was hiding from the Germans in the chimney of the house I shared with my wife Freydke, could I put down my pen.
Up until then we were 60,000, we Jews of Vilna. Anti-communist intellectuals didn’t have it so good, but, in general, the Lithuanians and Russians left us alone to live our lives. Writing was easy. My poetry sang rhymed melodies to a moment’s purple shimmer—which drove my socialist, communist, Bundist writer-comrades crazy.
“Avram,” they used to nag. “How is it you stick your head in the sand when all of Eastern Europe is in a tumult. Your lack of political engagement is obscene.”
But I didn’t care. Let the Russians and Germans argue over who got what in Eastern Europe; I was preoccupied with the snow white breath of the shooting star I saw the night before.
That is, until 1941.
Under the summer solstice sun, the Nazis marched into Vilna to grab up every able-bodied Jewish man they could find. Just like that, a pack of thugs could drag you to a work camp to cut peat bricks for the Germans; or you could end up in Lukiszki prison then the forest, never to be heard from again. Sometimes you weren’t grabbed; you were simply the target of a rifle butt or a bullet while you were waiting in line to buy bread.
I was young and able-bodied, fearful of being taken. For six weeks I hid in the chimney of our house battling something unspeakable that was trying to strangle the musical rhymes of my poetry. Where was the beauty in lines that rhymed smoke with choke, game with lame, fresh with flesh, fall with all? Very quickly, my rhymes began to break down. Soon I was writing stanzas with no rhymes at all; lines that ended with spectacle, curse, death, Roman, pain, pox, grave, mercy. I wanted to erase those dark moments inside the bricks, not sing them. I wanted to erase myself for leaving Freydke all alone.
At the first sign of a lull in the Nazi’s pursuit of young men, I left the chimney, only to watch—utterly helpless—the grabbing of everything we owned: our warm coats, our boots, our furniture, our air.
The Nazis shoved us, we 15,000 surviving Jews, into seven walled-in city blocks and forced us to guard each other day and night; Jewish rifles pointed at Jewish heads. The other 45,000? We were taken to pits in the forest and told to sit on the edge. Then shot.
And the Germans grabbed our words. Illuminated Torahs, Talmuds, Haggadahs and books by our best Yiddish authors: Peretz, Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, Perl; Yiddish dictionaries; whole libraries from other cities were treated like wood chips to be burned or pulped.
The pages that held my chimney verses waved like little white flags. The poems on them bleated surrender, surrender to each new Nazi order: to become a working slave, to starve on potato peels, to walk numbly down the street past the dead bodies of neighbors, to give up friends to the police in the hope that I would be spared.
Inside the ghetto hospital Freydke gave birth to a boy, an illegal act—Jews were forbidden to have offspring. A soldier grabbed him as soon as he cried and fed him poison. I was not allowed to be by her side, but Freydke held a poem of mine in her fist the entire time. I hated that poem. It couldn’t save my family. I needed to transform my passive lines on paper into life-saving, life avenging bullets.
I joined the United Partisan Organization. A tiny group of us smuggled guns in and out of the ghetto, learned to make bombs out of light bulbs filled with gas, hid in a cellar and practiced aiming a pistol at the imaginary necks of Nazi soldiers.
And I joined the Paper Brigade: Jews who worked for the Rosenberg Bureau gathering material for a new collection: “the science of Jewry without Jews.” On my job I could grab back our books and manuscripts, our language. Our German supervisors couldn’t read Hebrew or Yiddish; we had to tell them what was important enough to ship to Germany and what could be sent to the paper mill. At the end of a workday I carried a book in my coat back to the ghetto, a collection of Sholem Aleichem short stories, or maybe one of Theodor Herzl’s diaries, and swore I was going to burn it to heat my home. So did Freydke. The trick worked over and over until we had suitcases full of Talmuds, Torahs, Yiddish history texts, journals, poetry, novels, letters that we hid in a secret place beneath the basement. They had taken our boy; we would not let them take our language.
The Romm Press plates were another matter. Neither of us could carry the heavy lead printing plates in our coats. What were we to do with the weight of all those years the press spent gathering commentary, ancient and modern, and proofreading every letter, space and line for their Vilna Talmud? How could we preserve the gleaming columns of the Talmud’s frontispiece illustration or the press’s dancing-seriffed Vilna font? When you melt something into something else, does it lose its essence?
When orders came from Hitler to liquidate the Vilna ghetto, most of my neighbors surrendered to the boxcars that transported them to the next work camp and their deaths.
Freydke and I took a different path. Into the sewer pipes underneath Vilna we crept, following our Jewish partisan comrades through the city’s wastewater, where swollen bodies of dead Jews floated, blocking our passage. We had to move them to get to where we were going: into the Narocz forest to join the Russian Communist partisan resistance forces. We were fighters, not martyrs, immersed in a mikvah of human waste.
But as soon as we reached the forest camp, Russian commanders ordered us to give up our weapons. Our job, as Jews, was to carry the wounded and sick past German soldiers through swamps, snow, fields of frozen bodies. We were starving and covered with shit. How could we refuse?
The purple evening I dragged my first soldier onto a stretcher, his leg split open by shrapnel, I remembered the night my father’s heart seized. He toppled into my seven-year old arms that were too thin to keep us both from landing on the floor. Into my ear he whispered: “That’s right. Try bearing life’s weight now, so your hands can get used to holding it later.” Then he died.
Ladies and gentlemen, I only write what I believe is true. I made words into bullets to save my wife and me and the memory of our son. In the ghetto, I’d given handwritten copies of my poems to partisans who brought them to Moscow. The anti-Nazi Lithuanian president, exiled in Moscow, was a poet too. He ordered a rescue plane to bring us out of the forest, away from German territory. But to get to the plane, Freydke and I had to walk along a railroad track in an open field, mines to the left and right of us, mines along the tracks. I led the way, chanting each line out loud, walking to the rhythm of my poems. Freydke followed my footsteps exactly. Our dark bodies wrote living Yiddish words in the snow.
And if you really want to know, the last poem that I recited, the one that finally got us from the field to the frozen lake where the rescue plane awaited, I am sure was this:
“We were dreamers,” step,
“we had to be soldiers,” step,
“And melt down,” step,
“for our bullets,” step,
“the spirit of the lead,” step.
An earlier version of this story was written as part of visual artist Robyn Awend’s Survival Project.