Village Poems

And no one knows what became of him, Crazy Levi,
who tied the roads
from Yaverev to Moshtsisk
to Samber to Greyding in a bow,
carrying always in his bosom pocket
his letters to Rivtshe,
his uncle’s youngest daughter.

All the houses in the villages knew him,
the road accepted his long shadow
like a horse that knows his rider,
and the dogs lay quiet in their doghouses
when the familiar smell of Levi’s flaring black coat tails
spoke to their hearts.

Women broken in the middle like sheaves
were in the field when Levi came by.
They toyed with him
and with a laugh that smelled of goodness, like dark bread,
they would say,
“Levi, you have no father or mother.
Why don’t you take a wife
like the rest of your people?
She would wash your shirt for you
and cook you a spoonful of something warm for supper.”

And Levi would look at their raw, swollen feet
and plow the brown field of his forehead
with the painful thought that was always present to him:
“Because my uncle wouldn’t give me his daughter for a wife.
I carry my heart around
like a cat in a sack,
and I want to leave it somewhere
so that it won’t be able to find its way back to me.”

And he would take a filthy piece of paper
out of his bosom pocket
and read aloud from a letter in German,
“An Liebchen!”-
and a red berry would blossom
in the dark moss around his lips:
Levi’s crazy, melancholy smile.

But after one long hard winter,
worse than any the old people could remember,
the small eyes of the windowpanes
looked for Levi without finding him
and the dogs pit their heads to the ground
and sniffed at all the tracks on the road,
thinking he might have come by

And to this day, no one knows what became of him.
Maybe the hungry wolves in the woods tore him to pieces
or maybe his mother who hung herself in her youth
missed her son, and a small, white hand
reached out to him from the dark attic of the old house.

The orchards of her home
Still blossom in her glances
And in her dreams great flocks
Of geese are feathered;
She used to drive baby geese
To the pond every spring
And guard them from the
crows and owls but now
for days she walks around
bewildered and her whole
body greedily drinks in
the fragrance from the new-cut
wood piled up by the stove
ready for burning.

Her faraway home was so
Beautiful but it was a small
Farm poor and rocky and
There were seven mouths
To feed so she the oldest
Came to the city and here her two hands are now the oars
which row her life through
dark and steamy kitchens

When she gets a letter
From the neighbor’s son
She runs to strangers
Hanging on their glances,
First she reads their faces
For goodwill then begs them
Quietly to read her letter, to tell her all they
must tell all that
he has written! Then she
sees their scornful smiles
at his loutish crudely formed
letters which for her contain
the alphabet of love,
and she blushes, hides her face
for shame.

All week long her heart
Composes answers until
At last it’s Sunday and
The words are put down
Beside each other like
Invalids on pink paper
Decorated with doves
And wreaths of roses.
Her girl friend scribbles
The words in a hurry then
Reads out whatever was
Dictated ending with
kisses and respectfully
yours; she smiles fleetingly
and in the corners of her mouth
lurk the shy love words
she has nursed all week
and there they hover
captive and unspoken.

Sometimes in an hour of rest
She opens her old prayer book
With a gold cross embossed
On its black cover; with awkward
Hands she caresses the strange
Letter, words full of G-d
And love and mercy and her eyes
Grow dreamy thinking about
The miraculous world of A B C.

The world she knows
Is tied in a thousand knots,
Even in the world her prayer book
With its circles and lassos
Is like some Judas: treacherous:
Ready to sell her in a minute
For thirty hard days
Of labour every month.

He sold the one-horned cow
and let the money blow through his fingers
like so much spiderweb.
Ever since, the stall has been empty
as the hole in a gum when a tooth is pulled,
the chain at the trough is rusty and cold,
and Berl’s children haven’t seen a spoonful of milk in the house
all winter.

When the woman next door milks her cow,
Berl’s children stand around her like chicks
around a mother hen.
Ten pairs of eyes staring eagerly
at the warm white streams.

Berl goes to the market in town every Monday,
pokes the cows, examines their teeth, and bargains.
But it’s always someone else who buys the cow.
Berl comes home
with a can of kerosene, kasha, and a sack of salt.

Age and years of work showed in Lazer’s hands
and the eyes and breasts of his second wife were young-
the paper roses in the window
told it all to the world.
The barn told no tales of wild nights of love.
a woman’s hot tears,
and a man’s teeth
grinding down on hatred in the darkness:
“When will you throw the old man out of your life!”
But Lazer rocked the truth to sleep like a scared child
when he saw an empty bed across the room:
“She works so little she can’t sleep at night.”

But one evening
when the winter gloom
weighed on houses and treetops,
he opened his heavy hands
as if he’d dropped forever
the five acres and the pretty house
he’d worked so hard to have,
and every word plowed furrows in a field of pain:
“I’m old, Dvoyre, I won’t live long,
at least don’t make me see this,
and I’m ashamed before my children, Dvoyre, I’m ashamed.”

And so a young woman’s twenty years
took up the yoke of hard days and lonely nights,
and the red paper roses smiling in the window
kept the secret
from the world