Barbara F. Lefcowitz--American


Barbara F. Lefcowitz

Barbara F. Lefcowitz has nine collections of poetry to her credit. A recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, Lefcowitz uses travel as a means to enrich her writing and the work she does as a visual artist. She lives in Bethesda Maryland, and continues to write and publish. Her most recent works include Photo, Bomb, Red Chair, published in 2004, and The Blue Train to America, published in 2007.


For Mirjam Lenka

born 1/15/1935, Prague
died 1/6/1944, Auschwitz

What was I doing when you died in the ovens,
not quite nine, the two of us born
the exact same day;

were my eyes covered
with a rag, the hide 'n seek "It" girl, or
was I learning that 9 x 9 = 81,

fixed in every language and catalogue
of laws, fixed long after your name, incised
on the vault of the

Pinchas Synagogue in Prague,
is but a small stone wound that cannot
be felt or seen.

And lashed by these lines to your
vast, nearly anonymous death, my own name
once again a tiny scar on the planet's
tough old skin,

a scar that will never
heal, replace, or even protect you. Come, Mirjam,
come let's play. My house, your house,
the schoolyard. I twist your hair into braids,
lest if fly off with you,
dress you in a peasant blouse, your eyes the same shade
as mine, snapshot gray-green.

No need for fear, Mirjam,
I'll let you go,
nor need our play be morbid,

each rope a noose

and all the dolls dead,
their slung heads swaying from the horse-chestnut tree.

Laughing and glossy red,
we uncross our legs.

stuff secret rags and gourds

in our skirts, deliver them under the porch.
We feed them seeds and kernels,

pink milk-buds,
peel open their swaddled bodies. For hours we
make them obey our private biology,
the cleft between our legs still hairless
and bloodless, we ourselves a pair of planes
free from the tugging moon,
the solid geometry of gestation.

With crayons and paper
you show me your curve of a pappa,
tangential to a right angle chair, his top hat
floating above the bread, the cut flowers,
your mama bearing precarious bowls,

or are they birds perhaps,
birds that took flight from the fringed piano shawl,
its french-knot branches and ripe bushes
of bright cotton berries.

You bid me enter, snap on
a tasseled lamp, play the same flutter of rush-notes
as I would, 

a gutted Schubert sonatina, all
gapped walls and rickety steps, its real music
locked in the piano's brain, too rich and complex
for our nine year fingers.
Later you walk me across the Charles Bridge,
its gloomy black statues looming all the way
to Mala Strana,

each separate and rigid
as a tombstone, never to sway,
meet, much less touch.

Mirjam, let me tell you
about the concert: the Stalin, Hitler,
Roosevelt, Chamberlain string quartet,
their instruments glittering mid-bridge,
hands held on the haft of aknife

so sharp your country's heart

lifts like scooped fruit they split
and spit out in the Moldau. Other news
as well I tell you, how the pictures
you made at Terezin were rescued, 

like very old tools and bone, spectacles
shoes, gold teeth;

how I myself fast
reached ten, eleven, twenty, middle-age,
multiplied and learned at last to live with fractions.

Back, Mirjam, to you, my twin with no marker,
guilt-twin, occasional dream-mate,
ashes to feed Polish weeds,

bodiless name,
the grief that grounds all art: to claim,
to fill with flesh and blood, add, multiply
divide, to make once more a body.

But your loss so vast and monstrous
who am I to do more
than make a shoddy pact with grief.

Subtract. Hollow with scalpels.
A scaffold with nothing inside, not a brick,
not Prague's bronze astronomical clock,
its hourly display of death and disciples
disrupted for repair when I joined the crowd
in Rathaus Square.

Here, right here,
you must have swung your schoolbag, the books
filled with penmanship and sums.

How can it be,
I say as I look for you
one last time,
how can it be that 9 + 9 = zero?
Even if I make it 9 + 9 - 9,
still you come out zero,
come out zero,
come out zero long before your time
to come out zero.


Excerpt from Self-Guided Audio Tour

Study the violin,
especially its veneer & the cracks in its scroll,
this old man carries through the streets
of the Warsaw Ghetto. It serves as his
shield against bullets & fire, the bones
of old chairs & beds flying through paneless
windows, the gutted remains of gramophones
& pianos, the smashed keys of the latter,
some have claimed, still playing
a Chopin polonaise.

Notice the scars where the man
clutches his violin's neck

as if he were starving
& the neck were attached
to a scrawny chicken.
Yet his hands appear
to hold it gently so the neck
will neither bleed nor break off
from the heart of the violin's body.

Perhaps he will rub a bittersweet waltz
from its strings, a folksong extolling
raisins and almonds? Lie down
to die with a smile serene as an angel's
or God's? Feel free to decide for yourself.

Now look to the right at these two
copper pots, not a hint of a stain
from their last beet-roots or cabbage.
Note the clarity of image, after
so many years, especially the faces
of those women by the table,
the older wearing a knotted veil
the younger staring straight at the camera.
Probably only the pots survive. 

The piled-up beer crates in Number #20,
along with the milk wagons, carriages, sleds
tell us that no container's too small for the dead.
But look at this next photo's
laughing children, running from all corners
to where Mila Street meets
Muranowski Square. The men in black seem
to be offering chocolates & round things
that could be fruit. Perhaps the kids will soon
ride out to the woods in a hay-wagon? 

Barely hanging, the sign above the burned-out shop
straight ahead still clearly reads
Ice-cream, Eskimo Brand.

The wrought iron balconies in Number #30
were built in the 18th century. Their elegant
spirals make them fine examples of French influence.

Two figures in the background
are about to leap in an attempt to escape the flames. 

Don't miss the cobblestones in the small
photo near the exit. In the heart
of the ghetto their hexagonal design
remains free from blood, fire, bullet holes.

Please return your headseats
to the yellow bins, making sure to
rewind them. Then take a moment
to visit our gift shop.
Thank you.