My people know how to hold svet
in their mouths: how to keep it safe
until it fades to a whisper or a prayer,
or until they can tell the difference.
They left his baby girlon the top bunkbeside an open window
and when he touched the glassit burnedon both his palms
her red cheeks growing redder in the sunand he thought she might catch on fire
so he could take a part of herto where all ash
where he could watchthe freckles on her face take shapeimagining
how light is borninside the bodyand as the train pulled awayhis fingers
left wet streaksacross his daughter’s eyestrying to close them
before she could grow upand see her father
There was too much lighttoo much light
for her to stay above the water
so she and her mother hid under the blue
and the dark seaweedclosed around them
like shadebound them at first
painted dollsstrung together in a breathless dance
then, the master’s hand pulled up
the mother’s face
burned in the open airbut the girl stayed dancing
underwatera wild catfish tangled in broken whiskers
until you couldn’t tell them apartfrom flesh
and the girl sucked in the saltstiffit turned her
into the swaying coral belowthen she sank through the sand
sprouting wet rootswhile above
stingrays opened their water-wingsveiled her
until others dug her outdragged herso she could lie
face up on the black soilhalf-sea half-earth
open-mouthedto swallow the sun.
The glaring headlights lifted three of themlike wavesabove the smiling city
and eighteen stories upthey floatedholding hands
before the fallto what was never water.
The mother’s body brokepieces of glass inside a kaleidoscope
and she slept for monthsnever dreaming
that both her wingless childrenhovered in New York City’s dust.
Scattered nowalong the path she walksand in the clouds
she searches for their facesbut there is nothing
but yellow lightthe weight of both their palms
growing her downpressing her into a barren earth
inside her bellyfor centuries pregnantthey grow again
ghost limbswith new eyes that never sawa mother turn to stone
new shouldersthat never knewthe lackthe want
new childrenthey do not try to flyor seek to learn
the history of dying.
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach came to the United States as a Jewish refugee in 1993, from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Julia won Lilith Magazine’s 2013 Charlotte A. Newberger Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Spoon River Poetry Review, ROAR, Cirque, Spry, JMWW, and Poetica Magazine, among others. Julia is also the Poetry Editor for Construction Magazine.
Author’s note: “Svet” means “light” in Russian.