Great Gullet Creek
to brood here, year after year, the old congruent clouds.
There’s no better place on earth to be clouds
than over this wild, windblown edge of Flanders:
no place where rain falls hard as willow knots,
dull as North Sea froth, or with that shade of cobblestone gray —
and nowhere do winds whistle this way: peaked and forlorn
like muskrat calls in De Grote Geule, Great Gullet Creek.
Once, in a Brueghel winter, a farmer and I sailed across
Great Gullet Creek — on the anger of Flemish winds.
Christmas break, 1949. I'm six.
My parents leave me at the Grote Geule farm:
they're going on a trip to very-far-away again,
the farmers will take care of me — I must be
obedient, and polite.
One day, the oldest farmer packs
clothes, food, and candles in a large basket.
We'll spend a night in the fisherman's cabin
on the creek: A surprise tomorrow, he says.
All night gales pound at the walls and windows.
When I wake it's still dark. I watch
the farmer light the oil-lamp, dress over his striped
pajamas, pull a small cross from his vest, kiss it,
and put it back. He feeds the stove, throws in
a match and — whomp! —
flames burst out, spiked and golden,
the farmer's face glows, long shadows waltz
on walls, eel-nets swirl, rods and reels wave,
frozen windowpanes glitter, the floor is liquid,
then — clang — he slams the stove shut,
and everything is small and cold again.
We stand by the stove, he helps me cover
my chest and back with sheets of brown
paper we waxed the night before — melting
candles in a tin can, then pouring two layers
on each sheet: Wind-rage armors
he says, handing me blue varnished wooden
shoes. On the table, lit by the oil-lamp,
two twigs of licorice wood, a rock of raw sugar,
an orange, two chunks of black bread.
He cuts the orange in two, shatters
the rock with his knife, and stuffs the pieces
deep into the orange halves. I chew the sour
bread, suck at the sweet fruit. Outside, cold
light oozes through clouds: daybreak.
Scarves, cowls, coats, gloves. We slip
the licorice twigs in our pockets. Warm
our hands one last time by the stove, open
the door to a wind sharp as nettles.
Door-latch. Gate. Gate-latch.
We walk toward the frozen creek,
he pisses long and steamy on a mooring pole.
Behind the poplars a small sun barely
sifts through clouds. A brown buzzard
cowers in a willow like a quilled Quasimodo.
Flat-bottomed and upside-down,
a rowboat lies in the frozen field. The farmer
slips his hand under the prow, orders Close
your eyes, then Look! Four steel blades dangle
from leather straps: skates! We're going
skating! We sit on the boat’s hull, he
ties the skates to our wooden shoes. The wind
slaps down smoke from the cabin’s chimney.
Acrid ribbons of coal fumes tangle with reeds.
From across the creek come broken,
wind-gutted calls of village church
bells, d-dong... d-dong... He looks at the sky:
Skating will be good, the wind’s angry —
it’s coming from Germany. We set foot
on ice, January chews my cheeks,
but I don’t utter a sound: he'd
warned me Only city fillies fuss. He hunches
like a buzzard before taking flight, grabs
the sides of his coat, opens his arms
wide, turns his back to the wind, lets it
belt against him — propel him:
he orders Crouch, grab my coat,
hold on! A gust whacks me against him,
he takes two wide strides, pulls me along:
the wind pushes us, we’re sailing!
The ice is littered with leaves,
twigs, my skates send thunder through my legs,
I can barely breathe. My lips and throat
hurt, but I scream Faster, faster! He straightens
his huge back, opens his arms
even wider, his skates clatter,
pelt my face with ice, we’re picking up
speed, the creek sounds like a hundred drums,
my eyes freeze, I can no longer see, but I’m
no city filly, no city filly.
When we reach the opposite bank,
our faces are blue, knees so stiff we can’t
straighten our legs. I'm thirsty, he gives me
his licorice stick to chew, rubs his palms,
blows into them, and puts them to my cheeks.
Winter blows low oboe notes
through the reeds. A few yards away,
northern shovelers quack and ruffle
their feathers, sending rust and cobalt
flashes over the ice.
We untie our skates, turn our backs
to the creek, and walk through the potato
polders toward the village of Kieldrecht.
My wooden shoes slip on frozen loam,
I trip, he holds me by the wrist.
The winds won’t stop, they churn
clouds, send them crashing into the steel
blade of the horizon. We don’t speak,
hurry through the village toward the café
by the windmill.
He pushes open the heavy oak door.
A few nods and taciturn daag from stout
drinking men. We head for the high
delft-tiled stove, hang our coats on a chair
beside it. The tables
are covered with thick, ruglike
tapestries, I rub my hands over their wool:
they smell of must and winter, like the hem
of the farmer’s coat. He orders Dutch gin,
buttered bread, mugs of broth.
He pours gin in my mug. We slurp
and slurp. He throws back his head, closes
his eyes, crosses his hands on his belly,
smiles. Behind heavy lace curtains, I watch
clouds shred against the church steeple.
On the way back, our skates
ring as he slings them over his shoulder.
Winds blow night deep into the streets
of Kieldrecht. Bundled silhouettes slip
out of low doors, lock shutters,
disappear. Bent figures hurry by
on black, high-handled bicycles: Good-night
farmer, they say, Good-night farmer, he answers.
We hurry home through the potato polders.
When we near the farm, the dog yaps,
cows bellow in the barn. At dinner,
I ask the farmer for the cross he hides in his vest.
I kiss it, so it will keep my parents very-far-
away. Outside, the Flemish winds sing.
From the village steeple fall six low notes.
I sit by a larch, pen and journal
in my lap. Two suns in my tea, the lemon
slice the brightest.
Tannin clouds the mug's sky,
today's fate still steeps in its leafy depths.
I count each blow of a hammer
somewhere up the street,
want it to stop after seven, seventeen,
anything with a seven,
but it never does, even when I give it
seven last chances. I need
an augury, a sign to help me
believe that the pounding means something —
My parents, hoarding
profits from what they call
the good war, are happy:
a million hammers, ten million
nails are needed to rebuild Europe,
and my father sells iron and steel.
One’s misery is
another’s happiness, he says
as we drive through
Pelican Street and what
had been the Jewish Quarter.
I am five.
Father spits out
his cigarette: Nothing’s
changed here, only pigeons
and rats instead of Jews.
I don’t know that word: joden,
he says in Dutch, joden.
I ask what kind
of animals joden are. My parents
Yet this Spring of 2000, thirty
percent of the Flemish voted extreme
right. In France,
Austria, Germany, Israel —
Israel, too — votes speak menacing
tongues and millions
pretend they don't hear it. And I
write about a lemon slice in my tea?
About needing a hammer to stop its
blows in groups of seven
because a priest, from behind the barbed
grills of a confessional window
once hissed to me: "You’ll be saved
only if seven generations remember you
as a good Christian"?
Write about Your Times
1961. Oscar Vladislas Milosz
teaches writing workshops in Brussels.
I brandish my notebooks filled
with Baudelaire, Aragon, Sartre —
the brightest. Today’s writing still brews
in a mug's leafy depths.
From which memory
must I — will I — speak?
Which present do I —
must I — call mine?
Give Yourself in Belief
Glued to the pages of my journal, a letter from a friend:
Oxblood velvet drapes
frame Father's office windows.
Ten million hammers
pound nails in Belgium
France, Holland, Italy, England,
and Germany — Germany,
too — building roofs, barns, houses,
railroads, and bridges
after the war. Father loads iron
and steel onto Antwerp's ships —
he's a rich man now.
I wait for him to return
from meetings. I'm seven
A dusk sun strokes
the drapes, his mahogany
desk gleams bloodred.
I open a drawer, see
Father's pen. I hear ships
from the harbor urge me —
Doo-it, dooo — so I
reach for it, gold and heavy,
take and uncap it,
draw a line in my palm —
the ink is green, a strong, hard
green. The door opens,
Father grabs his pen,
slaps my face, knees my chest,
my need to write
started then, a hunger to write,
to own a pen
but not, but never —
Dusk. On a chair by the larch,
my journal and pen.
O small Gods of Grief,
grant me to write from seven memories
deep, but not in my father's
tongue — but never with his pen.