Eating Lemon Bread    
For Sylvia

A child alone in a foreign land

never is solaced, but speaks at long years'

intervals, a ventriloquism of quiet rage,

in a woman's voice at a civilized table.

Part of this truth we have heard before

but the unraveling of pain like the neuron's path

is bristly and indirect, sparking at the undiscerned.

No old-testament god can be called on to explain

the gothic weight, the stone cold of her pain;

the woman knows how real are the helmeted folk,

the butchers who dreamed the grand dream.

Vivid in polished memory is the street

where she and her sister walked, where heils

rained iron around their thin forms; fear thrust

up their own arms, yet flailed the soldiers' fists.

There the fatal eroding blow which in England

claimed her sister's blood-bound mind;

she now alone in England, her escape none at all.


Your parents, too, died in the war, the question

so politely purged of scaly truth.

Auschwitz slithers on clawed feet into darkness

as a child's memory stops before silent walls

of an ungraved earth, where millions of cries

have become one miming cry which is her own,

where she is father, mother, all the earth.


I have brought lemon bread to my hostess.

That afternoon I had listened to a physician-poet

who tried to heal ancestral memory of slavery

with poems of black light and hope and old photographs

of the long dead. He thought memory of pain survived

could awaken purpose in youth who had no hope.

From him at the artistic celebration I had bought

a book of verse: from his wife I bought the bread.


We eat the lemon bread as my hostess speaks.

We eat to punish the British fosterer who calls her dirty.

We eat to stop the past from where her mother was taken

into the dark place where her father had disappeared,

the burning dark felt in the recesses of  numbered records.

We eat to push away the gargoyle who walks

in goose step against her heels, but his shadow is near.

We eat to stop our ears against the millions

of shackled children stumbling in the light,

a sound like human breath gasping for air.


Our hostess cuts another piece for her husband

who loves the richness of the lemon bread.

His voice pulls us politely back from pain.

We all speak of the bread in praise

for its tart sweetness. We restore the ordinary.

We all eat silently as if we were under a shawl.

We eat of the lemon bread; we eat her grief,

unable to solace the raging child, but in our nodding

silence to affirm her unending pain. We eat

to extend our human lives.

Poems by Virginia Walker

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