Oral History of the New Colossus

Oral History of the New Colossus
Jewish refugee children wave at the Statue of Liberty as the President Harding steams into New York harbor, June 3, 1939. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of Anita Willens)

Last month, I was honored to be a featured poet at a local Poets in Resistance event. Below is the transcript of the poem I read for the crowd. Please enjoy.


Oral History of the New Colossus

1.

I come from a people of wandering,
Of desert paths swept clean of footprints by thousand year gusts of wind,
Of vanishing,
Of villages abandoned as not only my great-grandmothers but I
Carried what mattered across oceans and borders
And the ticking of latitude and longitude beneath tired feet,
Soles hardened by lifetimes searching for security in silences.
Safety made only by pillars of hands reaching to pull each other up,
Reaching for those left behind.
A Babel towering over each town
Teetering, fear and suspicion pulling apart,
Toppling,
Leaving my people to wander,
Wondering if our hands faltered
And what we might have lost.

 

2.

I come from a people of wandering.
My ancestors’ feet carried traces of soil to Israel from Shushan by way of Palestine,
Fleeing Portuguese diaspora and Gestapo,
To know always they tracked the same soil,
Black against brown skin faded pale
From Persia to Prussia to Poland and Russsia
To Bergen-Belsen
To oblivion.
I come from a people of otherness,
Of isolation and exile and inquisition,
A people who carried, clutched to their chests,
Hope and compassion,
The need to give, and to find, and to share.
I come from a line of translators and teachers,
Scientists and novelists
Physicists and activists,
Magicians, philosophers, insurance sellers,
Holy men and fortunetellers,
And they melded into my bones and my muscles the memories
Of the things they carried and the eternal instructions-
“Never forget.”
They carried this call to a land built by slaves,
Who picked cotton instead of building pyramids or Volkswagons,
Awareness of what is lost when a people are torn from home and tongue,
Kunta Kinte refusing renaming reminded us of
Identity replaced by tattoo.

 

3.

I come from a people of kippot and mitpachat,
Forbidden to own land or hold office
But permitted to touch money believed only slightly less filthy than they.
A people who took lemons grown from oppression and made bitter lemonade,
Who thrived despite obstruction and accusation and assault.
Kippot and mitpachat could have been kefiyah and hijab,
Words that are foreign
for clothing that is foreign
for people who are foreign
with religions that are foreign
When foreign means feared.
Banking could have been
Picking tomatoes for pennies a pint,
Speaking languages that are foreign
in customs that are foreign
with faces that are foreign
When foreign means abhorred
And hatred is directed toward any people who once explored after exile
And came in hordes to a beacon of welcome proclaiming,
“Give me your tired and your poor,”
Any people of wandering.

 

4.

I come from a people of wandering,
But I look into the shadows of their past and I see what I have,
A history,
My own Tower of Babel built of spaces between silences,
Of the hands of immigrants and outsiders.
I see the path behind of violence and vengeance
Condemning my descendants to the same fate of remembrance.
When I press into my daughters’ bones and muscles the memories of their mother’s people,
When I scar them with the words, “Never again,”
I speak not only for my grandmothers and their grandmothers and their grandmothers
But I,
For all our children,
With the same dirt on the soles of their feet
Of deserts crossed and mountains scaled.
Skin brown or black or pale,
Tempest tossed, torn and assailed,
Souls yearning to breathe free,
However foreign or familiar,
Still mishpachah,
Still family.
Still we reach in the security of silence to pull each other up,
Reaching for those left behind.
If only to lose no more.
Beside any golden door we must lift our lamps,
We wanderers of generations,
To mourn together in our teetering, tottering towers.
Drink the bitter lemonade of our ancestors.
We carried only what mattered,
The same dirt on our feet,
Wandering the same path back and back and back again,
Wondering if this time it has led us home.


Read more poetry here: Today is National Haiku Poetry Day

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