On the overnight train to Prague we argue

about the color of the moon.

At the stop at Auschwitz

the moon slips between two buildings on the platform

and exposes its metaphoric blood-red hue.

Standing in the corridor,

head and neck out the window I call

you to come look at the moon.

You sit twisted, pretzel-like in the compartment,

hand holding a cigarette out the window.

It’s not blood-red, it’s amber, you say–the color of the little ring

you bought in the market in Krakow, the amber stone,

a dome nestled in a swirl of silver.

You hold the ring up to the moon.

Blood-red, I say.

The train pulls out from the station,

passes just meters from the Birkenau killing

fields. The blood-red moon hovers over the camp,

half-lopped off by the earth’s shadow. People

really live here, you ask?

Yet we ride these rails of horror from Prague

to Krakow and back for a hedonistic weekend

while history-jabbing body punches

sway me to numbness.

In the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow I imagined an ancestor,

perhaps a great-grandfather, traveling from Eastern Galicia

for business, for pleasure, or maybe to meet a mistress of his own

to toast the moon with Polish vodka. With the thrill of earthly

pleasures coursing through his veins, he momentarily forgets

the daily miseries, can’t even comprehend the racial future.

And I can’t comprehend my aching

bones; my mundane pain clouding history. In the train’s

cozy compartment I turn to you for comfort

and touch. You don’t touch.

You don’t comfort. I stare again

at the blood-red moon, trying to find

a way to navigate this tortured history around your skin.

The smoke from your cigarette plumes

up and out the window. We stare at each other

with hollow, uncertain eyes. The blood-red moon

rises above the plain.

Judge’s comments

The strength of this poem is its economy, in the face of a terrible fact of the past–the killing of Jews and others at camps like Auschwitz. The speaker’s Jewish heritage makes him feel very keenly “this tortured history,” while his companion is more interested in smoking a cigarette. The use of repetition gives all the images more weight, so that in the final stanza, both the moon, which the speaker sees as blood-red, and the companion’s cigarette smoke become symbols for the death and burning in the past. –Andrea Selch