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.
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