the louderARTS Project

Elana Bell

Elana Bell, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, was selected as the winner of the 2004 Stephen Dunn Poetry Award. A resident artist with the louderARTS Project, Elana has been a featured poet at Bar 13, the Nuyorican Poets Café, Hunter College, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, The Bowery Poetry Club, The Wow Café Theater, Cornelia Street Café, and the Bronx Council on the Arts First Wednesday Series. She is co-founder of synonymUS, a multi-disciplinary poetry based performance series. Recently, Elana appeared in the off- Broadway production of Downtown Rhythm at the Primary Stages Theater. She serves as the writer-in-residence for the Bronx Academy of Letters, a New Visions High School. Publications include: Words and Images Magazine, Houston Poetry Festival Journal, Parse, and two chapbooks: Dreaming of Doorways and Name Carvings.

elana at louderARTS dot com

Love Song

Because I wear this star tight around my neck
and buried under clothes, I bear the weight
of my grandmother's hunger. Graceless,
the roots of a forgotten tree rising, burning
into skin something unwanted. Antique

silver and studded with stones (it weighs less
than one gram), pushing me underground
where breathing is not and bones outnumber
the fight of the living. Bread is better than gold
here and this too shall pass through her

to me to my daughter. I will give her this
heirloom to wear and not tell,
let her find out for herself‹this dream
of burning skin and how Grandpa danced
the hora in the face of death. How he traced,

each day with bloodied fingers, those words
scratched into the wall by the prisoner
beaten before him. G'am zeh yavor -
this too shall pass, he sang with each bruise.

I look across the Shabbat table, imagine
this elegant woman in her four hundred dollar
suit of lambs wool digging through trashcans
until fingers are skinned raw like potatoes,
searching for something, an unwanted peel.
Some things have skipped a generation-
the love of fine shoes and this taste for potatoes.

Other things belong to you alone, Grandma

that spiked tongue sharp like a knitting needle.
At twelve you told me, "Watch your cake
intake bubehleh . You're looking a little
chubby." I was silent. At eighteen,
I came out of my room in the red velvet dress,
bought for Michael's bar mitzvah. "Ech," you said.
"You look like a whore in that shmatah ."

Now you wrinkle your nose in disgust
when Anthony comes to dinner.
"He's not Jewish. What is he doing
with his life ( with you )?
You could do so much better."
I cringe/ at my own silence,

want to tell you that no one has ever
made me feel so alive. That his touch
makes me beautiful, how I love the curve
of his dark ass. /About the bumps
that covered my arms when he said
"Take off your shirt and come closer"
The feel of our naked skins touching
made me stop breathing.
I forgot ripples on my belly,
brown moles covering my back,
my softness protected by his wiry limbs.

I stay silent and stare across the table,
searching for traces of this woman
who marched strong and for hours
to build a homeland for her people.
Arms raised and brown with sun, eyes clear.

This woman
who watched her brother be shot for Warsaw,
and could still find the reason to make
babies, cook chicken soup.
This woman
who kept her entire bunk singing as they worked
even when tongues were dry with thirst and throats
cracked from exhaustion.

In the candlelight your eyes are softer than words allow,
and I can see fifty year-old dreams,
dust covered and dancing.
They are sadder than your fiery tongue and truer.

Grandma, I am sorry that I have forgotten the Sh'ma
and have never learned Hebrew or wanted
to make aliyah to the land birthed through
your sweat and the murder of loved ones.

That you had a family before mine whose
ashes made possible the creation of
my mother and then me. I feel them in my
blood and hear them in your unsaid
thoughts. I know I am born of this story,

that it is mine to pass on as it was given
to me. The star around my neck has grown
heavy . I reach to unclasp it.
The flow of new blood rushes to my head-
I become/ drunk. Across the table

you are poised, queen of this household,
its many children. There is plenty
of bread here--no one will leave hungry.
The potatoes are perfect, buttered
and without skins.
I have eaten my fill.

June 22nd, 2000

"First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Trade Unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Trade Unionist
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me."
-Pastor Martin Niemuller

blood. i dream blood.
corpses of horses laid on their backs,
spines twisted, eyes frozen open.
genocide thickens this air,
leaves no room for breath.
i scan the pile for just one horse to lift its head--
even the trickle of vital fluid has frozen mid-stream,
between steaming carcass and my waiting feet.
the night before shaka sankofa is scheduled to die,
i dream blood.
morning. the smell of office:
air conditioning , unused paper.
fill each empty hour with phone calls,
grow small in the space between lunch and 5:00,
shrink until my skin hangs like a baggy suit.
this mundane continues to rock me like a lullaby only
tonight i dream blood.
each corpse marked by teeth and the claws of a lion.
not one horse left save the one I ride

i am the next kill.
8:49 p.m.. another voice silenced.
they covered his face with a towel to escape that terrible stare, but
no towel can smother his cry--
march on black people, keep your heads high,
shaka sang on last breath
push forward people. you can kill a revolutionary
they injected him with poison
but you cannot stop the revolution.
still one eye stayed open.

look closer at my skin: a white towel over his face
with delicate fingers trace the ashes left by human ovens--
put your ear to my chest, hear the whisper of whips.

we each carry a history that cannot be washed away,
not by showers or the crossing of ocean.
we are accountable for every life stolen.
it is too late to claim innocence,
too many casualties stain
our silent hands.
last night I dreamt blood.
shaka sankofa is dead.

The Gift

on my thirteenth birthday my mother whispered me,
a woman
in the blackness of my room
i close my eyes to forget my own finger.
think instead of darren sliding my head down to his crotch,
his sweaty eyes telling me that he loved me or some thing.
of greg rubbing his hands over my anthill chest until it was sore,
sure that I liked it.
every stroke tears flesh, breaks skin
bruising tender meat.
i taste the blood on my finger,
remember anthony probing inside of me in the cafeteria
while no one is watching and i am in love with him.
jagged nails rub faster, chafe delicate tissue
this fire rust smell is not mine,
must be doused with rose water.
i have never met a boy who likes this smell.
scouring now, a frenzy
my hand covered in tears-
( is this what she meant? )

loving myself
is not
an act of softness.

© Elana Bell

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