The Johannesburg Review of Books presents a previously unpublished poem by Geoffrey Philp.
(For Jeffrey and Dina Knapp)
Shlomo is what the children call me,
the dark one of uncertain lineage
wearing clean but tattered clothes,
and speaking a strange language.
They chortle when I recite the words
of the Torah that I have memorized
from the time I was a child and burned
them into my heart, so they could keep
me warm when blizzards covered my eyes
in snow and my eyelashes fell on my shirt,
when the sun baked my crown and sweat
tasted like ash. Still, I am welcome in temple,
but I sit in the back, for the elders
are not sure to which tribe I belong,
what name will I give to Hashem’s question?
For what is a Jew
but a man who loves justice
more than his life;
who pursues righteousness,
and will not rest until the scales
are balanced for the poor,
the powerless widows and fatherless boys,
the strangers in our midst?
When the soldiers stormed into our village
on a night as dark as Hashem’s sorrow
and led our women and children away
on streets that sparkled as if stars had fallen
into the gutters, it did not matter to which tribe
I belonged or the name that was revealed
to me in the silence after I pored over the holy
texts, for they had sewn stars into our shirts
that denied our claim to the plots where our ancestors
slept, and inked their curses into my forearm with numbers
that proclaimed how they saw us: Judenschwein.
I am not the first, nor will I be the last
son of Abraham to endure cowards spitting in my face,
or listen to the bark of a soldier with a drawn bayonet.
For we have chosen to walk a path of grace
covered in the blood of martyrs, who have stood
for centuries against kings, petty tyrants, and empires
that have tried every solution to wipe out our brood
of survivors, who entreat heaven’s mercy with our cries.
So when the guards push against the door with their palms
after they have herded us into a washroom filled with poison
(the more air we inhale, the weaker our legs grow),
I will stand in the center with my fellow scarecrows
and chant against the darkness—sing my psalm
to Hashem and answer his question, ‘Yes, it is I, Shimon.’
Previously unpublished, © Geoffrey Philp, 2018
- Born in Jamaica, Geoffrey Philp is the author of the novel, Garvey’s Ghost. His work is represented in nearly every major anthology of Caribbean literature, and he is one of the few writers whose work has been published in the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories and Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. Through DNA testing, he recently discovered his Sephardic ancestry and is currently working on a series of poems with the New Voices Project.
The JRB Poetry Editor is Rustum Kozain
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