Three Poems by Melissa Range
Elementary Hebrew I: The Vowels
There was a time when all we had were roots
and stacked upon them, more consonants
and they were enough for us to guess at fire,
or toil, or ground. But later we wanted more;
we asked for vowels. And we were granted
vowels through our own hands, which we love
for their power. The Name knew what we’d do—
for are not our hands part of the movement of glory?
So we set one word aside and dredged points
for the rest, refining each letter’s slope and ledge,
inscribing our throats with the correct sound
for contexts clear and precise. We did not foresee
that our embellishments would distract us.
Now all we catch of light we sense
through their dominion. Benign as kings
and more to be feared, more golden and bitter
than Solomon in all his crumbling majesty,
they go before us and behind us and ensure
our victory over the mystery at the root
and in the marrow. We carry The Name
in locked chests, to bear the weight of our desire
for accuracy. When we lie down, we sigh
the vowels; we can make nothing without them,
nor in our pleasure or our rest can we forget
that we are knit with the sadness in our laws
of grammar. We spell, we write, we read:
blood spills from our mouths and into furrows.
You who would learn this language, beware
the vowels: to taste them is to know of sorrow.
[Originally published in Western Humanities Review]
in memory of Oscar Romero
Not to the blue fuses do I knuckle.
Not to boys’ muses—their sly kites,
skylighters loosing fire, without sweep or buckle,
onto a landscape so that they may blight
its hills and gardens into history. Or myth.
Not to these do I bow; not to the might
in a sibilant, the judge who hears one say shibboleth,
another say sibboleth, and knows, by accent, which to slaughter
(even though translators can’t grasp that glyph—
if it means corn, or flood, or if it matters
to anyone save the drawling Ephraimites’ lines);
and not to those who barter daughters
for armor or for spoils, who fold paper cranes—
those charms—from torn benedictions.
Not to such do I cede, but to these dangers: to the stones
hoarsely flinging requiem and jubilation;
to a rabbi weeping into his sleeves;
to women marching past the degradation
that the grave is not and singing from the eaves
with a prophet’s clap and spin; to the famed
doubter’s hands, full, the moment he believes.
To the far-sighted priest stammering every name
of the disappeared—¡presente!—like it’s his own,
because it is: because I was taken, aflame,
inside the stem to a place where atoms moan
in whirling congregations, where the tree’s coarse
green hem is for the healing of the nations. Flown,
it was in the core and pith, the cells’ recourse,
that I found love: I was forced.
[Originally published in Poetry London]
Prayers to the Birds
Mockingbird, tanager, thrush—you liltwings,
you hopscotch-skippers—forgive us our calling,
noun-bound to be proper, to freight
your pinions with what yokes our weight
to gravity, law, numbers, other fables.
Forgive us our starry quills, our parables—
rook, raven, crow, canary, dove—
our willful migration from love
to symbol. Wind-sickles, forgive us the sins
visited on Icarus, his fathers and sons:
our conceit in zeppelin and satellite, the feast
of false hawks, false eagles. Forgive us as priests
in slums and picket lines forgive the church:
in vigilance, mining the breach—
that sky—for something that will not be owned.
Cardinal, finch—forgive us our lone
hiding behind bushes, spying you out
when we should be flying at your side, not
from pride but from humility: that soaring
force that finds its power in adoring.
[Originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts]