The candle fit the glass
the way my body
fit the case it came in.
But I’d heard of children
melted down—the fine
Today they sell them
stacked like beans
Grandma bought her candle
from the Yiddish store
on Cherry Street, set it
on the stove and lit it
wailing while the wax
turned clear as water.
Milk to clear to flame
to smoke. It guttered
in a foreign tongue.
I was a Maedel firm as wax.
I answered No to every hand
but stuffed the word
back down my throat
before it sounded. My mouth, a censor,
nothing passing in or out.
I’m six years old.
I wear my leather suit
without a sigh or wrinkle
and I plan to sing, to live
on prayer alone, to burn forever
with a clear flame and not be taken.
Editing the Haggadah on a Sailboat
Wafted along on an angel’s wing
I’m hard at my old redactor’s task
wielding my pen like a pilot knife.
The work goes well with a following breeze.
But soon we tack upriver, leaning hard
and wind grows stronger as we enter it.
I’m still fuming over platitudes, moved
by the simple son, the poor bread of slavery,
stunned by darkness and the killing
of the firstborn, drops of wine like blood,
the fierce plagues, frogs and hail
and boils. I’d point these savage beauties
out to my companions. They’re busy
doing God’s work, assessing
His winds and His tides. With luck
we’ll come to harbor in a room
with an open door. There
Elijah enters, shy as ever,
to collect his sip of sweet wine
from the offered glass and slip away,
causing the candle flames
to dip and flare, as a boat
will heel in a sudden gust,
then right itself.
We made a deal. We would celebrate
all holidays, though we believed in none—
the more the merrier: Santa Claus and
Chanukah gelt, Easter eggs and matzoh balls,
bonfires at the Pueblo on Christmas eve as the men
in blankets and guards in their uniforms
lifted the wobbly virgin in her painted
Sukkot to their shoulders, dancing her
around the plaza, guns going off, bonfires
crackling, bullet casings scattered in the sand.
Everything, a wonder, a glorious jumble
of old and new, a panoply, a shopping spree.
Why limit ourselves to one God, one tribe?
We believed in life, in celebration—and kept
a bottle of champagne tucked on its side
in the fridge, in case. And now that you
have passed beyond all ritual and revelry,
I’ve joined the synagogue of skeptics,
where I belong, where I’m at last at home.
Jean Nordhaus has published five books of poetry, most recently Memos from the Broken World (Mayapple Press, 2016) and Innocence (Ohio State University Press, 2006). She has published work in Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, the New Republic, Poetry, and Gettysburg Review. Born in Baltimore and a long resident of Washington, DC, Nordhaus has coordinated poetry programs for the Folger Shakespeare Library, been President of Washington Writers’ Publishing House and served as Review Editor for Poet Lore. To read more by this author: Five Poems, Vol. 5:4, Spring 2004