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Sample Poems by Elisavietta Ritchie

Magdalena’s Journey

We might have a storm, or war,
by afternoon so, checking our supply
of candles, canned food, cabbages and bread,

(not much left to buy),
we shut the windows, lock the door,
put another blanket on the bed.

We must leave the country
and somehow get his aunt out.
We can’t let her go home.

We have our passports.  She
needs new documents, forged.
She is old, but well-known:

They still photograph her eerie eyes,
strong jaw, long hair now gray,
her strange navy cape.

We weigh her disguise–
shall we pad her into a portly man,
or a nondescript crone, dye her hair?

We cannot plan aloud:
the children are young,
might not keep our secrets.

At home we only discuss
schoolwork or weather. Neighbors
eavesdrop, others keep watch.

The children point out a new device
(camera or telescope?) on the roof
across from our flat.  

They don’t ask why the men
hold rifles, but may understand
why we avoid the balcony now.  
Even the striped kitten hides indoors.
He knows. We whisper: “Tonight.”
In the back room, his aunt

stuffs money in linings,
sews necklaces inside hems,
pads her shoes, ugly but tough.  
She crops her hair like a man’s,
turns it black with shoe wax,
shortens my husband’s old pants.

First, she will set off with him,
as if two workers for the night shift,
sausage and bread in their pails.

She knows where to buy
new visas and documents
with her emerald ring.
I’ll take the children at dawn
to the central market for rare
raisin buns—they like excursions.

We’ll all meet among onions, potatoes,
together filter away from town,
take the back road to the border.

I fold one change of clothes for each,
roll them small in the baskets, dole out
the bean soup. “Always travel with kinjals,”

his aunt whispers as she hones the curved
dagger. “The blade will slice bread, meat,
a homely turnip, if need be, a man.

“Journeys are hard, best sleep now.”
We settle her in our bed, he takes the couch,
I fold into sleep in the closet.

I wake only at dawn. No one here!
Papers, school books and clothes
lie scattered across the floor.      
Baskets and pails are gone, no food left.
Frantic, I button my coat, heavy now,
tuck passport and kinjal inside my boots,

lock the door, rush downstairs,
nod to militiamen on the corner.  
They look me over.

A meow from the balcony rail.
I should walk on, but return.
The navy cape flung on the floor—

cold outside, I will need a wrap.
The kitten hides inside its folds.
In the market I dart stall to stall

as if searching out the best
bargains in cabbage or carrots,
check over my shoulder.

I buy scabby apples, grainy bread,
fill my other pockets with cheese,
for the kitten filch a fish tail.

The sun climbs the sky, tips
into clouds…Late. Stalls close.
I start for the border.

A shepherd warns: “That hill
is new. But next spring the weeds
will grow over bones, saplings sprout

from the hearts of the dead…Hundreds.
This morning. And children. The old.  Do not
try to cross, not by the road. Leave your cat

for my mice. Tonight I will lead you
over the pass, with care, for the moon
will be full.” “How empty my whole life now!

I will sleep, eat and die alone
in a strange land.” “Alone,” he says,
“you may live, return to fight.”

Keepsakes, Dachau

 7 October 2000 

I pick up two small stones:
one, crisscrossed black
over white like barbed wire,
the rounded end smooth
as an infant’s cheek,

the other end where
the stone split apart
sharp as a knife
or an ancient flint
for skinning wild beasts;

the second pebble,
beige-white, resembles
a petrified bone
incised with fine lines
and charcoal-tinged.

Stealing Blackberries at Port Arthur                    
            a former penal colony in Tasmania

Such huge berries—
I would risk everything for them…

Yet my pilfered feast
honors bitter histories.
For lesser crimes
even boys got flogged,
deported to this chilly British gulag.                   
Nostalgic colonists, prison staff,
transported roots from distant
English gardens.

Now vines lace up this gully
strewn with rubble.
Thorns scratch, tendrils wrap
crumbling sandstone blocks
tumbled from the burned-out church
and broken jail the convicts built

before they died of hunger, cold, or discipline,
and a mate, assigned the task,
dumped them in a pit
in common anonymity
to nurture rhododendrons,
eucalyptus, berries fat as these…

Today three white mares, ten brown steers,
a flock of white geese and a pair of dark ducks
graze this paddock, observe my theft.  
My stains betray the berries’ succulence.

Did at least a few despairing men
steal away from forest or quarry
to snatch a handful of berries
before the birds?

For a Certain Poet in Prison

though you die
who can close
your eyes

they tried
to silence
your lips

but your ears
record footsteps
of roaches and soldiers

smashed finger tips
translate specks
into syllables

the thought
of a bird
into song

dead your eyes
never shut      
you dream still

        For Maxine Combs

A skiff or whaleboat caught
in a northeaster far out.
Skipper prays to ride the crests,
not founder in the troughs,
and reach whatever shore—

That’s the cyst in shades
of gray on the sonogram.
A device like an MC’s mike
skims the dead-calm surface
of the questionable left breast.

Benign, reads the report.
Yet just as meteorologists
with radar screens and satellites,
helmsmen with sextants and charts,
cannot guess right each time,

so a shipwrecked skipper
at the lifeboat’s oars
must keep rowing, hoping, rowing
toward what might be a port,
or the wind-spun heart of a hurricane.