The Immigrant, 1909 by Kenneth Wolman

Of course she could not remember, at age 3,
the train from Odessa, the boat from Hamburg,
the first vision of New York.

Her parents would speak of it: the fear–
“Will we be sent back home
no longer home, Russia that coughed us up,
a hairball from a giant, vicious cat.”
Thrown into unheimlichkeit,

where were they at this end of time,
at this desperate beginning?

Her father finds a job right away,
tailors and cloakmakers always in demand,
there are bundles to sew,
the hours are death in life

but it is work to pay the rent,
to feed their children. The oldest
marries in 1907 and is able to leave,
but mother is a baby, trapped
in Jewish East Harlem, among her
sisters, five more, some able to work
at the same sewing machines.

Then miracle–the last child, a son,
born here, the first not of Russia.
And of course there is a bris,
though her father is a committed socialist.
He is also a Jew.
So there are unaffordables:
cakes, sweet wine, whiskey.

And there is my mother who disappears,
weaves the crowd in the house,
finds her way to 109th Street,
unnoticed in the noise,
lost at once in the City

and quickly terrified, cannot
find her way back home
amidst the trains running overhead
on Park Avenue, she does not know
the word Lost, she has no English,
barely Ukrainian, and cries
standing beneath the railroad tracks.

Patient cop finds her and leads her
up and down side streets, but then
finds her sisters rushing panicked,
running to seek her. The oldest
grasps her, thanks the cop,
leads her back into their home

and the mother, terrified, grateful,
screams at my mother
Що ви робите для мене in Ukrainian,
What are you doing to me? beside herself.

Alone in her room,
she cries herself asleep
clutching the pillow,
family forgotten, fear never,
a life legacy of train horns
of arms reaching for her
while she pushes them away.


Kenneth Wolman is a retired technical writer and college teacher now retired to the Berkshires. He was the 1995 winner of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Poetry fellowship, and has published in a variety of online and print venues.

 

 


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