Riders on the Back of Silence

Cyrus Cassells

Brooklyn, the present day

I. The Spirit Box


A son is a steadfast
keeper of secrets,

a cupped palm, a calyx,
a son is a spirit box, listen—

I was born after armistice,
the fissured cities,

but slept nights
with a human smoke.

And though I never shuddered
from a black rouge

of rationed coffee
to keep clean,

the frost and sullen mud
of a forced march,

the unspoken, the unspeakable,
became my life:

I was a boy bathed in dreams
by a menorah fashioned against

the penalty of death,
a mysterious klezmer.

A son is a spirit box, imagine.

II. Riders on the Back of Silence


As a boy, my old-world aunts and uncles
would weep when I entered the room:

What did I have to do with sadness?
Their cryptic tears

and purse-tucked Kleenex
were my own tantalizing

Hardy Boys case to crack.
Gradually, as a junior detective, I grasped

how much I resembled
an uncle lost in the war,

and like the savvy, querying boy
at the Passover Seder

become a scrupulous man,
an inquisitive reporter,

I set out to track my look-alike’s,
my family’s wartime destiny—

What my father marshaled against,
what my mother endured,

the unspoken, the unspeakable,
became my mission:

though I was born in a venomless
time and suburb,

phantoms, chimeras breathed
in our never-quite-here-and-now house,

secret calendars of fire:
Mother, I dreamed we were

riders on the back of silence,
the wild unsaid beneath us:

horse, whale,

We never spoke of the war.
So with stark reading,

a well-thumbed
Diary of Anne Frank,

I resolved to imagine
pitiless showers,

whips and watchtowers
of brute commanders,

their Gypsy-less, Jew-less,
jerry-rigged heaven.

III. The Photojournalist


In my search for your cloud-wrapped past,

the wounded earth became mine,
and each time I aligned myself

with the exiled, the dispossessed,
I aligned myself with you.

Apprenticed to, obsessed with,
light and justice,

always I’ve tried to bring into focus
a girl, with war as her spur,

with hunger as her horse
and shadow—

Mother, in El Salvador
I couldn’t lift my camera

to capture the unearthed
bodies of silenced nuns:

I’m almost, but never quite,
inured to death:

a child in a jacket of flies;
the last typed lines of a friend,

a dissident poet whose body
was opened beyond belief—

In the Secret Annex, in the countless
precincts of strife, I’ve learned

an Esperanto of blood and hope
and forbearance,

as if someday I might receive my wish:
to read, on a night as serene as truce,

your long-awaited story:
the capo’s unrelenting curses,

a castaway’s pain:
I should know it by heart, Mother.

IV. The Antimiracle


At the spring’s start, there were fists
rather than fragrance,

April-upon-April hope
braided with arrests and betrayals,

as dark as the derided
spaces in our censored mail.

Garrisons, watchtowers,
checkpoints as daunting as Gorgons,

The borders became too-tight belts—

Long after the white of truce,
in restless sleep I struggled

to awaken the family dead,
to confess, unabashed:

Lampshades of sullied flesh,
linens fashioned of human hair—

I was not prepared
to stand outside humanity—

V. The Pet Name


Soft as a fontanel,
Dove was the pet name

you gave me as a boy,
and on the world’s battlefields,

like a drop of holy water,
its bolstering sweetness

became my talisman.
It was with me, mitigating, winged,

shielding me somehow,
as my lover Jaeger’s lens shattered

and his lifeblood
soaked into my shirt.

It was with me,
a thousand leagues from God,

when I photographed
a gassed village—

whole families
and their livestock hushed

as if by an invisible hand,
as if some heedless, insane baker

had dusted the afternoon
with flour.

VI. Trains


Today, amid the earliest birdcalls, the first
neighborhood sounds,

I swept the stoop,
leaned on the trusty broom,

and wondered:
If I could write, son, about those years,

where would I begin?—
Your grandfather was a stationmaster,

tall as a flagpole
and as taciturn.

And though his owl-gray eyes
have gone to earth,

I keep thinking he’ll round the corner
in his fastidious clothes,

carrying a sprig of asphodel
or fragrant honeysuckle—

so dignified with his gold
spectacles and timetables.

God took him the Sabbath before
the shouts and stones, the smashed

storefronts of Kristallnacht.
How it would’ve angered him to see

that his beloved trains
were used to betray us.

VII. Dove’s Arc


For years I dreamed maternal dreams
of your cozy security—

spacious freedom from pogroms,
all the misery the wide,

unmerciful world doles out
to Jews and scapegoats,

and always you seemed
determined to court danger—

So you want to know
about a prisoner’s,

a Häftling’s dignity?
This is what it meant:

at the roll call,
some anchoring wish—

or a shared shoe,
a black rouge of rationed

coffee in the camp,
to dodge selection for the flames ...

Truth to tell:
there’s barely been a day

when the filth of the barracks,
the fury of the camps

didn’t obsess my heart;
But I will go with you to Birkenau,

near the slain beasts
of the old crematoriums,

where everywhere you walk,
you are walking on human ash.

I want to leave something
sturdy in this world,

maybe a book
of live-to-tell truth,

grace and vitamins,
for those to come.

More than anything, son,
what I’ve wanted to tell you:

there was a woman of courage
in the camp,

and she shepherded me,
kindled me to keep me alive.

A clear light seemed to shore her
(as if we were seeing

a one-woman sunrise,
an unstoppable human dawn),

so that she garnered strength to share
her meager scraps,

strength to carry the ones
still minus an alphabet,

making up soothing rhymes,
little puddles of sound...

Like so many,
she died of typhus.

And after liberation,
in the DP camp,

amid the chaos, I prayed
my children would inherit

a portion of her spirit.
And it’s true,

you have some of her fearlessness,
her passion, you do.

Son, why didn’t I see it before?
How my hardscrabble prayer,

in it’s dove’s arc,
was answered.

Last updated September 26, 2022