Old World Elegy
Listen: Old World Elegy (23:20)
1 
  
Always the soft silver of black-and-white. 
            The pupils and the camera’s click. The bride’s hands 
wrung nervously, rough—in the light at least— 
            from work. Always the tilted tiara. 
The bouquet of lilies and white-flowers behind her, 
            which here means happiness. The cord of lace across 
her collarbone, which here means honor 
            the ancestors. Her bridegroom waiting outside, 
telling someone ‘Ek wil opgaan,’ I wish to rise. 
  
Always the southern window. The garden planted 
            in memory of those who came before us. 
Always the stones: the wall around the farmyard 
            built by slaves two centuries ago. The other stones 
that mark the graves of the ancestors. Always the names. 
  
Always the orchard where we grew 
            and dried fruit. The ostrich, flightless, who walks 
among thorn trees. Always the weddings. The years 
            of drought. The gash in the land where we took of earth: 
shale, mudstone, uranium, gold. 
            And the land also. Dry wind. Dry grass. 
The southern window. The cord of lace. 
  
  
2 
  
The dead know only the smell of trees 
found near their own towns, 
  
hazel and ash. 
Or the smell of wood, which rises in smoke, 
  
dry as the earth, 
where they must stay, resolved, 
  
like hazel, like ash. A goat with black eyes 
bending to drink from a bucket 
  
beside the well. 
The water in the bucket. 
  
When did the grass grow thick 
with mint?  When did we think to build 
  
this fence? 
Why was this soil no good for us? 
 
 
3 
  
Elsewhere, our train pulses through a yellow landscape 
at full-speed.  A plume billows behind it. 
From a window, the sky ripples like a burnt map 
over this continent or that one—the towns, 
the countryside, the fields of wheat and goatgrass— 
broken up by roads and tan hills 
stacked like bread. 
                              Back there, in a village, 
women are sealing the backs of paintings 
with brown paper. They fold it over the edges of the frames 
the way they tucked their hair into gingham 
when they were young. They are scurrying. 
They are clothed.  
                              No one watches them. 
Now the candles are waiting on the windowsills. 
Now the wooden ladders lean into the attics. 


“Old World Elegy” was performed and recorded live at the Poetry Foundation on May 10, 2013, featuring Angela Tomasino with the Chicago Q Ensemble: Kate Carter (violin), Ellen McSweeney (violin), Bridget Callahan (viola), and Sara Sitzer (cello).
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