Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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49 Answers to 50 Questions

I was born in Fontainebleau, France, in 1956
I was born in Paris

In Fontainebleau where Emperor Napoleon
bade farewell to his Old Guard
saying, Adieu, my friends. Would I could
press you to my heart

Or in Paris near the Canal St-Martin
where barges moved slowly toward La Villette
the biggest slaughter house in Europe

My mother was either:

a Calvinist from Kentucky
a major in the US Army
who liked cigarettes & Bourbon
& only married when she was 40


a French housemaid
a Jewish orphan raised in a convent
who turned 19 the day
that I was born

Both of them are dead
both them lived in dread
of God & war
& bad news in the night

So do I

By the window in this rental cottage
are four birdhouses
inside, not outside
so birds can only window shop
only dream of a life inside a home
inside a home

I often feel the same

Either I had two mothers
or none
Neither option, biologically speaking,
possible for mammals

“The Jews deported from France
left quietly”—

there was, of course,
some weeping

On Bastille Day, every year,
I set my prisoners free

A fellow soldier shot
my mother in WWII. He was mad
She was lonely

That was one mother—

the other was on her knees
in a convent saying mass while
her parents were gassed in Poland

At least part of this
is something that I know

My greatest fear? That I am wasting
my life—though since you cannot
hoard time like pennies, I’m not sure
what I can do about it

In my dreams
I fly. In my dreams, I am
always outside, looking in
In my dreams, I am
inside a house that is
inside a house
inside a house. Birdhouses?
Universes? Then someone
shoots me from the sky
& I wake up

If I could be in France, 1956,
being born—I would know,
once & for all,
who my mother was

Why can’t I remember?

Why does it matter whose womb
I was lifted from
whose belly the surgeon cut
whose blood the nurses washed
from my downy head? Forget it,
I tell myself, death closer to me
every second than being born

& my own children closer
to me than any
of my mothers. Thus we set
the past wrongs right

which include all my
unkindnesses to both
my mothers

& give thanks
even for gifts
that came beribboned
in our blood

like the joy
I felt seeing
my own children
lifted from me

I should mention
my poor papa—who slept with
both my mothers
but who worked hard
came home
& read to me each night

I still tell myself stories
to help me fall asleep—
& it is his voice I hear
inside my head
even when what he is telling me
are lies

It was simpler when
I thought I only had one mother

I was lonely when I only had the one

When my daughter was four—
in a preschool where all the other
children’s parents were divorced
& remarried, or lesbians—
she turned to me & asked

Where is my other mother?

I wish I had just one of mine
to be a grandmother
to my children

This cottage where I’m sleeping
is like a birdhouse
I hear owls & stars
outside my window

Not sounds you hear in Paris

My mouth tastes like black coffee
stirred with a metal spoon

coffee black as the dreams
of the blind. No, I have
no way to know that
Black as the dreams
of my Kentucky mother
who used to scream no no no
at night

Once I took my children to
the top of the Eiffel Tower
where all Paris lay
spread at our feet
like a dream of a toy city

Once I was going to have
a second daughter
& name her Lily

I’d be lying if I said I
always told the truth. Sometimes
I just forget to. Sometimes I
don’t remember

Where do you find a legless dog?
Exactly where you left him

That’s a joke

When my daughter tells it,
it gets me every time

If you cut the wolf open
do you get your child,
your mother back again?

Or does that only work
for woodmen who carry
freshly sharpened axes?

I am not sure why
I wanted to name a daughter
Lily—a waxy flower appropriate
for funerals. For fleur-de-lis, I guess
For France
for everything I left there
birth mother
birth language
then Lily was lost to me as well

Love is a house
& we are hungry birds
inside it

Just writing that makes
me angry—me the chick
waiting for the worm—
in spite of having
two damn mothers. Why
am I so hungry?

is what keeps this birdhouse

My mother was a soldier
unless my mother was
a whore

A linguist told me once
human beings exist
to carry words
from one location to another
Language the chicks inside the birdhouse
Language what lives on

I also have a deep fear
of memory loss—forgetting even
what I cannot say I know

I am amazed by all
the things my son remembers—
names of kings, dates of wars
Little by little I am letting him
take over History
as a family dinner table topic

except for the secrets
except for the things
he will never know

It is madness, you know,
this trying to learn the truth about the past
It is madness to think
there is one

It is a grace to write a poem
& share my madness
with you, gentle reader

It is madness to think what
I write down & you read
is still a secret. But I beg you—
please, do not tell a soul

Can I trust you?

I miss Paris
I miss having two mothers, both of them alive,
each holding a hand
as we crossed the Champ de Mars

I don’t think that ever happened

I do not want to see
another funeral

I do not want to read
another will

I do not want to die
until my children are
much much older

I do not want to be buried
anywhere at all

I was born
a different person
one of those God chose then—
subsequently, historically—

In French, my last name sounds
like “heart of a knight”
but is Breton & means
“horse house” or plain old “barn”

The first name I carry now means
“God exists” though
I’m no proof

When I was born,
in Hebrew, my name
meant “lily”

Once & only once
I was born on the same day
in the same country
to two very different woman
& I have two birth certificates
to prove it

Proof, if you needed it,
that words on paper lie

Maybe the answer
is that there are two of me—
& I am the only one
who doesn’t know it

Never assume
a complicated answer
when there is one so simple:

my birth mother handing me
to another
never looking back

I want to go back in time
so I can hold their hands
so tightly
IĀ get to keep both mothers

but I cannot

In 1956, in France, I was born twice
to two completely different mothers

I wish that were a lie


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