Masterpieces of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity
A United Nations designation
by susan cohen
Now that they’ve listed falconry and tango,
the Vimbuza Healing Dance and the Carnival of Binche, I invite
experts to sort through the babel that is my heritage.
Here’s a copper samovar minty with the thickness
my mother’s mother stirred into her English.
Here’s the intangible scent of aspiration nestled
in her stacking tables, their gold-tooled leather tops.
I know we did a shabby job of preservation,
that we dismissed brass candlesticks from Friday nights,
lost words right to left, forgot the very relatives
whose Hebrew names we carried.
Things go missing between countries, centuries, vans.
Items roll off tables, get swept into corners, chased into graveyards.
Only movers need account for what they drop,
not four brothers who each invents a new last name;
not a widow who ships her seven sons and daughters
to America one by one, each with as much choice
of destination as an envelope; not an immigrant
in Boston who crumples a damp telegram:
POGROM LAST NIGHT BROTHERS SISTERS ALL STOP
We own only pieces of the sad luggage they carried in their eyes.
I propose desperation as my heritage. Traveling light.
A tentative handshake with life.
I suspect anyone whose grip is firm, people
who announce they’re comfortable in this world.
I claim a family kind of knack for stops and starts,
for knowing things are bad but could still get worse.
I nominate my father’s jokes, his form of prayer.
I’m willing to sign an affidavit that we have a sense
of rhythm for the tap dance of survival
and that we love ideas and words, especially
in books. Here’s tikkun olam “repairing the world” –
tired, bloodied but still taught.
Susan Cohen lives in Berkeley, where she is a poet and journalist. She is the author of Throat Singing (WordTech/Cherry Grove Collections; 2012) and the 2011 winner of the Rita Dove Poetry Award, the Anderbo Poetry Prize, and an Atlanta Review International Publication Prize, among other honors. For more information: http://www.cherry-grove.com/susan_cohen.html