"Bialystock, or Lvov"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
April 30 2002 4:37 PM

Bialystock, or Lvov

To hear C.K. Williams reading this poem, click here. A squalid wayside inn, reeking barn-brewed vodka, cornhusk cigarettes that cloy like acrid incense in a village church, kegs of rotten, watered wine, but then a prayer book's worn-thin pages, and over them, as though afloat in all that fetidness, my great-grandfather's disembodied head.

Cacophonous drunkenness, lakes of vomit
and oceans of obscenities; the small-pox pocked
salacious peasant faces whose carious breath
clots one's own; and violence, the scorpion-
brutal violence of nothing else, to do, to have:
then the prayers again, that tormented face,

its shattered gaze, and that's all I have,
of whence I came, of where the blood came from
that made my blood, and the tale's not even mine,
I have it from a poet, the Russian-Jewish then
Israeli Bialik, and from my father speaking of
his father's father dying in his miserable tavern,

in a fight, my father said, with berserk Cossacks,
but my father fabulated, so I omit all that,
and share the poet's forebears, because mine
only wanted to forget their past of poverty
and pogrom, and so said nothing, perhaps
where someone came from, some lost name,

otherwise nothing, leaving me less
history than a dog, just the poet's father's
and my great-grandfather's inn, that sty,
the poet called it, that abyss of silence, I'd say,
and that soul, like snow, the poet wrote,
with tears of blood, I add, for me and mine.

C.K. Williams's Flesh and Blood won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 1987. His latest book, Selected Poems, was published in 1994.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.