Ner Tamid

after Solomon Iudovin

The shoemaker labors over his leather, his work.

A singular lightbulb illuminates his hands, like a ner tamid,

stitching perfection, a livelihood. The artist considers him

an obsession, a relic to carve, “The Past,” Woodcuts, 1928.

The lightbulb, like a ner tamid, illuminates the shoemaker’s hands

that continue his skill; he yearned to be like his father,

an obsession. A relic of a man, in 1928, carved by the past,

by the pogroms. The shoemaker has not seen a customer for weeks.

Trade school molded skilled boys into the image of their fathers.

Sit here on this small stool in front of the table of tools

despite the pogroms and not seeing customers for weeks.

Darkness descends before nightfall, like the black of his modest vest.

Sit here on this small stool and imagine a pious man –

shoes strewn around him on a dusty clay floor when men were eager

for his goods and company, before darkness descended like a black vest.

The shoemaker smiles with pride, knows his people well.

With shoes strewn across the dusty clay floor, the artist

steadies his camera on the shoemaker labored over leather.

He knows his people well. Before turning a man into a woodcut, the artist

directs the lens, perfects a photograph, considers the shoemaker his livelihood.

Light and Dark

Rabbi’s family, Ostrog. 1912. Photograph by Solomon Iudovin.

I can keep still, my flat hands, my eyes direct, the fringe of my blouse unyielding. I did not pay that photographer to convert me into a lamppost, radiant mother of six out-of-focus striped hems, pressed sashes, shined leather shoes. Sly grin to the side, eyes upturned, my coy daughter, my rib. White cheeks of the sun turn the female half of us upward. Sure, I will inhabit a title of attachment, of the amorphous man whose shadowed body chokes the room into submerged eyeballs of masculinity. With my sons. Their blending fog. A threat reverses the pattern of a genre portrait, blurring tradition as light escapes from my crisscrossed feet under the chair, disturbs this stiff formality, and I will not bend his will. This man’s ethnographic body of art floats in a layer of clean water, catching the darkest light in the smallest room before extermination.

The Eisenhower Expressway Speaks, 1951

Boys wrestle in the pit

of me, a playlot

after their playground is torn down.

Journalists call them morons,

vandals, and hoodlums, but I like

their company, the love they make

in me, pressed into my rocks, my dirt

sprinkled with excavation debris.

My birth has been slower

than anticipated, my length, my due date,

my round-the-clock noise

expanding west of Chicago,

a slow season of change, of flight.

Everyone watches and waits.

After summer storms,

I turn into a brown river.

Boys bring rafts,

float through my stalled construction

like a vacation cruise.

Men scavenge for treasure

from demolished businesses and homes

to lure their women to me,

a lover’s nest,

at night.

The Near West Side sweeps

its sidewalks free of otherness

for me. Free of poor immigrants

and exiled refugees

who move North or farther West

when I intrude, slam the landscape,

so deafening, so white handed.

As crews shovel, they excavate and lift

dead bodies from under my skin.

I pause patiently, partly severed

as a cemetery relocates

for me. Then workers lie me back down,

smooth me out for miles.

After the next storm,

I cough up bones

and the boys play

fetch like dogs.

Jamie Wendt
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