Collision 41: January 2020

The Flight into Egypt – Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1627

On the Isle of Lesbos
for the ones who rescued refugees from the Aegean

Tsitsi Jaji

Months later, the island’s sheep
shuffle, uneasy with silence. Last year
a hundred thousand voices begged to be
buried here, not in Aleppo. They retched
as if heaving could save them. But only
thick seas of salt spilled onto the holiday

sand. An island man clenches his jaw.
The earth holds his only daughter still.
One Christmas, spasms seized her. The next,
her brother shook his way to lay down beside her
body below. Then this fishing man learned
what grave diggers know, by doing.

Only the boat’s lip remained, trembling on a crest
of sympathy. He moored himself in his nets, a morning
haul of squid mimed hope. Then the tide turned:
his arms flooded full of other men's
children, come to rescue him
from the ocean of a father’s unfathomed grief. Mothers’

mothers were caught off guard. They shepherded this
off-season crowd to the guesthouses, fed them ewe’s
milk, took care to pay their stumps no mind.
These sibyls already knew--from Turk and Greek—
how opposites can hurl waves of rage at
a no man’s land, and turn men and women to ruins.

If they had it to do over again, they would,
and could, now that their villages have cleared,
now that the boy’s photograph has won
its Pulitzer and slipped our minds. They feel washed
out, they feel their memories ebb. Their faint,
faded Sapphic rags must have been drowned out

by Madeira’s sirens, and Ibiza’s disco scene.
Once a day a woman sights a tiny ghost
toddling across the water. All these
islanders have earned is anxious rest.
Not even saints, stranded at home, can live
without bread to kiss and milk to rinse it from their lips.

From Mother Tongues (Northwestern UP, 2019)