Jean Nordhaus is the author of Innocence and The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn, and four other volumes of poetry. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, the New Republic, Poetry, and many other journals and anthologies. She lives in Washington, DC.
A Jew Returns to Cairo
Today you travel the globe in a business suit,
with a gold ring, a briefcase of leather.
You have mastered the formal and intimate you
in five languages, can order a cab in Japan,
know when the market will open in Athens,
but when you were eight and fled this land
you had only the scarred leather shins
of your long boy’s legs and a shoebox
containing your childhood. Your mother
today is a stout woman playing cards in Paris.
What is she doing here, slim again, hair wrapped
in a white cloth, shaking a rag at the sky?
And that chained house behind the synagogue
hides what lost quarrels inside? The thirsty plants
along the path still question your passage.
They scatter seeds of longing on your trousers,
arrows launched for some future arrival.
At your old school on the desert’s edge
you suffer the unbroken silence of plaster,
corridors smelling of clay. Names of children
gather into syllables: Yussef, in his cap
of light, Mohammed, moving his lips
across a text of water. Sparrows in the schoolyard
sink to feed, then start and flare away, fragments
of a blown calligraphy. You open your shoebox,
take out your soldiers, arrange them for war.