Grade A: Herald Angels Sing

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), December 2002.  The firebombing of Dresden would be remembered as one of the worst atrocities of World War II if it hadn’t been dwarfed by the Nazi Holocaust.  The Allies did make an effort to spare churches.  Dresden was in the zone that later became East Germany, so would’ve been occupied by Russian troops.  The “skinny people” are, of course, concentration-camp Jews.  In the years since I wrote this poem I’ve learned more about how the Russian occupiers punished the Germans by repeatedly raping their females, including little girls:  but I see no need to revise my poem, in which, it seems, I’ve protected my speaker from an even uglier reality than I imagined.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Herald Angels Sing

(Dresden, 1945)


The cathedral ceiling might as well be the sky,

so apart and faint,

nothing welcome likely to come down from it.

No heat except our couple blankets

and by day, the redundant puppetshow

of the stained glass.

The baptismal font is what we use to wash my only dress,

whose color I try to remember sometimes.

I stand in the blanket around my neck

and pretend I’m a queen being waited on

and at those times, I am.

We’re not supposed to go far from the cathedral

but sometimes there’s bread among the slabs

and if you leave it in the baptism water long enough

you can puff your mouth with it.

It’s not like we couldn’t find our way back,

we live in the only place standing.

I’m good at not stepping on the nails,

I’m good at not going under beams

the wind is waving.

And I weigh nothing.

I’m often chosen for these missions.

Father says less and less

except when he’s pleasuring the Russians out of

some of their vodka,

and except when he’s landed some

and falls to singing Christmas carols:

I don’t like the echoes,

the words of the carols return as other words.

But Mother said Father should be listened to.

I want to do everything she told me.

You learn things you never thought you’d need.

You learn what heartburn tastes like,

how to pinch lice in two,

how to be as small as you are:

this happens with the body and the voice.

The only people it didn’t work on

were those skinny people they brought through for one night.

They looked at my yellow hair

as if it were a mouth

and they were the waterlogged bread.