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The Singing Forest

A red and ocher forest near Žilina
was my earliest classroom,

my first wondrous library
and lavish sanctuary:

on autumn hillsides,
my just-widowed mother and I

would cull plump woodberries
and wild mushrooms.

As a towheaded, willing boy,
I was taught to venerate

each forest thing,
singing in Slovak,

in the treble clef,
dobre, dobre

(good, good)
as my spellbound eyes passed

from branch to glistening branch.
Don't stray too far, son;

don't step on the wand
of the

the sweet-souled forest witch,
my mother would tease me—

So when the schnapps-fueled German soldier
gestured and said,

Do you hear that music?
That's the singing forest

I was whisked, rabbit quick,
to my childhood copse

to Mother's robust rendition
of How Does the Czar Drink His Tea?

to the stone ribs
of the flying castle of Lietava—

Amid the crows'
tattooing caws, I detected

a strange bellowing,
then I glimpsed them

above the Nazi's spittle-bright
jest and helmet:

a row of men hooked
to dispiriting poles.

And suddenly I grasped:
my cry, my unchecked agony

would be subsumed by theirs—
Dangling, ebbing, I imagined

Mother's consoling alto:
Quick, Slavomir, focus

on the streak of the deer,
like an August star

Then, in a moment's match-burst,
someone cut me down,

convinced I was a corpse,
but I was stubbornly alive—

And the immense light, the prevailing
singing that supplants crucifixion,

parted the forest.

Cyrus Cassells

The Crossed-Out Swastika
Copper Canyon Press

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