A response to Marc Chagall’s mural Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, Moscow, 1920
Scene 1: The Violinist Plays and Speaks
I play LARGHISSIMO for the wickedness of man
upon this earth: a cruel simpleton of a Tsar,
thugs with guns carrying crosses before them
as they hunt down Jews, a gas-mask war,
revolution, arrogant commissars,
counter-revolution, Russians fighting themselves,
a corpse found in the spring thaw
frozen all winter aiming his rifle,
winter without coal, puny rations,
bluish milk, sickly and dying children.
There will be something better. Now I play
ADAGIO, and so I make out of nothing,
with my strings and bow, a theatre. Listen!
And see! Out of the house of a rich man
that fled the mob, I make a playhouse for the Jews,
once banished from the Tsar’s holy nation.
I make a place for them in the very heart
of the city that is Russia’s very heart.
I play two thousand years of spit
and blood. And I roll it all into a ball
and scrawl it out in pencil in the picture’s corner
as a Jewish boy in trousers with polka dots
on one of his pants legs and stripes on the other.
And look! He’s peeing on a pig!
Scene 2: The Boy Speaks
Take that! you swine-headed looter — for pointing
your pistol at me that night in Petrograd!
I lied so you wouldn’t shoot me. I am a Jew,
and you’re an oink-oink! You made me deny my father
while he prayed in the synagogue. May his soul
forgive me. I so wanted to live and paint.
Scene 3: The Violinist Again Plays and Speaks
He forgives you. Go and paint — and listen!
I play ALLEGRETTO and make new things.
I make three acrobats in commedia costumes.
They race around the stage and stand on their heads!
Scene 4: Benyomin, One of the Acrobats, Speaks
I wear phylacteries containing holy words
strapped to my arm and forehead while I stand on my hands.
Why not? And then, I play pranks,
just to make you laugh. Why not?
Scene 5: The Violinist Once Again Plays and Speaks
In Petrograd, the audience was hardly more than a lamp.
Now they have a pleaser of crowds, a curly-haired
artist who paints, first and last on his mural,
cows that give real milk and a rainbow
of many colors, and only one is black.
With my bow and strings I make the waters come
and I make them recede. I make a new place.
I make players of cymbals, a flute, a shofar,
and a horn. I make players out of tradesmen and peasants.
I make players who speak for themselves. Listen!
Scene 6: Benyomin Speaks Again
Where do we come from? The Revolution, of course.
We are like the grown man drawn in graphite
who’s being circumcised. We are Jews by choice.
The Tsar is gone. Now we are real Russians.
We don’t forget a father’s hands in freezing
fish brine, the aroma of a mother’s fresh
baked bread, the living stones of Moses.
Or the colors of Noah! We paint ourselves red
and yellow, green and blue. We play our tunes.
And our parts. We make the faces of the shoemaker,
the rabbi, the butcher, the scholar, the landlord, the tailor.
We sing, we dance, we scheme, we kiss the girls.
We joke. We make mischief. We turn the world
upside down! We have fun!
Warren Harris’ poems have appeared in a number of periodicals, including “The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review,” “Pembroke Magazine,” “The Main Street Rag,” “Poem,” “Ekphrasis,” “Other Poetry (England),” “The Penwood Review,” “The Howl,” “Edgz,” “Big River Poetry Review,” “freefall,” “Mobius: The Journal of Social Change,” “Candelabrum Poetry Magazine,” “Flaming Arrows (Ireland),” “The Powhatan Review,” and others. A book of his, “The Night Ballerina: A Poem Sequence in Seven Parts,” was published by BrickHouse Books in May 2012. He has also written several verse plays and adaptations, some of which have been performed in small venues in Chicago, Virginia, and New York City, including one broadcast on New York City public radio.