Birthright + Rituals – Barbara Schwartz


… the detection of residual leukemia is fluorescence

During the war, my grandmother woke
from a mass grave and walked out

glowing. They say I have her shine: my cells
light up the room. I have become

delicate chemoed thing; my marrow blooms –
After liberation, she traded her lips and the last

of her small family for a scar and a stained wedding
dress. It wore me down; its black train left

marks on my wrists. As a girl I tried to save
every last weed still glittering in her

grave. Now I dream of women
walking without hair. Some shiver

like new petals; others almost laugh
and hold their stomachs. It’s hard to tell

what they are holding because their stomachs
have shrunk. Their mouths go slack

under the fluorescence.  It is strange
to see them clothed, to see their bodies

     turning toward smoke.



Before bed, my grandmother lathers her face
with vaseline, her neck, the tips of her ears
and elbows. Her skin aglow like newly risen dough.

She lifts a crooked finger, beckons a kiss,
and smacks me hard across the mouth –

Later, when the man I loved cheated on me,
when my my skin dried up and my blood
dribbled out like clotted milk, and I grew
childless and fat like a Buddha, I recalled

her words:  Stupid girl.


She can no longer perform
the rituals, so I do them for her:
Scrub her dentures, unknot her
uncurled hair, recall which drawers
hide real jewels, where the will
and bills have been mislaid,
slather, tweeze, tuck her
into bed (two pillows to prop
her head, one underneath knees,
three comforters in winter).
She strains to kiss my cheek.
I flinch. She laughs without teeth.


I watch my son cough
and turn in his sleep. I watch to keep
his breath moving through
his body, his breath that turns old
air new, carbon cycle that keeps us
growing old in our room.
Nothing less I give than breath
to this thought: I must keep him
alive. Breathing in the darkness,
I kiss the vaselined sheen
between his nose and lips.


Before my grandmother died, she said,
You were the light of my life,
the light of my life – 
She could not wait
to meet the baby.


Every visit to my parents’ house, a visitation –
My son points emphatically toward
the corner of the living room, between
the white wall and wood paneling.
I carry him closer to see what he sees:

nothing. He whimpers, buries himself
in my sweater. He is scared of white
paint? wood? We retreat. But he keeps
pointing at the wall. Perhaps
repetition is a kind of faith.


At her unveiling, the dirt was gleaming.
My uncle said a prayer in a language
no one understood. A half-bloomed
umbrella swayed shielding
our eyes from full sun. We prayed
and no one understood. But you knew
something deep in your growing
and knelt down in the sweet
grass beside her grave
to point and grin and say
star star star


Barbara Schwartz is the author of the chapbook Any Thriving Root (dancing girl press, 2017). A finalist for the 1913 Poetry Prize, her hybrid poetry manuscript What Survives is the Fire was selected for Boomerang Theater’s First Flight New Play, and has been included in The University of Miami’s Holocaust Theater Catalog. Her poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Upstreet, Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, and elsewhere. 

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