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Paul Minx is a poet, playwright and screenwriter. His poems have appeared in The Nation, Iowa Review and California Quarterly, among others. His plays have been produced extensively in the UK and New York. In London his play, Walking on Water, won the Off West End Award for best new play. Most recently, his screenplay, Atlantic Crossing, was adapted into a miniseries and appeared on PBS last year. It won the International Emmy for Best mini-series. He attended the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and the Yale School of Drama. He lives in London.
The Pink Suitcase
It was a stop I never intended —
the wrong train from Frankfurt –
I ran to catch it, only realizing my mistake as it pulled away.
The train is overfull, air conditioning
on the fritz, bar car out of booze: a never-ending day
short of consolations. I am in Germany
to update the flow chart of my family’s genealogy. Dad,
my flickering North Star
has died. I am unmoored.
Where am I going now? Würzburg, first stop.
I carry my bags through the scramble of commuters.
I almost miss it,
sitting forgotten on its own black plinth,
a pink suitcase hewn from color-flecked granite —
taffeta lined, toe-capped shoes, a child’s teddy bear,
camisoles and bloomers cascading onto the street.
“A Place to Think,” the sign says in German and English.
I’ve stumbled onto holy ground.
Heat lightning in the distance, intermittent thunder.
The trees bow and curtsy in the blustering wind.
The air’s charged, all ethereal. I can’t sleep.
From my hotel window I watch
an elegant swan of a man
in a beaver fur coat, fedora clutched.
He has the same impracticality of my father – same high forehead,
same cornered-animal look —
moves like him too, begrudgingly, in butterfly steps,
as if he’s afraid to step on the world.
A younger man rushes up — his son?
He walks him to the memorial
and with nonchalance, reaches down
and hoists the pink suitcase.
I can read the father’s train ticket from here:
third-class, Dachau …
I run down to stop them.
They are nowhere to be found.
from too much caffeine, the next morning
I stand among burger wrappers, vagrant receipts,
among the sleeping strays and homeless
who have commandeered the memorial overnight,
I try to lift the pink suitcase. It won’t budge,
unwilling to make last night’s trip twice.
Is Dad’s death driving me crazy?
He had a stroke. My hands-on accountant sister
moved him into a multi-bed facility: “It’s minimal.
Don’t complain. It’s all we can afford.”
I told myself it’s too far to visit, I’m so busy –
What did Dad and I have to talk about anyway? Sports? The weather?
I’ll go when we can have a proper visit …
soon, I promised myself …
then he died …
I study the copper alloy plaques, there are photos:
2,000 Jews left Würzburg, 20 came back.
For them, this humble train station
was the entrance to hell. My own bereavement
feels self-indulgent in comparison.
A temple of sky, necklace of lakes,
ranks of Baltic pines over lush pastures.
Family surrounds me here, broad-faced relations
on the Polish side of the country.
A dinner of sauerbraten and schnapps,
then family rounds, singing a capella,
a tradition lost in our American diaspora. I mouth
nonsense syllables in German.
My little cousin notices and giggles.
Dad only visited once. He came bearing
American cigarettes, toothpaste, 45s:
Elvis Presley’s “Jail House Rock” still has pride of place.
He brought me too – a nappy-clamped, two-year old
“jam-packed with potential.” He proudly stood me on my toes,
made me kick a ball.
My stateside father was distant,
bitter, morose. He nursed a self-devouring heart.
I found the two men hard to reconcile.
After dinner my German-speaking great-aunt Lena
pulls me aside, showing me the overstuffed family album:
photos, newspaper clippings, birth certificates,
uncle this, cousin that – most all dead now. Dad escaped,
she takes pride in that. He built a shiny,
stainless-steel American business. Proudly,
she shows me his very first business card.
I don’t have the heart to tell her he died penniless
in a dirty nursing home. I start crying.
How can I explain myself? I call
my niece to translate: please tell her
I’m just tired, it’s been a long journey.
Back home I exile myself with busyness …
A year later a cumbersome package arrives.
It’s from my niece, Lena’s photo album. My great aunt has died
and she left it to me in her will. She also sent a message:
the photos, all the loss,
it made her cry too.
Who was this man, my father? Personal questions,
all feelings, were “verboten.”
I look in my bathroom mirror.
People say I closely resemble him,
still ride the strands of his DNA.
The temperament’s similar too, I suppose –
meekness masking dark fire.
In some pictures he’s reconciled to life.
In others he’s a gurning dog trying to impress.
I have to find which parts of this man
still live inside me. I turn the pages
of Aunt Lena’s legacy, hoping to find out.
The Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is an area of Northern Ireland with 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. It is associated with Finn McCool, a mythical hunter-warrior, who supposedly built the ‘causeway’ so that he could get to Scotland to fight another giant.
More basalt than sandstone,
your hard face fell
from these cliffs. Your hands,
fissured gloves, your smile a cravass.
I watch you leap between the hexagons,
one foot per scale, landing as silently as light.
We mustn’t wake Finn McCool, you say.
His face, drowned twice daily,
glowers back at low tide.
He can boil the sea with his rage.
We walk on. Spheroidically weathered basalt,
reddish laterite peeking through …
This is your sanctuary —
no guilt, all forgiveness.
Baptism comes in shrouds of rain.
You lead me up the Camel’s Back —
a Bactrian camel, I assume — two humps.
The entablature of the Giants Organ
glows distantly in the mizzle. In the darkening,
cliffs fold in on cliffs,
outblacking the night. On burnished rock
as slippery as ice,
I slip. You catch me with grace,
as if you knew I’d lose my footing.
I am charged by your touch. Why
are there so many things we can never be:
together, comforting, brazenly in love?
We will wait for Finn McCool.
Once every thousand years he wakes,
armed and uncensoring, passion’s pterodactyl.
He will carry us on his sinewy back
through the uncharted caverns of the night-sky.
That will be our sanctuary –
inside out, in the cochlea of dreams,
where we can be as free as monsters,
untamed and pulsing with life.
— For my sister
Snuggled in your cozy cupboard of a room,
sun-striped, skin flaking in confetti,
you dream in empty star ships
heading home. We did our best not to bicker,
waltzing you down that abandoned beach, rhizome family fingers entwined.
We built you fanciful sand castles,
covered you in blankets of forgetting.
Sleep, forgetful sleep, we chanted.
Give us more time to figure things out.
We couldn’t protect you from what we didn’t see:
a red fox cub, hungry, reckless,
hobbling toward you across the simmering pavement.
You lured him with crisps and water,
Lost siren songs of the parking lot.
You wanted nothing more than to help an animal in need.
When we finally flew over, arms flailing that
Starving cub away, you were devastated,
resentful, bleating, “Who’s going to save him now?”
In dark fleets he returned to you, his failed savior,
Desperate, wheedling, swelling memory into tumor,
To be unravelled only later by therapists.
Dearest, bidden or not, life’s troubling foxes
inexplicably come to all of us. Someday
when you need to explain this to your own
you’ll offer the same timeworn tools. With some luck,
love and a few white lies, you’ll hopefully
be better at easing a little one’s terror.
© Paul Minx