by Carolyn Kizer

Page 3

This is a new poem called "Gerda." You will see certain correspondences here. I will read you the epigraph and see how many of you understand it.

Gud, som haver barnen kär,
Se till mig som liten är.
Vart jag mig i världen vänder
Står min lycka i Guds Händer.

It's an old Swedish children's prayer, roughly the equivalent of "Now I Lay Me--"

Down the long curving walk you trudge to the street,
Stoop-shouldered in defeat, a cardboard suitcase
In each hand. Gerda, don't leave! the child cries
From the porch, waving and weeping; her stony mother
Speaks again of the raise in salary
Denied. Gerda demands ten dollars more
Than the twenty-five a month she has been paid
To sew, cook, keep house, dress and undress the child,
Bathe the child with the rough scaly hands
she cleans in Clorox; sing to the child
In Swedish, teach her to pray, to count on her toes
In Swedish. Forty years on, the child still knows how,
Is a great hit with the children under seven, in Sweden,
Singing a folk song, praying, counting toes.
For twenty-five dollars a month in 1933
Gerda makes for the child her favorite, fattigmand,
A mix of flour, milk and eggs you cut in strips,
Then fry in fat, then dust with sugar
(the child helps Gerda cook so she knows that).
In Stockholm the child will inquire of fattigmand,
But like lost Gerda it does not exist.

Deep in the Depression, the child fears for her
As Gerda trudges down the walk, four blocks to the bus,
Then the train to Minneapolis. What will she do?
Gerda, trained as a nurse, found no work before
She came to us. Twenty-five dollars a month
To sew a quilt for the child, covered with fabulous
Animals feather-stitched in blue and white;
Now after fifty years it hangs on the wall
Of the child's grandchild, in a Chicago house.
Then, when the child awoke, addled and drunk with
She dragged the quilt from her cot,
Stumbled sniffling into Gerda's room,
To be taken into her bed, soothed back to sleep
By the rough, antiseptic hands.

The child wakes up to naked light.
Ageless Gerda's steel-grey bob shakes into place
(she owns no mirror);
Blind Gerda gropes for her steel-rimmed spectacles
As the child sees, with fascinated love,
The curd in the corner of each of Gerda's eyes.
It is a magic substance the child has improvised
On a favorite tale: Hans Christian Andersen's
Snow Queen. She thinks of it as the good cream curd,
The reverse of the splinter in the eye
of little Kay: everyone, like the brave child in the story,
Everyone like Gerda.

Modest Gerda dresses in the closet,
Then the two on tiptoe steal to the child's room
So the stout handsome mother will not waken.
Then Gerda bathes the child, scrubs her hard all over
With the loofah, dries her carefully on the big warm towel,
Pulls on her panties of white cotton, then the dress,
Smelling deliciously of Gerda's iron, the dress
Gerda smocked at night while the household slept,
Then the pastel sweater Gerda knitted her.
The child sits on the edge of the bed while Gerda
Brushes then twists the child's fair hair
Into two fat braids secured with rubber bands.

The child, so much fairer than her parents, nearly believes
She's Swedish; is pleased then, and forty years on
To be taken for Scandinavian: Gerda's own.
Now Gerda pulls up the white anklets, fastens the sandals.
Down to the pantry!--where the child climbs into her chair.
Gerda sets three places, one for the child,
One for the child's imaginary playmate, one for her.
And they eat the lovely oatmeal Gerda cooked the night

Thirty years on, her father will remark,
Your mother was jealous
So we let her go. Of course I could have raised her wages,
Gerda ran the house!
The child's throat fills with bile
As, casually, he continues: I always let your mother
Decide these matters. Smug, he often used that phrase
As if the abdication of his parenthood
Had been a sacrifice. What did he know
Of the child's needs or passions?
So Gerda left the house, the yard, the garden,
The child's home long torn down,
A place that no longer exists.
Thirty-five years on, the child stumbles among the weeds
In search of the path down which her Gerda walked
Or a trace of the porch where she once stood, bereft.

The child's eighth year, like Gerda, disappeared.
Hazy recall of illness:
Asthma, the wheeze, the struggle for breath,
And the louder rhythmic wheeze of oxygen . . .
Of the weeks in bed, lying inert, nothing remains,
Only the pallid joys of recovery,
Jello and milk, ice cream three times a day
(was this a bribe?);
Dreamily sucking a spoonful of melting vanilla:
Only these splinters of a vanished year.

It must have been then that the ice-house dream began,
Her first and last recurring dream:
The child stands in a little room of ice;
Outside a song begins, impossibly nostalgic,
Played on a concertina or harmonium.
As the dream goes on
Slowly, slowly the walls move in, the ceiling presses down
Till she is encased in a kind of upright coffin
Of milky iridescent ice. Entranced by a vision
Of green hills and pure blue skies without,
She conceives freedom and flight!
She must memorize the tune as the ice moves in
To touch her on every side and on her head.
As the last, haunting note is played
The child wakes up. Of course the tune is gone.
It is always gone.

For ten years the child nurtures a secret plan:
A last she boards a train for the East,
Waits for the layover in Minneapolis,
Hurries to a pay phone, armed with change,
Opens the directory,
Faints to see four columns, closely printed,
Of Gerda Johnsons. How could there be more than one?
Ranging her nickels on the metal counter.
She calls from the top
As the hands of the clock spin round.
Gerda! Gerda! Half-a-page
With answers none, or ancient whispery Norse voices
Down a tunnel of years, and oceans crossed
And cold home villages abandoned long ago.
Then she runs out of change and time. A train to catch.
She weeps at terminated hope, nourished for so long,
As the old filmstrip runs again:

Gerda, you trudge down the walk forever;
The child, no matter how she calls and cries,
Cannot catch up.
Now from another life she summons you
Out of the earth or aether, wherever you are,
Gerda, come back, to nurse your desolate child.

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