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Beth Winegarner

   

Fatherland

You must have been drunk
the night you told me about Záhony,
your great-aunt’s tiny village
in the northern plains of Hungary,
so close to the Soviet border
that a child of seven could make the march alone.

Most days, you wouldn’t even tell me
your full name—as though by denying
those twelve letters you could escape
your roots in people whose blood
won’t pump without tokaj, whose very chromosomes
are etched with the inevitability of suicide.

But that night, in a manner you never do,
you paraded out the members of your Magyar family
like rare scarves, each one fluttering
in a distinct color, each one torn differently.
Woven at the center was your grandmother,
the only one who made sure you weren’t starved
for love or food, until the winter took her.

I confused the faces of your ancestors
with Kundera’s characters; those summer tables
crowded with workmen’s elbows and laden
with fresh roasted meat, dumplings,
bread for sopping up the juice that bleeds from marrow-bones,
which would be stored away for winter broth.

You were Tomas, and your married lover was
Sabina, sexy and exotic with her dissident’s heart.
Was I Tereza? I imagined we might run away together
to the Eastern European countryside,
where we’d raise food and make babies
and wait for the world’s wars to die out.

To think I romanticized communism
before I met you, before I realized
you called your Sabina the “party leader,”
before I saw how proudly you waved her flag
higher than any other. She made you love
your blood in a way I never could.

And yet—and yet. The December night you and she
got drunk on cheap Kentucky bourbon,
living the Hunter S. Thompson dream, let me ask:
When you fell to your knees in broken glass
and bled through the hotel towels, did she call 911?
No. She tried to save her own skin first.

It’s easy to pretend you’re in paradise
when, just across the border, Soviet ghosts loom
like the sour face of your father. But in your bones
you know the truth: the communists held you down
for fourty-four years. This is whose flag you fly?
She would sell you for parts to build a new rifle.

What happened to the boy you were? The one who,
at seven, stepped across the border and waved
to the Russian guard cradling an AK-47 in his hands.
It was the kind of gesture we fetishize in children
because as adults we are too frightened and ashamed
to share joy with someone whose job it is to carry a gun.

These borderlands will not yield any more secrets.
I have stopped dreaming of Budapest, of holding your hand
as we retrace the railways of your childhood.
Even your favorite freight train no longer carries grain and machines
to comrades in L’Viv and beyond. Honesty is lost,
and only propaganda sings in your father’s son’s veins.

 

 

Fading in Desperation

Tonight the houses cling to the hills
like the men (who built them 40 years ago,
who believed all these right
angles and huge windows were timeless)
cling to their faded ideology: out of need.

From up here they watch through glass eyes
as the sunset’s shadow sweeps east across the city.
They see everything as it changes, as ports and
power plants close, as towers
are erected and demolished,
created and bombed,
rising and falling in no way like the tide.

A half-mile away, in the canyon, a red-tailed hawk
hovers high, searching for its kill.

Why do humans convince themselves,
when they destroy, that they are building?

  

  

Beth Winegarner is a poet, journalist, and the author of four books, including Beloved, Read the Music: Essays on Sound, and Sacred Sonoma. Her poems have appeared in New Verse News, Bardsong, and Tertulia, and she has reported on the news of the San Francisco Bay area for the past 11 years. She lives in San Francisco with her partner and daughter.
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