If I ever get out of this whale, I’ll plant a sapling
in a square of tender earth. My love and I
will wake and sleep on the same
solid ground. The only waves will be
of our own making, our own salt.
I’ll wake to watch gradations of the atmosphere
that thin like a singer’s scale until
they break into mystery.
Beneath me, straightening my spine,
only the cold certainty
of a ground that loves me back,
that like a mother’s milk invents
medicine for the long shriek
coursing through my body.
That by its gravity chases out
the coward taking refuge there.
Jonah who I’ve swallowed every season:
you satisfy no hunger,
you are never really born.
Stay with me, you’ll see: in an empty lot
set for a sheriff’s sale, I’ll cradle
the young root ball, grip the still-
brittle trunk, watch the leaves
blush neon in a reluctant spring.
I’ll hold you there, tight to this slim
chance, while the climate blusters,
while around our voyage garbage undulates
like a flock of starlings, threatening the dusk.
Reviews describe the food of the only
Japanese-American woman making kaiseki
as ego-less, as though nobody slit
the tuna’s belly, toasted kombu over fire,
boiled spaghetti until it surrendered
its bite. Yes, of course, she told the reporter,
she bent to the old form’s creases,
heard history and myth crowd her kitchen
with instruction. Like the flourishes God
demanded for a portable sanctuary
as the Israelites wandered the desert, having fled
someone else’s ideal shape: build it
of acacia and gold. Bring ram and dolphin skin.
Isn’t it always hovering like a cloud
about to break: the one impossible
way to build a holy thing.
In a Philadelphia rowhome,
progressive rabbinical students argue
impossible must be relative. We
are a diaspora people: who among us
has seen ram-skin? who would know acacia?
The floors we stand on recently refinished
in pale oak, the copper fixtures new.
Whoever rattled in these rooms before—
dragged a cloth along baseboards, put weight
on a groaning stair—the house has shed
like chitin as the El trembled past. Mornings
in the city’s tunnels, I pass the remains
of tabernacles: crumpled bedsheets,
cardboard, single shoes. Overlay it
with pure gold. This, too, I tell my students,
has a form: Twitter rant, flood beyond
the levee, thread spiraling blindly
from its spool, these unrhymed
raining days. This too: years
of wandering, waiting for heaven
to fall to earth. Even if to build it,
you must bend in the wind
of your own loneliness, as even
the last train to New Jersey leaves you.
In the commentaries’ margins, rabbis sketched
the mishkan’s heavenly design,
desperate to imagine
the shape of their fathers’ survival.
So that in the mouth of nothing,
when the body was an empty
bolt of cloth, they still could finger
the skin of holiness, let silk lisp along
the tongue. In her gray apron, the chef
emerges nightly from behind
the shoji curtain, revealing her pale daub
of femaleness. Diners gape: in her hands
and so in their mouths, even strictness
glows radical. The unbroken line of ink
they have swallowed starts
to quaver, dissolve. But she
is steady: she adjusts acidity, she listens
until sea vegetables hum her the song of themselves,
the one that goes: in the house where we argue,
years before we learned the tradition,
someone drifted dust-like from room
to room, settling into the one where light
dappled the breakfast table, the one
with the chair that forgave the body.
And said to whomever
could hear: you who have made me
a sanctuary, I will dwell among you.
Leah Falk is the author of To Look After and Use (Finishing Line Press, 2019) and Other Customs and Practices (Glass Lyre Press, 2023). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, FIELD, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.
Header image by Tithi Luadthong, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Leah Falk by Sam Reed.