Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Paris in June and we are in love.
Delacroix, wine, late nights
at the Louvre. Liberté,
Égalité, Fraternité. And each
and every morning Camembert
and apricot confiture on a hunk
of good French bread—breakfast
in the park. A bench by the lilacs.
The park, Pour les Enfants—
a gated, safe place for little ones,
toddlers, chubby-legged preschoolers.
The sign said so.
Vive la France, we thought.
Funny how we never grew tired
watching them—digging in dirt,
spinning in place or herding ants
with a leaf. The pure concentration
it takes to be two years old: the gravity
of button holes, the trembling lip
and pride of holding fast
to one’s own red pail and scoop.
On our last morning we saw
the other sign erected in 1945.
The war over. The park
rededicated to les enfants
not permitted to enter these gates—
the yellow-starred ones who would
never come back. I see them
clinging to their mother’s skirts,
coveting the swings beyond the iron bars,
the just-their-size merry-go-round,
before le gendarme with the frown
and big stick threatens them away.
Add them up. The same ones,
six-thousand of them. Babies
ripped from their mothers, howling
in the brutal crush and bedlam
of Drancy—the internment camp
outside Paris, set up and organized
not by Germans but by the French.
Oh, that the tongues of lilac—
those silent witnesses–could speak
a different end to this story.
You, combing hair in the mirror
or engrossed in the evening news.
You, spearing asparagus, anticipating
the meat loaf, the fork shining
like your life, eager and balanced
in your hand. Can you not hear them,
frantic against the gates, whimpering
for their mothers? The big trains
warming on the tracks. What would
you give for your ongoing comfort
to not know what must have been said:
Shh, no crying. Mama’s waiting
at the end of this nice train ride.
She’ll be standing in front of another
set of gates, oiled to swing wide
and welcome you in. Up you go.
Copyright 2016 Alice Friman. First published in New Letters. Republished by permission of the author.