Ilyse Kusnetz







Match Girls


In the factories of America

during the nineteenth century, girls


hired to make matches

would dip the match ends


into a chemical vat, then

lick the tips to make them stiff.


Phosphorous vapor

filled the air, a poison


about which no one warned them,

so when their teeth fell out,


and their jaws rotted

like bad fruit, it was too late.


It was not the first time

such things happened.


Bent at their work stations,

women in the eighteenth century


cured ladies’ hats with mercury.

Their legacy – blushing, aching limbs,


a plague of rashes, parchment-thin

pages of sloughed skin, curled


and cracked, minds deranged.

They could not know they shared a fate


with Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who

seeking eternal life, swallowed pills


laced with mercury. He built the Great Wall

and unified China, then outlawed all religions


not sanctioned by the state,

burned treatises on history, politics, and art.


Scholars who dared possess such things,

he buried alive. His body lies


in a vast mausoleum, guarded

by a terracotta army.


Of the factory girls, mouths opening

below earth, their bodies


burning like forbidden books,

we know almost nothing.




The War Years


Years my father paid a nickel for all-day movie Saturday at the People’s Cinema,

could hop a train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, bebop at the Royal Roost,


big band at the Paramount – Gene Krupa drumming like a demon,

Harry James on the horn, loving that wicked brass like it was Betty Grable


before he got busted for coke and she left him. Years my father

rounded the corner of Saratoga Avenue and Livonia on the way to synagogue,


or past his grandfather hovering on the stoop, cigarette a seesaw

bobbing at the old man’s lips. Years my father snuck into the Metropolitan,


memorizing the curves of Reclining Odalisque, how light fell

on Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, the way pharaohs in sarcophagi


reminded him of his tante’s old matryoshkas. Some afternoons, those years,

my father would stow his books and just wander –


his father, an arcade-owner, dead of a heart attack a week after LaGuardia

smashed the boroughs’ pinball machines, while Uncle Lou planned union strikes,


asking Don’t you think workers should have rights? My father popped

carnie balloons for cash, played keno under the IRT, dreaming egg creams,


Coney Island hot dogs, the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. And though the war

was everywhere, it wasn’t yet in the subtitled Soviet films


on the People’s screen, or in elevated train-cars, in bebop and big band,

in hushed and glowing galleries of brushstrokes and gilded graves


within graves, it wasn’t in the jangling recoil of ball after ball, as if that boy

could simply fold up entire years and slip them in his pocket,


walk off into the future humming Sleepy Lagoon, we’re deep in a spell, and

I’ll Get By, as long as I have you, as long as I have you.






Here, a stagnant, nervous peace –

wood pigeons startling from crepe myrtles,


a lawnmower’s muffled buzz,

dead horses of bicycles in driveways.


Drunk on Jack, our neighbors argue

a familiar, unsolvable equation –


transmuted by the kindness of walls,

their voices echo down the block


a call to prayer, but tonight

the gods of suburbia are busy elsewhere.


Perhaps they are watching over our children

whose nature it is, when left alone too long


with their unbearable heaviness, to flail

against what injures them, to make of themselves


a kind of weapon. Why are we surprised

when teenagers tie firecrackers to a stray dog’s tail,


or strap rifles over their thin-boy shoulders

like messenger bags?


I think of Shrapnel setting targets in the field,

how each day he’d plan and test the limits


of his campaign, searching for a better way to inflict

damage, to expand the known radius of pain.




Hitler’s Alarm Clock, 1945


          Für frieden freiheit und demokratie nie wieder faschismus millionen tote mahnen.

          (For peace, freedom and democracy, never again Fascism, millions of dead admonish.)

          – Written on a stone marker outside the house in Branau where Hitler lived as a boy.


No one saw the Jewish baker

snatch it from its bedside perch


and slip it into his overcoat –

Hitler’s childhood room preserved


down to a pair of gabardine

short trousers hanging over his chair.


My uncle carried that clock

the rest of the war, woke each morning


to its empty crowing, then took it

back to Brooklyn. Three years later


his toddler sons, twin prodigies,

stole it from his drawer,


dismantling the mechanism beyond repair –

every wheel and cog and spring


spread across the living room table

like airplane wreckage he’d seen –


a senseless array of parts,

forlorn as disassembled countries,


or memories whose narratives

lie lost and scattered like ash.




Archival Footage


Bodies piled like lumber, tottering bodies

withered to bone, lampshades fashioned

of human skin, some displaying tattoos;


shrunken-head paperweights, bisected heads

preserved and suspended in transparent resin

neatly labeled Two Halves of the Jew Brain.


Local townspeople trucked in. Now you can’t

tell the world you didn’t know. One woman

presses a handkerchief to mouth and nose,


a man dizzily cradles his chin. Look closely.

You can see history rooting in their bodies,

the horror of it pulling out their tongues.






After seeing Auschwitz prisoner Dina Gottliebova’s mural of Snow White and the Seven  Dwarves, painted for the camp’s child-victims, Josef Mengele – the Angel of Death – agreed to spare her family’s lives if she would sketch portraits of the Romani prisoners who underwent horrific torture at his hands.


Because she was chosen by the Angel of Death,

she remembers postcards from the dead –

hastily scrawled deceptions at gunpoint: “Greetings

from Waldsee.” “I am working. Follow us here!

how the joyful replies brightened pyres, smoke letters

rumoring the fetid air, Arbeit macht frei

and because she sketched dwarves, giants,

gypsies, twins killed simultaneously by formaldehyde

injection into the heart, prior to dissection –

a brown-haired girl whose eyes still

beg her silently, she remembers the Sonderkommando

carting away thousands of prisoners a day –

that inconceivable lattice of flesh – how even

in death bodies cling to one another.


In dreams, she watches endless ash

clot the Vistula, dyeing the water gray.

And when the war ends, she paints in thick,

heavy strokes – IG Farben, Zyklon B,

the seven dwarves of industry: Schmitz, Schnitzler,

Meer, Ambros, Bütefisch, Ilgner, and Oster –

she paints them convicted, paints them released,

profiles them, pen and ink: chairmen of Bayer

and Deutsche Bank, board members of

chemical companies, oil companies, smoke screen

of financial consortiums. For the rest of her life,

Dina paints self-portraits, tilts the mirror until she is

dark-haired, fair-skinned, untouched by age.

A kingdom of memory inside her.






          (At the Ministry of Dreams)


Scientists are


to determine


the effects

of sleep deprivation

upon the fly.


After dusk,

when all the flies

have eaten,


groomed, and

settled in

for the night,


the Sleep Nullifying

Apparatus shakes

the flies awake


ten times per minute.

The scientists

are also searching


for mutant flies

that require

no sleep. Down the hall,


vibrating in jars

are the dreams

they have collected


from humans,

legs wading

through molasses,


chickens devolving

into eggs,

eggs cracking open


to reveal a silk

slipper, a candlestick,

an ancient door.


In some dreams,

we open the door,

descend slowly


into cellars,

one below another –

or climb, instead


an infinite spiral.

At night, all the dreams

knock restless against


their prisons,

wanting, like children

to go home.




Hideyoshi Recalls for His Concubine the Origin of the Nose Tomb


          “Mow down everyone universally, without discriminating between young

          and old, men and women, clergy and the laity—high ranking soldiers on

          the battlefield, that goes without saying, but also the hill folk, down to the poorest

          and meanest—and send the heads to Japan.” 

          orders given by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 1598, to his troops invading Korea


Holds groaning with the burden of heads, soldiers hacked off noses instead

preserving them in brine, trophies enshrined in the homeland’s mounded earth,

Buddhist priests inveigling each noseless soul to seek repose, hundreds of thousands

wandering the spirit world unable to scent the earthly musk of their loved ones,

no hint of jasmine on the wind or green-bright bamboo, spared only the stench of their

own decay.

Hanazuka. Nose Tomb.

I thought later of Major Kovalyov’s dream,

his nose acquiring a life, success of its own, as it roamed the town blowsy with drink

and humor, vibrating with every freshly turned odor.

Say it, say it now – you are thinking

of poking it in somebody’s business, or, lovely nose, of spiting your face.


You once remarked my keen olfactory sense, declared I could smell a songbird’s darting

passage through centuries of unclaimed longing, the fine talc of history falling,

impossible rain, over all things, living and dead – whole and bereft.


Remember the royal court’s incense parties every spring? Tiny sandalwood boats

bobbing in the stream by the Philosopher’s Walk, rare spikenard and aloeswood,

cassia and clove piercing each soft, candlelit night.

After I am gone, tell

my enemies nothing. Let me wake to the buried sweetness of your skin, salt air,

the scent of light through high windows branching into warmth, to breathe you in,

should the world itself unmoor, this bed a silent raft, bearing us back to shore.




Holding Albert Einstein’s Hand


The corpse tree full of wasps.

Their razoring wings

outside my hospital window

in twos and threes, returning.


And so it goes, and so it goes –

a woman knows what a woman knows.


Words for losing places.

Hiraeth, saudade, morriña, dor.

The four chaise lounges of the apocalypse


wait for us on the sands, knowing

time is a rope, a deck of cards, an empty glass –

this place to sit by the ocean, watch

sanderlings run from the waves,

the long-fingered light of late afternoon.


Fear of disintegration

hollows out my bones.

I am becoming bird.


A sparrow flew into the house,

could not find its way out.

How it knocked, pinioned

fist, against the ceiling.


Years ago, my heart

was trapped like that,


and how the starlight

traveled toward me, though

I was already dead –

radiation to the marrow,

pharmakon swirling in my veins.

Everything dies.


Driving toward Venus,

I want to hear

what the sweet executioner says.


My bones like burning matchsticks.


Sometimes when I wake,

I’m shaping the world with my hands.


Sometimes when I sleep,

the world shapes me.


Once, I was energy

hiding inside the light,

or the shadow of light.


Love rooted us.

Together, exponential.


After, we spoke in tongues.

Our fingers cupped the universe like water.











Poet and journalist Ilyse Kusnetz is the author of Small Hours, winner of the 2014 T.S. Eliot prize from Truman State University Press, and The Gravity of Falling (2006). She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University and her Ph.D. in Feminist and Postcolonial British Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Her poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, the Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Stone Canoe, Rattle, and other journals and anthologies. She has published numerous reviews and essays about contemporary American and Scottish poetry, both in the United States and abroad. She teaches at Valencia College and lives in Orlando with her husband, the poet and memoirist Brian Turner.

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