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Anita Lorenz Dorn (1922-2005)

Anita Lorenz was born on May 25, 1922 into Estonian nobility. In 1945 she and her sister fled their Baltic home in Tallinn as the Red Army advanced; they did so by walking and hitching rides on retreating Wehrmacht transports heading back to Germany. Her family lost all their property and money. As a refugee in postwar Germany she became what the American Army called a "DP" or displaced person. She lived in refugee camps and endured much deprivation, which she wrote about extensively in her memorial letters to friends every Christmas. After emigrating to the United States, she lived in Flushing, New York. Her poems were published in Pivot, Poetry Digest and other literary journals. She also wrote a novel based on circus life and a number of short stories, some of which were published in Nassau Review. She was the beloved wife of the American poet Alfred Dorn, and quite a fancier of cats. She died on March 21, 2005 at age 82, and will be sorely missed. After her death, her husband established the Anita Dorn Memorial Award for Poetry in her honor.

Bitter Snow

Poland, January 1945

There is no sky, just blizzard and the wind.
Army in flight jams the road.
We sink into the snow,
we refugees, as we trail along in ditches.
Sometimes a red flare tears the night.

Russians have entered the city of Lodz
we left behind.
Onward I stumble
with stiff legs and frost-trimmed face.
The brittle ice
crackles beneath each step.
That is the only sound in this sad land,
this valley of the living dead,
this lumbering river moving west.
The war is coming to an end
or are we the end of war,
we who flee, each muffled
in the solitude of the snow?

A frost-crusted child lies in a ditch.
No one has ripped its clothes off—yet.
But that white-bearded man out there
has neither clothes nor boots.
Flares blanket what is left of him.
Death-sentenced no more, he is the lucky one.

No food.
But there lies a forsaken cabbage head.
It turns out to be a skull
pecked clean by ravens, without eyes
that might reproach.

Teeth rattle.
Icy blades cut into bone.
My face is gone, a blue mask.
I fall, I rise, I curse that road.
I die without being dead.

Suddenly the caravan comes to a stop.
Some tire has burst.
The war machine is stuck.
A soldier's hand hoists me into the truck,
my fingers frost-glued to my gloves.
He watches me.
We have no tears to spill,
no whispers of misfortune.
Do I remind him of his sweetheart
or his sister
or his own youth
that aged away in the jaws of war?
My bones no longer bear the memory of flesh.

They sing "Lili Marlene,"
she who always waits
at lampposts near the garden gates,
this chorus of youths older than time—
till planes pelt us with machine guns.
We hide in snow under white sheets.
God bless Siberia!

The stranger hands me socks knitted by mom,
perhaps his last.
We part namelessly.
They are all I own outside myself.

Those socks saved my life a half century ago.
Today it snows again—tiny kitten paws
upon my window pane.
I bend across the arc of years
to thank you, stranger.
I barely thanked you then.
Was it a gift of life you paid with death?
You cannot answer me.
All words lie frozen
in that bitter snow of 1945.

How many hells we have passed since then!
Does your mother know
about the gift unknown to me
she knitted just for you?
No footprint has been left behind
to tell the story of that night.

Published in Pivot Number 49, Annual Lyric Issue, Winter 1999-2000

Between Two Mirrors

We walk through some vague old dream,
through halls of paintings left and right,
he the artist and I his shadow,
two ghosts visiting a place unreal as unborn worlds.
Floating ectoplasm, we move along in a nameless mist.

Remembrances of fields and trees,
figures to be fleshed with life
drift through a dusty studio,
a neon light above, harsh and cold,
the window draped to keep the street at bay.

Neighbors, we water each other's lawns, exchange keys,
chat about plants and heat and rain,
about baking bread, cooking jam, reading books.
I watch his brushes move across yards of canvas
to capture light and shade.
Thoughts with legs or wings come and go
before paint pins them down.

His grass is yellow as the sun, his trees
red as heat.
His cliffs are whitewashed, scrubbed
by the glare of day, dabbed
with rusty shadows.
His waters a pigeon gray
in moods of clouds or his.

Perhaps an old philosopher once explained
the secret of creation.
It may be buried in those stacks of books
the artist reads to question answers.

Lined up, these are his perfect paintings.
I pass them by.
But I stop at a faceless portrait, pop into its faceless skull
to excavate the unpainted self, undeclared
until it stirs and talks and shouts.
His oranges, gray as Van Gogh's potatoes,
I see as sunballs ballooned with light.
I hear street laughter of that girl in red
and the sound of unpainted rain.
I smell the sweat of summer noons,
listen to the gossip of veranda chairs.

We walk through some vague old dream,
abandoned, lost and found
until we stop between two mirrors at the hall's end,
the right one reflecting him, the left one me.
A windmill of colors scrambles words and paint,
voices and brushes.
Then somber silence.
He passes between those mirrors, trailing me, his shadow.

Slightly amused, we sit at the table,
break the fresh-baked bread.
No more debates.
We are now still lifes, unpainted.
Undaunted, his paintings gaze at us in a quiet room.
It is the bread we share.

Published in Pivot Number 49, Annual Lyric Issue, Winter 1999-2000

So Many Roads and Birds Ago

Dedicated to my new friend Ann Danielle Vickrey

Two Chinese paintings, decades old, under glass:
one with two figures chatting near a road,
the other a single bird that has no name.

She was then sixteen, American, a stranger in the East,
he a Chinese artist on a bike.
Each day he came to watch her work,
then parted, his thoughts left floating like a kite.

Her figures never moved, nor did her road.
His nameless bird would never fly.
He stamped her as the girl in red
who had earned his final praise.

So long ago . . .
Her hair, no longer scarlet, is now dark
after so many twisting roads.
Frail as spring,
her white-breasted bird with motionless black eyes
has outflown itself
without opening a wing.

We sit by lamplight sipping tea,
view her figures and his bird.
The room is still, yet I hear those brushes speak
of moments feathered down in paint.

Two worlds once met.
The time was brief so many roads and birds ago.
As a sliver of the moon
hangs like a petal in the sky,
the Chinese artist friend still bikes
between the dust of stars and mares of clouds
so far, so far away.

Published in Pivot Number 50, Narratives Issue, Spring 2000

The Execution

Two grandfathers old, Goliath
stole the sky, clogged sewers, rootworked
into a neighbor's garden.
Sue kept nagging,
"For God's sake, Frank,
ten years you've promised to chop him down,
that damn oak!
I feel him grow under my bed,
sap our water, strangle our light.
He has to go."
Frank's grandfather had planted Goliath.
Two generations had vowed to destroy him
but had not dared.
Frank cursed Sue and walked away.
"Coward!" she screamed.

Neighbors gathered a petition,
fixed a date for the giant's removal.

They assembled early on execution day,
the old, the young,
with wheelbarrows and cameras.
Sue baked pizzas for the wake.
Ten hunks went to work with chainsaws and cranes.
Goliath screeched as tiny Davids dismembered him,
limb by limb.
"It's almost human," said one.
As branches crashed
the crowd guzzled buckets of beer,
gathered his bones to feed their fires for years.
He broke many a saw,
still reared his mane till they beheaded him.
After three days only sawdust remained.
"Food for our lawn," chirped Sue.
"Now I can dry my laundry
under a free sun."
 The crowd dispersed, leaving only a giant hole.

From an old portrait his grandfather's eyes
stared into Frank's days and dreams.
"I tell you, Sue, his soul was in that tree."
"You must be nuts," she snapped,
"Souls don't live in trees, only ants and worms.
Now plant our new lawn."
Frank saw Goliath's ghost
rise from every chimney in winter
and return in rain.

Eight-year-old Kevin sat on the steps
and carved a boat from Goliath's bone.
"What are you doing, son?"
"Making a boat for great-grandfather's soul
to sail away."

The lawn prospered and Sue's laundry
ballooned in the wind like jolly udders
as she prattled on about being free of shadows.
Hand in hand, father and son
looked up into the great void and said nothing.

Published in Pivot Number 50, Narratives Issue, Spring 2000

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